18 January 2010

How to speak a word of truth

2nd Sunday OT: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

There are as many ways to speak as there are mouths to do the speaking. But there is only way to be silent. Teeth touching, lips closed. Daring to be silent when words beg to be spoken can be a sign of prophetic courage and also an admission of cowardice. Faced with injustice, oppression, persecution, the silence of a tight-lipped mouth is a sure sign that the heart has grown cold, sitting like a rock in the center of our spiritual lives. Gifted with the truth of the faith, the fire of a preaching spirit, and the charge to do the work of the Lord in the world, the tight-lipped mouth is a sign that the heart lacks generosity, charity, and obedience. But when the tongue shapes words of justice, freedom in the Lord, mercy for sins, and proclaims to the heavens and across the lands the love of God, the courage of a prophet burns fiercely bright, sweeping away fear, clearing the rubbish of excuses, and bolstering the righteousness of one's public witness. For such a God-moved tongue there is no question of whether or not the Word will be spoken. Such a tongue cannot be silent. The only question is how the Word will be spoken. How will the enduring truths of God be pronounced for all to hear? How do you give breath and voice to God's Word?

At the request of his mother, and after some initial reluctance, Jesus turns six jars of water into wine. Breaking a thirty-year silence about his identity as the promised Messiah, our Lord decides that his time has indeed come, and he announces his own arrival by injecting new wine into a wedding feast. But before performing this act of divine revelation, Jesus expresses what most of us must feel on occasion when confronted by an opportunity to say too much, too soon in public about our faith. Mary reports to her son that the wine has run out. Jesus replies, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” In effect, our Lord says here, “So what? Why is this my problem? It's not time for me to reveal who I really am.” Is Jesus a coward? Is he refusing to be the witness that the Father has sent him among us to be? What is the reason for his apparent reluctance? We can only speculate, of course. Perhaps he had planned a more dramatic revelation. Or, perhaps he had chosen a more auspicious day. Weddings are common enough events. And even if changing water to wine is rather dramatic, it is not as dramatic as curing a leper or raising the dead to new life. Whatever his reason for holding back, he nonetheless hesitates. Surely, we have too. What were the consequences?

Can you count the number of times you have been offered the chance to speak a word of truth and hesitated? Can you recall all the times you have found yourself in a position to offer a word of mercy or consolation or love and failed to speak? We may not know exactly why Jesus pauses before he complies with his mother's implicit request. But we do know why we pause when presented with the opportunity to speak the truth. I will be thought stupid. My friends will think I am a zealot. Family members will start to argue. I am embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of the faith, scripture, world events. What if I get it wrong and mislead the ignorant? I don't want to appear to be pushy like those preachers on TV, or those guys who come to the door on Saturdays. What if I am ostracized by the ones on whose good will I depend? There are as many reasons for silence as there are mouths to keep closed. Though silence speaks volumes, the Word is always spoken.

Look to the prophet Isiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.” Isiah will not be silent. Not for his own sake, not for the sake of the prophet's ego, not for the sake of his lofty reputation, but for the sake of the kingdom. He will not remain quiet because more is at stake in his proclaiming the Word than his concern for personal good will. He will speak and speak and speak for the sake of another; he will shout and proclaim and preach until the Lord's victory is heard by all nations, all peoples. Truly, with a prophet's spirit, he can nothing else. But he is one among millions. One voice in the vast wilderness of silence picked out by the Lord to say what cannot be left unsaid. And we know all too well what happens to the lonely voice of the prophet who says what we do not want to hear. Who among us wants to join our fate to his? Surely it is better to remain quiet, go along to get along, blending in and causing no waves. This is not what we were baptized to be or to do. The Church is a nation of prophets, priests, and kings. And we have been divinely gifted to not only speak the Word but to accomplish it as well.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord;. . .To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” As a Body, the Church works in the world as the sum total of the Spirit's gifts to her members. Though each member is differently gifted, all these gifts are given by the Spirit for a single purpose: the proclamation and the living out of the Gospel. Some are gifted with teaching the faith. Some with prophecy and others with wisdom. Some with healing and others with doing mighty deeds. We know that we act with these gifts when the fruits they bear build up the Church, tighten her unity, strengthen her familial bonds, and unceasingly witness to God's unfailing love for sinners. We know as well that we have failed to use the gifts of the Spirit when we fracture our hearts and minds into bickering camps; when we weaken God's family by refusing to preach the truth of the faith; and when we pretend to live in the world as an exclusive club for the morally perfect. We are gifted by the Spirit so that we might enter the world and proclaim the gospel in every word we speak, in every action we take. To do anything else is to invite the reluctant pride into our hearts and die the death of spiritual cowardice.

How do we avoid such a terrible death? The lazy answer is that we speak up, say what must be said regardless of the consequences. If speaking the truth paints a martyr's target on our backs, then so be it. But this kind of defiant opposition can backfire and reveal us to be little more than pretentious big mouths strutting for a fight. The Church Militant can prepare for war without picking a fight. First, we must know what our faith demands of us. Not only the content of doctrine and dogma, scripture and the natural law but the first commandment of love as well. Anyone can memorize doctrinal formulas. Anyone can recite scripture. Even the Devil himself. What the Devil cannot do is love, forgive, show mercy, sacrifice self for others. The Church's intellectual and spiritual deposit is worthless if we refuse to put it to work in love. Second, we must live in the world for the world even as we resist the temptation to get lost in the secular party. Scowling disapprovingly from the corner as the revelers revel guarantees our reputation for being self-appointed judges of everyone else's sin. If our spiritual joy cannot possess the world just yet, we are nonetheless compelled in love to remain steadfast in being God's joy incarnate for those who would choose to party with us. After all, Jesus gave the flagging wedding feast at Cana an infusion of new wine! What do you bring to the party when the revelers verge on the brink of giving themselves over to the spirit of the world? Third, and perhaps the most difficult, we must be willing and ready to confess our failures, repent, do penance, and better ourselves out of the failure. We do the Church no favors by blindly defending egregious violations of the limits God has set for our growth in holiness. When we are wrongly accused of sin, truth is our best defense and the only option. When rightly accused, we must humbly confess, even if our accuser is by far the worse sinner. Silence is complicity; pride damns us as cowards.

We can speak God's truth in boldness without being shrill. We can proclaim the gospel with certainty and do so without arrogance. We can pour our God's fiery spirit without burning the nations to the ground. The key is persistence, fortitude, patience. And the calm assurance that Love has already prevailed.

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