22 February 2009

On purpose, with a purpose

7th Sunday OT: Is 43:18-25; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

[NB. This homily is an example of "Praedicator primum sibi praedicet" if there ever was one!*]

The Lord says to Isaiah, “…see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” This astonishing exclamation by the Lord raises three questions: 1) what is this new thing that the Lord is doing?; 2) what does He mean by “now” when He says that this new thing is springing forth now?; and 3) do we perceive this new thing as it springs forth? As always, scripture is best read as both a history of the faithful response our ancestors to God’s grace and as a script for our own response to the identical grace. Given this, what are we to make of this revelation of immediate newness? On the eve of our Lenten trek, we think first of sin and repentance, the old and the new. Fair enough. Reading the story of the healing of the paralytic in light of Isaiah, let’s think as well on disease and healing, also, the old and the new. But let’s put all four of these themes (sin, repentance, disease, and healing) into a larger theme: as divinely-given purpose as creatures. Who and what are we as creatures—made things—of an all-loving Creator given a purpose beyond our creation? It is not enough to say that we are forgiven our sins upon repentance. It is not enough to say that we are healed of our diseases when we believe. The Lord is doing something new. And He is doing it now.

No doubt this sounds familiar: “You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes.” How often do we hear God’s prophets tell us that our Lord is wearied by our disobedience, that He is fed up with our sin? And almost every time we hear the Lord’s lament, we hear something like, “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” We sin. The Lord tires of it. He forgives us. And remembers our sin no more. Thanks be to God! Surely we are deeply grateful, but we must wonder why we are forgiven. Why do we find ourselves able to stand in the presence of the Lord washed clean of our willful disobedience? The Lord tells Isaiah: “The people I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.” We cannot praise God while wallowing in our sin. Nor can we forgive our own disobedience, so God Himself, for His own sake, must forgive us our trespasses so that we might accomplish our purpose as His creatures: to praise Him, to bless Him, and to preach His Good News!

Think for a moment about what it means to be redeemed as a fallen creature. We can see this is a rescue from Hell. We can see this as establishing again our original relationship with God. We can also see our redemption as a kind of perfected health. What does the healing of the paralytic in Mark’s gospel tell us? Notice a few things about the story. Since the man is paralyzed, he cannot come to Jesus alone. He needs help. Four men lower him through the roof to Jesus. No mean feat of dedication or labor! Note that Jesus heals the man not only because of his faith, but also because of “their faith,” the faith of those men who worked so hard to get him to Jesus. Note as well that Jesus, in response to the kvetching of the scribes about blasphemy, draws a direct link between sin and disease, forgiveness and healing. He asks, “What’s the difference between me saying ‘Your sins are forgiven’ and ‘Get up and walk?’” Answer: none. In fact, Jesus says both to the paralyzed man: “Child, your sins are forgiven” and “…rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” Given back his mobility, the man rises and walks away. Miracle over.

Not quite. Notice one last thing. . .Mark reports: “He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.” Not only did Jesus restore his health, he restores his purpose: to be a creature in praise of his Creator! In the sight of everyone, this healed creature amazes the on-lookers; he witnesses to the power of God’s forgiveness by doing what he was made to do. Mark reports: “They were all astounded and glorified God…” Through his faith in God’s mercy, the man is healed. In his healing, he is given new purpose. With his new purpose, he restores the purpose of those witnessing his healing: “They. . .glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this.’" What God does for us, He does for His glory. What we do in response, we do in praise and thanksgiving. That is our purpose.

Think about your dis-eases. Not so much your physical afflictions but your uneasinesses, your anxieties and doubts. Aren’t these usually the doors through which you walk to sin? Uneasy about the future, you plan against God’s promise to care for you. Anxious about your current situation, you try to fix things according to your passions, your own dimmed lights. Or maybe doubting some truth of the faith, you decide against right reason and the teachings of the Church and go out into the world’s intellectual desert to find an answer more pleasing to your broken mind. Though we are certainly free to follow these leads, we are never freed in following them. In fact, we are always enslaved more tightly, made sicker, paralyzed more thoroughly when we turn from our divinely-given purpose and follow an attractively decorated but nonetheless deadly end.

We have one purpose: to praise our God with body and soul, heart and mind through time and space. And when we are no longer bound by any measures of movement or created expanse, we praise Him face-to-face, complete in our end, fulfilled in our purpose. Perhaps the best way for to think about sin/forgiveness, disease/health is to think in terms of whether or not we are living out our created purpose, whether or not we are living toward our divinely-gifted end. This is not to say that every scrape and bump, or cough and headache is a sign of disobedience. These are reminders of creation’s falleness and our participation in a world groaning after its own purpose. Our illnesses are opportunities to see a purpose beyond simply enduring pain for pain’s sake, beyond the experience of disease as a natural dysfunction of the body. Like the paralyzed man in Mark’s gospel, we are children faithful to a Father, and we are healed/forgiven when we trust that our dis-eases are not who or what we are as loved creatures. If we are not our diseases, then we are our sins either. What tumor or fracture or infection or mental disorder or willful disobedience praises God? They don’t. Their purpose is wholly-other-than, something else entirely.

We can smell the Lenten desert from here. It’s hot and dry as always. All the better for cleaning those nasty wounds. All the better for stripping away the dead flesh and draining those abscesses of sinful infection. Rather than obsessing on what’s wrong with our spiritual lives—our living day-to-day with Christ and his people,—focus instead on praising God. Fast from purposeless posing in Narcissus’ mirror. Fast from rending your religious garb and heaping ashes on your fallen head. Fast from beating your breast and making a show of piety. Instead, feast on forgiveness and showing mercy. Feast on praising God in His infinite goodness and love. Feast on giving Him thanks for His gifts of life, redemption, and eternal residence near His throne. He’s done, is doing, and will always do something new for us. Spend these forty days of Lent in the excessive luxury of gratitude, sparing no moment to self-indulgence, giving nothing to disease or anxiety.

Our wounds are healed. And even if we still bleed, even if we still hurt, our purpose is renewed. Bleed, hurt, cry…do it all “on purpose,” do it all for one purpose, the purpose you were made to complete: praise God; bless God, and preach His Good News.

*"The preacher preaches to himself first."

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  1. a beautiful homily to be sure. i left Mass last night in a similar frame of mind (more of God, less of me). this time this Gospel gave me a pause for praise...gratitude for those in my life who have "carried my mat" by taking my prayers in difficult times to God. it's easy to go the downward spiral of sadness/depression over sins but i am finding i prefer the upward spiral of praise.

  2. "God Himself, for His own sake, must forgive us... We can see this is a rescue from Hell... What God does for us, He does for His glory. What we do in response, we do in praise and thanksgiving... Spend these forty days of Lent in the excessive luxury of gratitude, sparing no moment to self-indulgence, giving nothing to disease or anxiety."

    It can be so much easier to look at the evil in Jesus' persecutors and to indulge anger or sadness at Jesus' agonies, than it is to really look at Jesus' love and accept and claim this extent of it with gratitude. And so your suggestion for Lent can be difficult. But it's true. It is what He would have us do. Anything but acceptance and gratitude and praise, for all of it, is some form of whole or partial rejection.

    Well done, and Amen!, Fr. Philip. Thank you for all of this and for posting it. I'm thrilled to have it to share, too, with friends in a convent who, like you - and this year especially and keenly - are celebrating the arrival of Lent.

    Father, are you willing to craft a (short, concise) Lenten prayer or reflection following the ideas of this homily? For us?