16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas
If you check the fiction bestseller list you will find listed among the top fifty books a high percentage of mystery novels. Whodunits set in ancient Rome, medieval Europe, 18th century Japan, and even our science-fictional future. Police dramas that draw in viewers with the mystery of an unsolved criminal case dominate the TV listings. The nightly news is filled with reports of the mysteries of our collective drive to both get along and get ahead—terrorist plots, political intrigue, predictions of economic ups and downs. Perhaps nowhere more prominent does mystery appear than in our day to day efforts to come to, to serve, and to understand the nature of the divine, the workings of heaven here on earth. We Christians have whole libraries packed with books that identify and attempt to explain one mystery or another: the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, Divine Providence, transubstantiation. And even with all this collected knowledge and our collective wisdom to interpret it, we often find ourselves explaining the faith to the skeptic with one, terribly unsatisfying sentence: “It's a mystery.” Sure, the Church has some profound ideas, a useful method, a set of reasonable assumptions, centuries of logical arguments, and even some intriguing evidence from the world of science, yet mystery remains. And always will. Why? Because teaching and being taught the mysteries of our faith is the business of a truly humble heart, an inquisitive mind, and a meek and merciful soul. All that we must learn, we learn at the feet of Christ.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul identifies himself as a minister of the Body of Christ; one given stewardship over the mission “to bring to completion for [the Church] the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.” He writes that this mystery “has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the [mystery's glory]. . .” What is this mystery that Paul must bring to completion? God's Self revelation, first given to the Jews, must be made manifest among the Gentiles. He writes that the mystery to be revealed “. . .is Christ in you, the hope for glory.” Why must the Gentiles be made privy to the mysteries of salvation? Paul says that he proclaims the mystery of Christ, “admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, [so] that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” He understands his commission as one that will fill up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body . . .” In order words, the Body of Christ is not complete until every tongue, tribe, nation, and people have heard and seen the mystery of Christ proclaimed and accomplished in the Church. We know that this apostle to the Gentiles dies a martyr's death, preaching God's Word. His task, his commission falls to us, the Body of Christ he nourished with both his life and his death. So, how do we continue on?
We have in the sisters, Martha and Mary, two models, two paradigms for how we might proceed to reveal Christ's mystery to the world. When Jesus visits the sisters, Martha begins to fuss about, trying her best to prepare a suitably hospitable meal for their guest. Frustrated that Mary is ignoring her domestic duties in order to dote on Jesus, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to admonish Mary for her apparent laziness. Instead of scolding Mary for her inattention to duty, Jesus turns Martha's complaint back on her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” When should notice here that Jesus doesn't chastise Martha for griping nor does he seem ungrateful for her work on his behalf. Rather than soothe Martha's hurt feelings by telling Mary to get to work, rather than tempering Martha's anger with a lecture on patience, Jesus goes straight to the root of her fussiness. Martha is anxious; she is worried. Faced with the presence of Christ in her home, Martha chooses to get busy; she deflects her anxiety by “doing stuff,” hoping, perhaps, that by staying busy she will burn off the fretting worry. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus' feet and listens to his instruction. She too might be anxious. She might be just as wound up and nervous as her sister in the presence of Christ, but she chooses “the better part,” attending to Jesus as he teaches her the mysteries of his Father's revelation.
Why does Jesus consider Mary's rapt attention to be better than Martha's distracted busyness? Let's ask this question another way. Who is most likely to learn: a student who sits in class tuned in to her iPod, her Facbook chat, and her doodling; or the student who attentively listens to the teacher—no distractions, nothing to cloud her mind or burden her heart? If you have ever tried to teach a child a difficult math problem, or convey a set of relatively boring facts, then you know the answer to this question! Mary has the better part because she is more likely to learn, more likely to “get it,” more likely to become the better teacher and preacher of the mysteries herself. Martha will get quite a lot done, but will she be open to seeing and hearing the mystery that Jesus has to reveal? Jesus tells Martha, “There is need of only one thing.” There is only one needful thing, only one thing we need: to listen to the Word, the Word made flesh in Christ.
When you take up Paul's commission to preach the mystery of Christ to the world, do you first listen to the Word; or do you get busy “doing stuff” that looks Christian, sounds Christian? Do you really hear what Christ has to say about God's mercy, His love? Do you attend to the Body of Christ in action during the celebration of his sacraments? Do you watch for Christ to reveal himself in those you love, in those you despise, those you would rather ignore or disparage? Can you set aside the work of doing Christian things and just be a follower of Christ, just long to be filled with the Spirit necessary to teach with all wisdom? It's vital that we understand that Martha isn't wrong for doing stuff. Her flaw rests solely in her anxiety and her worry while she's doing stuff. Being anxious and worried about many things while doing God's work is a sure sign that we are failing to grasp the central mystery of our commission to preach the Good News: it is Christ who preaches through us, not only with us, along side us, but through us. If we have truly seen and heard the mystery of our salvation through God's infinite mercy, then there is nothing to fear, nothing to be anxious about, nothing that can or will defeat the Word we are vowed to spread. Why? Because everything we do and say reveals Christ to the world. If the Church is the sacrament of God's presence in the world, and we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, then we too are sacraments of God's presence. Individually imperfect, together we are made more perfect on the way to our perfection in Christ.
To do what you have vowed to do, to preach and teach the Good News of Christ Jesus, choose the better part, choose to sit attentively at the feet of the Lord and take in the mystery of God's mercy; choose to surrender your anxiety and worry, and come peacefully, patiently closer and closer to the unfolding mystery of having been set free from sin and death. Bring to the feet of Christ a truly humble heart, an inquisitive mind, and a meek and merciful soul. This is the best part of being his student: nothing learned in Christ's classroom will ever be taken from you, even as you persevere in giving it all away.
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