5th Week of Easter (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula
Paul and Barnabus find themselves in an awkward situation. Having preached the Good News in Lystra and healed a crippled man, the two apostles are acclaimed by the crowds and mistaken for gods. When the priest of Zeus attempts to sacrifice an ox to them, Paul shouts, “Men, why are you doing this?” He tells them that they are just men come to proclaim God's mercy to sinners. He tells them that they must turn from their idols and offer worship to the living God, the one who “who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.” It's not too difficult to imagine that the crowds, especially the pagan priests, received this bit of news with some skepticism, even a little hostility. Here are two obviously powerful, gods-touched men who perform a miracle refusing to take credit for a miraculous feat and yelling at them that their centuries old religious traditions are deficient maybe even evil. Surely, the gods are testing the faithful, waiting to see if they will abandon Zeus and Hermes on the word of two wandering prophets. Paul tells the crowds that the living God has allowed these pagans “to go their own ways” and at the same time provided them—out of His abundant goodness—with many sure signs of His presence and purpose: the rains and fruitful seasons, nourishment and gladness for their hearts. Even with this revelation, the pagans are barely prevented from offering sacrifice to the Lord's ambassadors. Mistaking the sign for that which is signified, the pagans continue in their idolatry. Are we tempted to do the same?
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council teach the Church that God reveals Himself to us through scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and the witness of “created things.” Surrounded as we are and totally dependent upon the created things of this world, we are free to direct our worship to the things themselves or to the One who created them. We can believe that mountains, trees, rivers, animals, and the stars all stand above us as gods, or we can respect them as signs of God's presence, created windows through which we see and hear the Word Himself revealed. In this scientific and technological age, we might choose to honor creation in less religious terms, in less worshipful ways and still hold the things of the world above their Creator. We can deny the presence of God in His creation and believe that nothing exists beyond or above the material stuff of the universe. We can live out our lives believing that our dominion over creation was sealed by the coming of the scientific age and that our technology gives us certain if not absolute control over our destiny. If we make such a choice, choosing to center ourselves in the temporary matter of the world, we sacrifices our lives to that which cannot endure, cannot persist beyond its own destruction. We become idolaters, worshipers of the Signs of the divine and not the Divine Himself.
Most modern Christians aren't tempted to worship Zeus or Odin or Vishnu. These aren't the idols we set up on the altars of our daily lives. Our idols are less substantial, more subtle than the figures of ancient myth. If we are tempted to idolatry nowadays, we are tempted to offer praise and thanksgiving to our ambitions, our passions, and our prejudices. Rather than acknowledge the presence of Christ in the tabernacle of our hearts, we are tempted to place a selfish will or a libertine spirit on the throne reserved for our Lord. Even with the grace of baptism and the sustenance of the Eucharist, we will worship Worry and Vengeance if we believe that worrying and revenge will serve us better than surrender and mercy. Christ sends the Holy Spirit to teach us and remind us that idols of all kinds—whether they are made of gold or psychological distress—are made things and subject to death. Only the Lord of Life, the one who has conquered death, is worthy of our worship. Only He deserves our faithful attention and the sacrifice of our lives in His service.
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