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THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO SORROW

Blessed.  The word is translated “happy.”  That is important to remember as we ponder the teachings uttered on the mountaintop.  To have heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and now to hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow,” must perplex those sitting in awe and trying to absorb the instructions that will for the bases of the New Way.  There will have to be time and continued exposure as well as periods of contemplation to understand.  The fact is, Jesus is initiating a New Creation and, in the process, he is turning the old order upside down.  The danger is to think too soon that one knows what Jesus is talking about.  If his words fit too easily into one’s scheme of things, one can be sure that that one has not felt the full challenge of what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and to be.

The first half of each of the Beatitudes, the “Blessed” part, must stun first hearers seated at Jesus’ feet in rapt attention.  Some of those have already decided to throw their lot in with Jesus.  Being a disciple will mean striving to walk in his ways.  Disciples have begun to believe that through Jesus the Kingdom is coming, and with that Kingdom will come power and prosperity.

Others in the assembly still search, still wonder, and have not yet been able to make that decision.  To this point they may well have been in desperate straits, wondering where they could turn to find meaning and direction in their lives.  These will hang on every word, hoping to have what we would call an “aha” moment that will convince so that they too could become disciples and be part of his realm.

It is important to notice that at no time does Jesus make the decision to believe easy.  Just the opposite is the case.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  And this before they had seen the end of the beginning.

So we hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow.”  Another way of saying that is, “Happy are the sorrowing; happy are those who mourn.”  What is Jesus breaking open for us?  Through what new filter is he challenging us to view our life and our times?

Mourning is a frequent state of mind in the Hebrew Bible.  The Prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they watched the chosen people forsake the Law and the One God and began to follow Baal and the other gods of the gentiles among whom they lived.  The Prophets sorrowed over the exploitation by the rich and the powerful of the poor, the orphans, and the widows.  The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem.  They mourned as they were led into captivity.  “By the trees of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion,” the psalm prays.  Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the Prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.”  And he would grieve at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition.  No one who cares for others can live long before experiencing a situation that evokes those reactions.  They will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which they will wonder if they will ever see the dawn of hope again in their lives.  A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill.

Some years ago, it was forbidden that photographers take pictures of flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as the bodies were returned to these shores for burial.  If we did not see the reality we would not admit to the horror, and we would not have to mourn the fallen.  Not recognizing the toll, it would seem all the more possible that soon we would be the victors, divinely appointed as we were in the bloody exchange.  We need to see those coffins.  We need to see the brokenhearted parents and spouses and children.  To join in their mourning is salutary and can help in the change of perspective.

There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn and that is to choose not to love.  If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one over whom one day you could mourn.   Husband or wife may have to mourn and survive the spouse.  Children mourn the death of their parents, albeit in due time when full lives have been lived.  Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies.  There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children.  Deaths of friends, the end of relationship, the failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.

This year we have been confronted with the phenomenon of natural disaster.  Tornadoes, floods, and violent storms have destroyed towns and washed away victims.  Earthquakes level poorly constructed buildings entrapping some and killing many.  People grieve individually and collectively.  Sometimes we respond.  Sometimes we look away.

Why does Jesus say, “Happy are those who mourn?”  Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings.  But mourning is not an end in itself.  Those who mourn can be happy when mourning leads the mourner beyond the sorrowing state.

The whole Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow it brings to the survivors.  Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death.  The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one.  Family and friends, indeed the whole Church, all gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying.  Why?  There is a belief that something more than what can be seen. There is a conviction in faith that death is not an end or a victor to anything more than life as it is lived in this world.  Faith tells those gathered that this one will rise again in the Lord who conquered death forever.

The casket is draped with a funeral pall and the faithful recognize the baptismal garment that the now deceased one was clad in when s/he came out of the Waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God.  The baptized are identified with Christ and are destined to live in God’s love forever.

An Easter Candle stands burning by the coffin.  That Candle was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim that Christ is alive in the Resurrection.  Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising, even as they are reminded that those who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever, “and I will raise them up on the Last Day.”  Death, where is your sting?

Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.”  I don’t agree.  Mourning is a process.  Weeping is part of it.  In the process those who grieve let out terrible pain.  Remember the state of mourning that Jesus says is happy.  That results when the mourner experiences the darkness and the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of one’s life, and accepts the fact that no one else can fill that void.  The happiness comes from the conviction that God will wipe away every tear, embrace the mourner with love, and help him/her to live in hope that one day the one mourned and the mourner will be together in the Resurrection on the Last Day.

A challenge for believers is to be signs that inspire that hope.  It is not enough to look on with pity.  It is not enough to weep for those who suffer loss.  Believers must respond with compassion and like the Eucharist they celebrate allow themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve.  They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love.  Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one response.  Sitting with and listening to the one mourning and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel” is another.  No two people mourn in the same way.  And there is no time limit on the mourning process.  The love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.

St. James said, “If a brother or sister has noting to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Goodbye and good luck!  Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?”  It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters.  We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes.

Pope Paul VI said that we do not have a right to excess when there are those who lack the essentials.  That is an adaptation of the Beatitudes and can be very hard to hear.  Faith in Jesus demands that we recognize those suffering to be our brothers and sisters.

(An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized their Jewish neighbors as brothers and sisters?  The humanity of the Jews had to be denied in order to carry out the atrocities against them.  Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to wreck their havoc on their black brothers and sisters, hanging them from the nearest gibbet?

We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.)

A final consideration.  Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears.  They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent.  This is not a prayer for the “grace” to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgivable.  If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable.  It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable.  The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven.  Repentance means to turn away from sin, to mourn them, if you will, and to believe in the Good New, to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.

So, we hear again: Blessed too are the sorrowing.  We rejoice because we believe the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to light the darkness and fill the emptiness with which mourning threatens to break us.  And we believe that Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – June 28, 2015

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24

A reading from the second Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 8:7,9, 13-15

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 5:21-43

I prefer white vestments for funerals, rather than black. That rises from the conviction that God created human kind not for death but for life. The church ought never to tire proclaiming that. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom does when we hear: God did not make death…. For God formed humans to be imperishable.

You’ve heard the words uttered over you as the ashes were inscribed on your forehead: Remember, Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return. That is hard to translate into the introduction to the joyful season of Lent. The fear of death will induce conversion? There are more hopeful words that can be used for the signing: Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. We may be called to die to sin throughout the forty days, but that is so that we might enter more fully into the life of Easter.

The waters of Baptism are tomb and womb, remember. Baptism is a dying, but it is also a birth, a rising and entering into a life and communion that will never end. The Book of Wisdom reading tells us that God did not make death. No wonder the human heart cries out against death’s inevitability. God formed humans to be imperishable; the image of God’s own nature were humans made. With all the contrary signs, that may be difficult to believe, but that is the Good News Jesus proclaims. Believe it.

Over the years in ministering to dying children I have been inspired by their desire to have their parents understand what is happening to them. A lad proclaimed it clearly to his mother one morning at breakfast when he told her about his dream. She refused to hear the doctors’ predictions of impending death. The boy said it clearly: Jesus told me he is building me a house and it is nearly finished. Two weeks later those words comforted her at his funeral.

By the envy of the devil, death entered the world. After Genesis, the Hebrew Bible is the account of God’s desire to make that right again, to remove death’s dominance.

Jesus comes into the World to accomplish God’s will. I must do the will of the One who sent me! That is why Jesus’ message is Good News. Oh Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Of course those questions can only be asked after Jesus dies and rises, leaving death vanquished.

This week’s Gospel is amazing. Of course, you might say, which Sunday’s Gospel isn’t amazing? True. But the wonder of this week’s proclamation is spellbinding. I suppose it is too bad the text is as long as it is. The attention span of many will be taxed to the point of tuning out and drifting off. With relief as they sit they will say: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. But again, they say that every Sunday. Will they have heard the Good News? Will their hearts have been touched?

