11 February 2006

Wizards? Professors? Witnesses!

6th Sunday OT: Lev 13.1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10.31-11.1; Mark 1.40-45
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX and Church of the Incarnation
Hear it!

What sort of witness is Jesus teaching us to be?

Jesus is spending a great deal of time healing the sick, preaching to the crowds, teaching his favored disciples, driving out demons. And he is spending a great deal of time telling people to be quiet about what he is doing and who he is. Remarkably so, among the first to witness to Jesus’ divine Sonship are the demons, the unclean spirits who bellow out his identity: “We know who you are: the Holy One of God!” Jesus silences them with a word. The men and women Jesus makes new with his healing touch also bear witness to who he is. And he sternly orders them to silence as well. For all the good it does! What sort of witness does Jesus want us to be?

Jesus seems driven by the need to show us who he really is and at the same time restrained by a need for secrecy, for silence. Let me suggest that the reason for this terrible tension is prophetic, that is, the tension is there so that it might be played out in our witness now, in the charge we have been given to be the prophetic bearers of the Word, voices for the Good News.

Think about it: if Jesus had come to us like a Dungeons and Dragons Wizard, throwing fireballs, casting spells, riding giant eagles to fight the demons, we would have had a fantastic show, a brilliant demonstration of raw, unearthly power. Now that would be an event to witness to! But don’t you think that this sort of theatre would have to be repeated again and again? Repeated to the point that it became nothing but a show? What Jesus is trying to teach—the Good News of our salvation—would be so easily overshadowed by the sparkle, the smoke, the glittering mirrors. What would we see? The God-man dying for our eternal life? Or some sort of weird version of David Copperfield, dying horribly on the cross, and then snapping back to life and inviting us to the ten o’clock show?

Or, if he had come to us as a staid philosopher. With tweed jacket, pipe, bad graying comb-over, Jesus gathers a crowd of over-educated, middle-class egghead wanna-bes and spends one afternoon a week expounding on the Christological taxonomies of the Hebrew prophetic witness and deconstructing the meta-narrative prejudices of a bourgeois modernist cultural hegemony that insists taxonomies adequately sign “reality.” But don’t you think that this sort of theatre would have to be repeated again and again? What Jesus is trying to teach—the Good News of our salvation—would be so easily smothered by pretentious academic jargon, superficial ideological fantasy, and the always tempting intellectual moves: make it all just about symbol or just about history or just about myth.

I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.

Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s gospel looks confused because Jesus doesn’t want us to see him as a magician, a wizard out to build a fan base. He doesn’t want us to see him as a philosopher in the classical Greek tradition, a man of High Reason, logic, and impeccable pagan virtue. Jesus wants us to see him. Him, as is. Fully God, fully man. Capable of claiming his Father’s power to re-create the perfection of human health, to make right the wrong of sin, to bring back from the edge of total, soulless darkness the soul that reaches out, that needs saving. Jesus wants us to see him as he is: as a man with limits—a need for rest, food, companionship, love, solitude AND as God—He Who rests in our hearts as the engine of our covenant; Who feeds us the food and drink of heaven; Who is with us always as friend and Father; Who loves us without limit, without prejudice, loves us to repentance; and the One Who is here even in our solitude, the One Who fills our longing and loneliness with immaculate mercy, perfectly refined joy.

I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.

Jesus Christ is a man we can witness for. Jesus Christ is God whose Word we can bear, whose promises we can shout about. We can be witnesses who tell stories of healing, stories of radical mercy and forgiveness, stories of unexpected grace and enlightenment. You can see and hear the gospel. You can train your mind to think with the Church, your heart to beat with the saints, and your voice to proclaim the always re-creating Word.

Paul asks the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ. We cannot all live in the circus, being showman for Jesus. Nor can we all live in the university, being bookish geeks for the Lord. But we can know and love and talk about the Jesus of this gospel. The God-Man who touches diseases and heals, who touches a disposable outcast and makes him family again. The God-man who seeks out a little solitude to recharge, to recover from the hard work of being a preacher of the Good News to Word-starved crowds.

