Sunday, October 28, 2012

Christ is the Center of This Chiasm

Homily from the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

The healing of blind Bartimaeus is one of my all-time favorite passages from the Gospels.  Not just because it’s a great story about a miraculous healing.  But because of (and forgive what might sound like technical analysis) it’s structure.

At the time of the writing of the Gospels, the structure of a story, the deliberate placement of sentences in a particular way, was much more significant than it is today.  Today, when someone writes a story, the meaning of the story is conveyed mostly in simply what the sentences say.  However, 2,000 years ago, the meaning of a story was conveyed just as much as when, and in what order, the sentences were said.

There’s a particular structural device the authors of Sacred Scripture would use in telling a story to draw attention to the most important point, the central idea of the story.  It’s called a chiasm.  A chiasm is a literary device where sentences or clauses are arranged in a mirror-like structure.  Basically, the first half of the chiasm reads in a particular order, then the second half of the chiasm reads in the opposite order.

Perhaps I can best explain this with an example well known in American culture.  There’s a chiasm you all know by heart, the most famous words ever spoken by President John F. Kennedy at his Inaugural Address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  You could call this a 4 part chiasm:
  • Part 1 is “Ask not what your country”
    • Part 2 is “can do for you,”
    • Part 3 is “ask what you”
  • Part 4 is “can do for your country.”

Do you see how Part 1 mirrors Part 4 and Part 2 mirrors Part 3?  This is why this device is called a chiasm.  It’s named after the Greek letter “Chi” which looks like our “X” and you could diagram the structure like an “X.”

Another well known chiasm-filled story is “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss.  Listen carefully to this 6-part chiasm.  We read forward in the the first three steps:
  • Part 1: “I do not like them, Sam-I-am”
    • Part 2: “I do not like green eggs and ham.”
      • Part 3: “Would you like them here or there?

Then we read backward in the next three steps:
      • Part 4: “I would not like them here or there.  I would not like them anywhere.”
    • Part 5: “I do not like green eggs and ham.”
  • Part 6: “I do not like them, Sam-I am.”

Well, as I said, the Bible uses chiasms all the time.  And many, many times, the Bible literally uses chiasms to point to the most important point, the central idea of the story.

Today’s Gospel is a big chiasm.  Let’s take a look at it to see which sentences mirror each other and what the central, most important point of the story is.  Open up your missalettes to today's Gospel.

The first step is our first sentence: “As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.”  It matches the last two sentences of the passage; look near the end: and Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”  And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

Now, as opposed to JFK’s inaugural or “Green Eggs and Ham” the verses here do not mirror each other by using the exact same words.  Rather, they mirror each other in that Bartimaeus has been radically changed and is now doing the opposite of what he was doing before.  In the first sentence, Bartimaeus is just sitting there by the roadside.  In the last sentence, Bartimaeus does the opposite: he’s up and moving, a new disciple of Jesus, following him on the way.

OK, look at the second sentence: “On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.’”  Now look at it’s mirror verse a few sentences down:  “He threw aside his cloak, sprang up and came to Jesus.  Jesus said to him in reply, ‘What do you want me to do for you.”  In the earlier sentence Bartimaeus is still sitting there crying out to Jesus in faith.  In the later sentence Bartimaeus does the opposite: he springs up and goes to Jesus in faith.

Now, the next step: After Bartimaeus cries out “have pity on me” we read: “And many rebuked him telling him to be silent.  But he kept calling out all the more, ‘Son of David, have pity on me!’”  Skip the next sentence and you’ll find it’s mirror verse: “So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’”  These two sentence illustrate very vividly the reversal of change.  In the earlier sentence, the people are telling Bartimaeus to shut up.  In the later sentence, all of a sudden they’re doing the opposite, they’re encouraging him, “Take courage; get up.”

Why?  Why all this change?  Why does Bartimaeus go from just sitting by the road, to walking along the way?  Why does he go from calling out to Jesus, to getting up and going to Jesus?  Why do the people stop on a dime and do a complete 180, going  from telling Bartimaeus to shut up, to encouraging him?  The center verse of this passage tells us the reason why?

“Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’”  Jesus is the center of this Gospel story.  He is the center of the reversal of all behavior in this Gospel passage.  Likewise, Jesus must be the center of the story of our lives.  And he is the center of the reversal of our less-desirable behavior.