The Gospel is the account of a miracle sandwiching a miracle. Each happens in response to faith. Jesus works constantly, preaching, teaching, and healing. Last week, after an exhausting day, Jesus got into the boat to go to the other side of the lake. In the course of the crossing a storm threatened and Jesus exerted command over the wind and the waves. Those with him in the boat asked in amazement, Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him? Following that episode there is an account of Jesus’ driving out the legion of demons from the possessed man, which we won’t hear. Then this Sunday’s Gospel begins with Jesus getting back into the boat and crossing the lake once more. As soon as he steps on shore the crowds envelop him again. This crowd wonders if Jesus might be the answer to their prayers, the fulfillment of the promise, the one who will make a difference in their lives.

The grief-stricken synagogue official, Jairus, a person of position, abases himself at Jesus’ feet and pleads for Jesus to come to Jairus’s home and save his 12-year-old daughter who is near death. Immediately Jesus sets out for Jairus’s home. And the crowds follow and press upon him.

Abruptly the focus shifts. A woman who has been suffering a hemorrhage for 12 years, as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive, a woman who has exhausted her savings with abusive doctors, this woman approaches Jesus convinced that if she just touches the hem of his clothes she will be cured. The poor woman would know what it means to be shunned. Because she is hemorrhaging, she is thought to be unclean and anyone coming into contact with her would incur ritual impurity. The woman has been living a miserable existence all these years. No one pays heed to her. She has heard Jesus, or she has heard about him. In any event, she believes. With the hope that no one will notice her now and stop her, she stoops down, reaches out and touches Jesus’ cloak. In that instant her pain leaves her and her hemorrhage dries up. She is alive again.

See what Jesus does. The translation we hear softens his reaction. Closer to the meaning would be that Jesus, as he feels the power go out from him, whirled about as he asked, Who touched me? The question does not rise out of fear of contamination. After all, he has touched lepers. He has dined with sinners. The question might seem silly to those nearest him watching him be jostled by the crowds. They all had touched him. But someone touched him with faith and the healing power went out of him.

The woman, fearing the worst, afraid that she would be excoriated for her effrontery, approaches Jesus, admitting what she has done. He calls her Daughter and acknowledges that her faith has been rewarded. Here we see the difference between the crowds that flock around Jesus out of curiosity and the disciple who believes. The woman’s response is what Jesus longs for from the rest. The woman goes home in peace.

There is no greater challenge to faith than death. Immediately upon the heels of the woman’s healing comes news that Jairus’s daughter has died. How long did Jairus’s and Jesus’ eyes lock in Jairus’s shocked silence? How long was the moment Jairus had to decide and to hope against hope? Jesus challenges Jairus to hold on to faith and the promise. Do not be afraid; just have faith.

We know that what follows is a significant moment, a moment similar to the Transfiguration. Only Peter, James, and John are allowed to witness what happens after Jesus dismisses the professional mourners and quiets the din. Only the three, along with the girl’s mother and father, are in the room when Jesus touches the body, takes the girl by the hand and says, Talitha koum! Little girl, arise! Don’t miss that it is Jesus who commands and Death that departs, obeying just as the wind and the waves had done. Again, too, notice the response of the witnesses – utter astonishment. That is fine as far as it goes. But it is not the same thing as faith. That may be why Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen. That is exactly the order Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John on the way down the mountain after the transfiguration. In effect he is saying, don’t tell anyone until you understand the meaning. You won’t understand the meaning until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.

Jesus told them to give the little girl something to eat. That will prove that she is alive. Remember what Jesus asked in an early post-Resurrection appearance? Have you anything to eat?

Two miracles. The woman who suffered for 12 years but believed in Jesus’ power. The 12-year-old girl whose parents’ faith elicited from Jesus, Talitha koum.

I can’t help but think of Vice-President Biden as I write this. His first wife and a young daughter were killed in a car accident that almost took the lives of his two sons and another daughter. Now his son Beau, a survivor of that accident has died from brain cancer. It would seem to me that that would be more than enough to break the faith of a parent. Who could not be moved by the testimony to faith that went forth from the Beau’s funeral Mass? It seems obvious that the Vice-President believes that Jesus has conquered death, and that those who live and believe in Jesus will not die forever.