You can be a witness for Christ by imitating Christ: speak a word of healing, of peace, of charity wherever you find yourself. Shine out joy! Tell the truth about our redemption in Christ: he died for us so that when we confess our sins, repent of them and do penance, we are able to receive God’s forgiveness as freed men and women, and then put that forgiveness to use as healthy food for our growth in holiness. You can be a witness for Christ by doing everything you do for the greater glory of God, by not seeking first your own benefit but the benefit of others, and always, always telling the truth of the faith.

Jesus seems restrained by a need for secrecy and silence. Are we restrained in our witness as well by secrecy and the need for silence? Do we contain our witness as a private matter, a personal religious thing that we practice alone? Maybe there is a spirit of shame or embarrassment gagging your witness? Or maybe a spirit of intellectual pride or fear of ridicule? Maybe you have been bitten by the All-Religions-Are-Basically-the-Same bug and think that witnessing to Christ is somehow intolerant of religious diversity or unnecessarily provocative. Or perhaps your witness has been silenced by the anger and spite of dissenters within the Church. Regardless—literally, without regard to any these or for any these—you approach this altar today/tonight to take into your body the Body and Blood of Christ, the One Who died for you, the One who reached out across creation as the breath of life over the void and touched you; touches you, heals you.

Go. Show yourself to the World, to the Church, and offer as your witness the cleansing that Jesus Christ has accomplished in you. Spread it abroad. And keep coming back and keep going out.

I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.

10 February 2006

Be opened! And be quiet about it!

5th Week OT(Fri): 1 Kings 11.29-32; Mark 7.31-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas
NB. My thanks to my Dominican brother, Fr. J.D. Logan, OP, for pointing out to me my gospel confusion. I conflated two miracle accounts: the healing of the man born blind and the healing of the man born deaf and unable to speak. The text has been corrected.

What is Jesus doing? Running around the countryside healing disease, throwing demons out of the possessed, teaching crazy stuff to crowds of hungry folks, running for the hills when those same crowds press him too closely or threaten his peace. He is booed and hissed in his own hometown. He walks on water. He declares all foods clean. He produces a feast for more than five thousand by blessing what little they had to eat. And now, today, he takes off by himself a man unable to speak, unable to hear and frees him from his silence. What is Jesus doing?

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in their document on divine revelation, Dei verbum, definitively teach that: “To see Jesus is to see the Father.” This is what Jesus is doing: he is being God. And because he is God he has “perfected revelation by fulfilling [revelation] through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting Himself: through His word and deeds, His signs and wonders […]”(DV 4). So, if Jesus is God (and he is) and if he has perfected the revelation of his Father to us (and he has), then why does he tell the man he has just healed to be quiet about the miracle? Why not charge him with the task of the apostles: go out shouting the good news, go out yelling about the advent of the Messiah!

Jesus is not trying to keep the Good News a secret. If he were, he would heal no one. He would have no disciples to teach privately and charge with evangelization. Nor is he trying to establish a mega-church following. He wouldn’t bother seeking out the solitude of the deserted places and the slow, calming distance of the sea, if he were. He would be front and center. He would be the hub of doubt-killing miracles around which the sick, the possessed, and the lost would spin. Instead, he says, “Be quiet about this miracle. Tell no one you have been made new.” The miracle reveals the gospel. Silence reveals the way that gospel is heard.

Jesus is not preaching a gospel of showmanship antics or celebrity stunts. He is not gathering together the multitudes to wow them with gimmicky, magical tricks. He is revealing the Father, perfecting God’s Self-communication to us, for us. And for us that revelation can be the measured flowering of recognition or the breath-stealing thunderclap of immediate awareness. It can settle into us over time. Or lay waste to every obstacle to trust instantaneously. We each hear silence with our own ears.

Magical showmanship might titillate our fleeting curiosity, but what can be revealed to us in a rush of apparent tricks (even if they aren’t tricks!)? That this man Jesus has divine power? Sure. But does that instill faith and trust or does it instill envy, ambition, or perhaps even ridicule. Likewise, the failure to demonstrate a divine connection, the failure to reveal through the miraculous something of the authority of the Father, that would leave those hungry for spiritual food hungrier and more dis-eased than before. Perhaps the claim of divine authority is best assented to when it can be miraculously demonstrated?

What is Jesus doing? He is being God. The miraculous healing of the man born unable to hear or speak reveals the gospel. The silence Jesus wants reveals the way that gospel is heard and attended to and spread: “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”

This isn’t disobedience. It is true obedience. Hearing, listening, and complying: “Be opened!”