Jesus is constantly walking down the road of our lives.  And he is constantly stopping to call to us just as he called to Bartimaeus.  When he does, on which side of this story do you want to be?  Do you want to be spiritually blind or do you want to have spiritual sight?  Do you want to sit by the road or do you want to get up and follow Jesus?  Do you want to discourage the faith of others or do you want to encourage them to meet Christ?

The Eucharist we are about to receive is the same Christ who effected all the change we heard in this Gospel?  The Eucharistic Christ must be the center of our lives just as he is the center of this Gospel.  This Eucharist is the great chiasm of our lives.  Our lives build up to this point, aiming at the Eucharist, the summit of our lives.  And our lives proceed from this Eucharist, the source of our lives.  How will this Eucharist change us today?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Christ Suffers With Us

Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

The Gospel readings we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks and those we will hear in the weeks to come focus on the meaning of discipleship; being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  We’re into the second half of the Gospel of Mark.  Having past the halfway point where Peter is the first to confess Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah the Apostles now follow Christ on the way to Jerusalem where Jesus must go to die.  And along the way, the Apostles learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

It’s ironic that in the midst of another election season, we should see James and John doing some campaigning of their own.  Thinking that being a friend of Jesus means access to power, prestige and privilege, James and John ask for the seats of authority.  “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

However, Jesus warns them.  To be His true disciple isn’t going to be easy.  It isn’t going to be fun. In fact, it’s going to be incredibly painful at times.

He tells James and John, “You do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  The cup that Jesus will drink and his baptism is His own death.  He is walking towards Jerusalem where He will suffer greatly.  And following Christ means we will suffer greatly too.

Which begs the question, “Why?”  Why do we suffer?  Why is there so much suffering in the world?  And how could a good God allow suffering?

There have been innumerable attempts throughout the centuries to answer these questions.  Some say that suffering is a kind of purification.  Others say suffering is an opportunity to participate in the life of Jesus.  Still others say suffering enables us to move closer to God, to learn to trust Him more.

However, these attempts don’t really help many situations do they?  I mean, how do you explain the suffering of a young child with cancer?  Does a young child really need purification?  Does a wife whose husband has been unfaithful to her really want to hear that it’s an opportunity to trust God more?  Should someone who lost a family member to suicide be told “This is an opportunity to participate in the life of Jesus”?

I remember one time in the seminary, one of the upperclassmen was telling me about how someone from his parish assignment was going through intense suffering.  I don’t even remember what the exact details were anymore.  But I do remember thinking how awful it was and I immediately asked, “What did you say?”  He wisely said, “I didn’t say anything.  I just listened.”

Many times (not every time, but many times) people don’t want answers for their suffering as much as they want someone to simply be there and listen.

A man came to my office a few weeks ago and said how he was growing in His relationship with God but still struggling greatly, largely due, in part, to seeing the pain of his two children who suffer from muscular dystrophy.  So I sat there and listened to him.  And when he had finished, I simply said, “I don’t know how you feel.  Because your suffering is yours and not mine.  And I’m not going to pretend to know why your children are suffering or attempt to give you some sort of answer.”  And the lines in his forehead eased a bit and he simply replied, “Thank you.”

And as it turns out, that’s the way, it seems, Christ wishes to answer our suffering.  Just as people don’t want answers for their suffering as much as they want someone to simply be there, so too, Jesus, it seems, doesn’t attempt to give an answer for our suffering as much as He is simply there with us in our suffering.

In our second reading, St. Paul says of Jesus: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way.”  Perhaps it’s easier to understand if we take out the double negatives:  We do have a high priest, Jesus, who is able to sympathize with our weakness, because He has been tested in every way.  I wasn’t able to “feel the pain” of that father who visited my office.  But Christ “feels our pain” because He suffers with us and the cross is a reminder that we are not alone.

Last Wednesday, nearly 100 parents and grandparents whose children died by either illness, accident, miscarriage or abortion came to a “Mass of Healing.”  We listened to the Gospel passage where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  And it was important to hear that Gospel, not just so they would hear that death is not the end and that the resurrection is our sure hope.  They needed to hear that Gospel so that we could hear the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.”  As Fr. James Martin says in his book, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Anything” “God was not standing outside our pain, but was a companion within it, holding us in his arms, sharing our grief and pain.”

So, to all who suffer (and everyone suffers) know that none who have faith ever suffer alone.  Christ has already drank from the chalice of your suffering.  He has already been baptized in the same baptismal waters of suffering in which you are being baptized.  And he always walks ahead of us on the way to our Jerusalem.  That’s what it means to be a disciple: to be a follower; to let Jesus walk ahead of us on every path, most especially the path of suffering.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Sock Darner

Homily From the 27th Week of Ordinary Time - Year B

Can anyone (under the age of 40) tell me what this is?  This is a sock darner.  Can anyone (under the age of 40) tell me what darning a sock is?