Take the Word, broken for us, and dare to believe. With that faith, incipient or well tried, and proceed from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist. Enter into Mystery and be transformed by the act of Thanksgiving. Having eaten and drunk of the Body and the Blood, dare to be sent to announce the Good News. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And those who hear and are touched by your witness will know, as you believe, that Death’s power is no more.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT

 

Many people know the Beatitudes by heart.  If they hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” they can complete the sentence spontaneously.  That’s good and it’s not so good.  The goodness stems from a familiarity with the Gospel text.  What is not so good is that the impact of an often-repeated text is dulled, so dulled that the challenge might not be heard.

Put yourself in the setting of the original voicing of the Beatitudes.  Seat yourself among the crowds on the mountaintop, among those hanging on Jesus’ every word.  You now hear the words for the first time.  Imagine that you have been walking among that crowd following Jesus in the beginning days of his ministry as he makes his way through Galilee.  The Teacher has been walking among people, daring to touch the sick, even those termed “unclean.”  He is not embarrassed to be seen talking to sinners and women known to be of ill repute.  From the start of his walk it has been noted how often those whom he encounters are changed, often as a result of something that he does or says.  Word has gone out about how he conducted himself in the synagogue.  That was impressive.  But the company he keeps offends others, especially the elite.  It’s even been said that he breaks bread with sinners.

Then there was John the Baptist, the strange man from the desert, clad in camel skin with a leather belt around his waist.  Perhaps you were among the crowds that went out to hear him.  How odd that so many were moved by such a harsh message.  Somehow in John’s call to repentance, many of those who listened found reason to hope and they responded to his message by submitting to his Baptism in the Jordan waters.  Coming out of those waters means they are ready for the new kingdom that is at hand.  Some have concluded that John is the long-awaited Messiah.  But just as many were coming to that conclusion, John pointed out Jesus as “the One.”  You and many others left John and taking his word began to follow Jesus.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, John has been arrested and now waits for his beheading by Herod, that one who had come out to be fascinated by John.  Being fascinated doesn’t necessarily mean believing.

The former disciples of John and others, you among them, now gather on the mountaintop to listen to Jesus.

Now you are ready to hear the words for the first time.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the reign of God is theirs.”  What do you feel in the pit of your stomach now when you hear the statement?  How do those around you react?  (By the way, it is always a good thing to hear the Word with others, i.e., with an Assembly.)  If you and everyone with you are vulnerable under the Word, I’ll wager there is a collective gasp as people nudge those near them and ask if they had heard correctly this first utterance of the Master.

Some years ago, I toured in Uganda and visited a small village there.  At the time, the employment rate in the country was 12%.  The average monthly wage for that 12% was around $25.  Most of those employed were either digging graves or making caskets to accommodate the many who were dying from HIV/AIDS.  No one would look at those conditions and call them blessings.  Neither would the Lord.

These Ugandan people knew what it meant to live in community with their brothers and sisters.  The little they had they shared so that everyone had something to eat.  I remember being embarrassed by a lavish banquet these people prepared for my companions and me.  These people who felt fortunate if they were able to have meat once or twice a month put before us three different kinds of meat and other succulent dishes besides and would have been insulted if we had refused to partake.

I remember watching the offertory procession at Sunday Liturgy.  The people came forward to give some of the little they had, a few coins, a dozen eggs, a live chicken, or a bag of potatoes.  They gave back to God a portion of what God had given to them.  I remember weeping.