08 February 2006

Defilement from within...

5th Week OT: 1 Kings 10.1-10; Mark 7.14-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Hear it!
Sin rises from our center, from our heart. Its seed is planted and nourished in the place of covenant, the place where we withdraw to rest in solitude with our Lord. Sin is the powerful enemy of holiness precisely because it sprouts so aggressively from “the dwelling-place where [we are], where [we] live”(CCC 2563). A heart choked with the weeds of sin beats less vigorously for righteousness, shrinks more quickly from the duties of mercy, and dies more quickly from one failure of charity after another.

Jesus teaches his students, “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery […] All these evils come from within and they defile.” He had just finished telling the disciples that defilement, impurity does not come from what we put into our bodies, but rather from what comes out! Parenthetically, literally “with parentheses,” the NAB notes: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” But this is not so much a declaration of freedom from the purity laws regarding food as it is a declaration of moral, spiritual adulthood for his followers. A declaration with serious responsibilities.

Please note what Jesus is not doing here: he is not freeing his disciples from the obligations of the heart, meaning, he is not removing from them the God-placed hook that relentlessly reels them back to the Father. He is not abandoning the very notion of sin itself as his ancestors understood it. Sin is still disobedience and rebellion against the divine and natural order, the habitual failure to listen to and to comply with those truths revealed to us by God and those known to us by reason. And, finally, Jesus is not teaching his disciples (and us!) that we may abandon the basic precepts of the Law in favor of some sort of merely affective notion of moral behavior, in favor of some sort of modern therapeutic fetishes like “integrity” or “wellness” or “maturity.”

What Jesus is voiding is the “traditions of men” that have attached themselves to the Law. The most basic goods revealed to us by God—the Law—had become layered with interpretation, thick with commentary, nearly suffocated with picayune hairsplitting and ritual observance. Jesus simply cuts to the quick, as he often did, with an earthquake, a thunderclap: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person […]” Boom! Layers of regulation slide away and the heart of the matter is left open and clean.

We are not made unclean from anything we can take in. Sin is the mindful disobedience of the mature heart, the unsettling, the dis-easing of the seat of our covenant by what we do and why. Sin is not accidental. It is not done in ignorance. Sin is the failure to grow in holiness, the failure to make the best use of our freedom by serving one another for the greater glory of God. Jesus is painfully clear in announcing the foundational tenet of his mature spirituality: “[…] the things that come from within are what defile.”

An adolescent spirituality demands the hard, mathematically precise laws of personal and public behavior. An adolescent spirituality will also demand, as a matter of “being an adult,” total freedom from any law. A mature spirituality will bring us to settle peacefully into an easily regulated life, a life aligned with the Goods God has revealed to us and the ends of our natural order. A mature spirituality will recognize the Law at its root, at its most basic as a definitive expression of the truth, goodness, and beauty that God Is. And that true cleanliness, to be clean, is to pursue holiness with abandon, with reckless surrender, to give over wholly and free our hearts and minds, our center, our souls to Christ.

05 February 2006

What Purpose do you serve?

5th Sunday OT: Job 7.1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9.16-19, 22-23; Mark 1.29-39
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas
Hear it!

Everything is lost. Nothing really lives here. There is no light, no life, no hope of being found. There is work with no purpose. Movement toward no end. Day, then night, then day again. No meaning. Pointless striving. Unraveling hours of nothing at all. Sleep brings no rest. Work never tires. It won’t end soon enough. Or, too soon. Like an exhausted wind weakly blowing dust. Sigh. Job is not a happy man. He’s learned that his life of blessing and prosperity is very easily washed away. Troubled nights. Restlessness ‘til dawn. His life like a wind. Never to see happiness again. Job has lost his faith. And with it his humility and his gratitude. Self-pity and anger are not the seeds of blessing. So, he will be hopeless, restless, and sleepless until he finds again a purpose bigger than his small dreams, his little dramas of success.

We read tonight that Jesus and Paul know their purpose. And they know happiness in knowing their purpose. What makes you happy? What Purpose do you serve?