The reason why virtually everyone under the age of 40 doesn’t know what sock darning is, is because we don’t darn socks anymore.  Darning a sock, is sewing the hole back together.  Today, when you get a hole in your sock, what do you do?  You throw it away.

But back in the day, people had a lot less money.  You couldn’t just “buy another” all the time.  Decades ago, people saved, reused, and repaired everything.  My mother saved every plastic Cool Whip container we ever emptied and used it for something else.  You couldn’t throw away the bows from Christmas presents.  They were still good, so they were reused rather than toss them in the trash.

These simple things were costly, so we saved them.  Socks weren’t thrown in the trash, they were darned.  It seems ridiculous today, but not very long ago, people took the time and effort to sew sock holes shut.

I wonder if today, some people look at themselves like a sock with a hole in it?  Actually, I don’t have to wonder, because I know it to be true.  Sometimes, people are so deeply wounded, the hole in them is so vast, that they think they are beyond repair.

I saw this about four years ago in the seminary when I was assigned to work with a group called Bethesda Healing Ministry.  Bethesda is, as it says, a healing ministry, for women and men who are suffering the wound of an abortion experience.

We would meet every other week in a safe and confidential location.  A dear lady named Judy, who is a licensed counselor and nurse, was, and continues to be, the facilitator of the group.  She and a small team of loving, compassionate women, a couple priest chaplains, and two of us seminarians would meet at a former convent and open the doors to any woman or man, who wanted to begin the healing process. 

When they came through those doors, the first thing they would find was a smile and a friendly greeting from a total stranger that would soon become a very dear friend.  Then they would be invited to sit down with us and enjoy a delicious dinner.  After dinner, everyone would go into the chapel for a short period of silent, personal prayer.  Then we would gather in the living room and begin our meeting.  Once someone got to that point, the journey became much easier.  

Up to that point, for virtually everyone, it had been excruciating.  So many times, we would hear how people labored for months, even years, to take that first courageous step through the doors of Bethesda.  Some would drive to Bethesda and park their car in the lot, only to pause and drive away.  Some would even get as far as the front door, their hand practically on the doorknob.  Yet, still afraid and ashamed to turn the knob and walk through the door.

Because they thought they had done something so terrible that God did not love them anymore.  They thought God would not forgive them.  They thought they would not forgive themselves.

How wrong they were.  How surprised they were to hear that God indeed still loves them and can never stop loving them.  How surprised they were to hear that God always forgives the repentant heart.  How surprised they were to hear that Jesus would take the time and effort to heal them.  How surprised they were to come to understand they were not hole-filled socks to be thrown away.

Today, many of the women and men who have suffered an abortion experience now serve as companions and friends to newcomers to Bethesda.

I would like everyone who is suffering the wound of an abortion experience to know: you  are not broken beyond repair.  You are the beloved daughters and sons of God.  And Christ is waiting to offer you healing.

In 1995, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote to women who have had an abortion in an encyclical called Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and said the following:

“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.”
To my sisters who have had an abortion:  You are beloved daughters of the Father.  You are children of God.  And as Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them.” (Mk 10:14)  Do not prevent yourselves from receiving the Father’s loving care, mercy and healing.

One way you might receive healing is by calling your priest.  As I said, I know from the testimony of the women from Bethesda how very difficult taking that first step can be.
However, trust in the Lord, know that you will be given complete confidentiality, and 

Another way in which you might begin to experience God’s love and mercy would be to attend a “Mass of Healing” here at St. Vincent’s on Wednesday, October 17th at 7PM.  You may know that every All Souls Day we offer a Mass for all our parishoners for whom we had a funeral over the past year.  Well, on October 17th, we will offer a special Mass of Healing for mothers and fathers who have lost a child through an abortion experience as well as for mothers and fathers who have suffered loss through miscarriage.  No one will ask you your name.  No one will ask you your circumstance.  You will be welcomed with the love of Christ.

We do this because God loves all His children and welcomes them into his embrace.  Not only those children lost through abortion or miscarriage or any other untimely death.  But also His children who need his healing.  And you will be received as the children in today’s Gospel were received by the Lord: “Then he embraced them, and blessed them, placing his hands on them.” (Mk 10:16)  There is no sin more powerful than His love.  And there is no hole He cannot repair.