You know the term, “conspicuous consumption.”  While you might feel a twinge of revulsion as you are confronted by the lavish self-indulgence of the elite in our society, don’t you feel also a twinge of envy from time to time?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Rolex watch, or drive a Ferrari or Lamborghini, or own two or three prime property view homes with thousands of square feet, lushly appointed to meet your comfort’s every need?  Actually, if the truth were told, there is nothing inherently evil about any of the above.  The Lord didn’t say that all the rich were headed for hell.  He did say, “Be careful.”  Being wealthy has its responsibilities.  But that is a discussion for another time.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit….” What is there about this kind of poverty that ensures possession of the reign of God?  Before we precede any further, stop for a moment and ask yourself what place your wealth occupies in your life?  How much energy is spent worrying about your wealth?  How tightly do you cling to it?  Is it all deserved because you earned it?  Do you secretly think there would be no poverty if people would just get out and work harder for their living?  Or, as some would have it, do you wonder if poverty is a punishment for sin, “either this man’s or his parents?”

Now we can talk about poverty in spirit.  The poor in spirit are blessed because they have emptied themselves and experienced a hunger that only God can satisfy, an emptiness that only God can fill.  That is the poverty that Jesus calls us to embrace.  In another place Jesus urges a good person who wants to be his disciple to first “go sell what you have and give to the poor and then come and follow me.”  The man was wealthy and could not imagine himself being poor – even for Jesus’ sake.  And so he went away sad.

Certainly in our tradition we have heroes, we call them saints, who exemplify this embracing of poverty.  Francis stripped himself naked in the public square and piled his possessions at the feet of his wealthy father.  Before the bishop he vowed to we “Lady Poverty” and remain in that relationship for the rest of his life.  And in his heart was born a love for the poor.

St. Bernard cut his cloak in half and gave half to a poor man who begged at the city gates as Bernard passed by.  Damian rejoiced at his leprosy because in the poverty of leprosy he became one with his fellow lepers.  In more recent times we have the example of Dorothy Day, Dr. Tom Dooley, Thomas Merton, and many others who lived in poverty and in their emptiness were filled with God’s love and so were freed to work among the poor, ministering to their needs.

It is safe to say that people who embrace poverty as a way of life invariably become people of prayer.  Francis was a contemplative and often spent whole nights in prayer.  So did many of the others just mentioned.  That is another way the poor in spirit imitated Jesus.  Poverty liberates and creates a hunger for God.  I am told that it is amazing how much more accessible and apparent God is to the poor.  Not to harp on St. Francis, but you know that in his poverty the whole of creation revealed God to him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.”  To perceive that, we need silence and emptiness.  There is no other way.  We live in an age that not only abhors poverty, but silence as well.  People want their senses bombarded.  Who can live without all the modern gadgets that keep us in constant contact but actually serve to isolate more and more?  You have seen it, I’m sure.  Two people obviously together, seated at the same table in a restaurant, each, via cell phone, talks to someone else.  The result is not exactly an intimately shared meal.  People wearing earphones walk along listening to something that only the wearer can hear while shutting off the sounds of the city that surround them.  They do that even on the seashore and miss the sounds of the gulls and the waves.

Pope Francis seems to have embraced the poverty of his namesake and stripped himself of the splendor of popes past.  He obviously reaches out to the poor and washes their feet.  He embraces people on various paths to God.  He urges the church to be poor and serve the needs of the poor, and to exemplify mercy and forgiveness.  Some cringe and reject the message, especially those who have found in their role in the church an escape from a hated poverty and a means to splendor and worldly position, power, and wealth.  But far more are hearing the message and witnessing the living of the message and are wondering if they might return to the Table.

The prominence that Jesus gives the beatitude on poverty argues most eloquently for the importance it has as an essential value to be held by those in his new society, those who will be Jesus’ disciples.  There really isn’t any getting around it, no matter how hard we try to avoid the implications.  Each one who would be Christian has to hear Jesus and struggle with the implications of the beatitudes.  There are no easy solutions.  There is no easy way to live the beatitude.

Remember what Jesus said about the camel?  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than it is for the rich one to enter the Kingdom of God.”  There is only one way for the camel to enter through the narrow gate (the eye of the needle).  The camel must be stripped of the load it is carrying and be brought low.  Only then can he get through the gate.

What does that say about us, if we are rich?  You have to decide.