Isn’t it easier getting out of bed in the morning knowing you have a purpose, knowing you have a goal to achieve, a To Do List for your life that needs some work? Isn't it easier making it to work or class or the next thing on the list knowing that your attention, energy, labor, and time will be focused on completing a mission, on getting something done? With the time we have and the talents given to us, don’t we prefer to see constructive and profitable outcomes? Even when we’re being a bit lazy, wasting a little time doing much of nothing, we have it in the back of our mind to get busy, to get going on something, checking that next thing on the list and moving toward a goal. It’s how we are made. It’s how we live in the world.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation have been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” Paul has been given an end, a goal, a purpose beyond mere survival, beyond merely getting along. Having been smacked around by the Lord for persecuting the Church, Paul finds himself ordered to a regime of holiness, a kingdom of righteousness, that demands more than rule-following, more than simply showing up and breathing the temple air. Paul must preach. He must travel city to city, province to province, publicly witnessing to his repentance, to the power of Christ’s mercy.

Paul’s sleep is restful. His work exhausts him. He is a slave whose labor is never drudgery, never pointless. His end, his purpose is Jesus Christ, the telling again and again of his story, his bruising encounter with the man of love. And offering to anyone who will open their eyes to see and their ears to hear, offering to them the same restfulness, the same pleasing exhaustion, the same intense focus of a purpose driven by the need to proclaim Christ.

Jesus, doing his best to find a little time away from the crowds, responds responsibly when Simon and other disciples find him and say, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus, pursued, literally, by his purpose says, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Soon he will look out over the vast crowd and, moved by compassion, teach them many things. Now, nearly exhausted himself, he takes his students out again to preach and teach the Good News. It is his purpose—to show those hungry for God that God does indeed rule, that He holds dominion here, over all creation—heaven and earth, human and devil—and that healing flows from faith, light always overcomes darkness, and that evil, no matter how much ahead in the race, has already lost.

Job has lost his purpose and dwells in an anxious darkness. Paul is driven by his need to witness. Jesus reveals His Father’s kingdom—healing, driving out demons, preaching. Job recovers his purpose when the Lord dramatically reminds him who is God and who is creature, Who Is Purpose Himself and who has a purpose. Paul runs his preaching into every town he crosses, proclaiming the Word, setting up houses of prayer, and leaving behind men and women strong in the faith. Jesus moves inexorably toward the Cross, his work for the Way along the way reveals again and again the always, already present victory of Life over Death, freedom over slavery, final success over endless failure.

What goals do you serve? Why do you get up in the morning? What meaning does your work, your play have for you? Who are you in light of what you have promised to be and do? What makes you happy? Where do you find joy? Lots of questions! But all of these are really just one question: what is your purpose?

You have a given purpose and a chosen purpose. Your given purpose is dyed into your flesh, pressed through into your bones; it is a God-placed hook in your heart, a hook that tugs you relentlessly back to God, back to His perfecting goodness. Your chosen purpose is how you choose to live out day-to-day your given purpose, how you have figured out how to make it back to God. Student, mother, professor, virgin, priest, monk, artist, poet, engineer, athlete, clerk, scientist, father, nurse, dentist. When your chosen purpose best reveals your given purpose, when what you have chosen to do helps who you are given to be flourish, your anxiety finds trust, your sleeplessness finds rest, your despair finds joy. And you can say with Paul: “All this I do for the sake of the gospel,”—heal, study, pray, minister, write, research, teach, drive, build, all this I do for the gospel—“so that I too may have a share in it.”

What Purpose do you serve? I mean, when you work, when you study and teach and play, toward what end do you reach? What goal seduces you forward, pulls you to the finish line? Surely for us, all of us here tonight, that purpose is Jesus Christ. Our goal is his friendship, his love. And our goal is his witness, our telling of his Good News. We can waddle around in the darkness of sin, bumping around blind, reaching for what’s never there. We can wail into the wind like Job, moaning about the meaninglessness of life, the pointlessness of our daily striving. We can even refuse happiness, refuse to see that we have a given purpose. But you will find your release and your license, your freedom and your choice when you make yourself a slave to all, when you make yourself all things to all, to save at least some.

Like Paul, a trusted steward, a faithful child, preach the gospel. Live it right where you are. Make it your reason for getting out of bed, for going to work, for making it to class. Make it who you are, what you do, and everything you ever will become.

Everyone is looking for you. For what purpose do you live?