The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  I have talked about this kind of thing before.  The healing is not here simply for us to say, “how nice for that deaf and mute man.”  The healing he intends, the command, “Be opened!” is for us too.  Mark brings us this story in his Gospel because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

Saint James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it: ephphatha, be opened, that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick.  I want to do that because I think it’s a sacrament that is misunderstood, one that we don’t think of much, until someone is near death, and that’s not what the Anointing of the Sick is all about.  In the days prior to Vatican II, that actually was the understanding of the Sacrament.  It was called Extreme Unction, Latin for “Last Anointing.”  But Vatican II restored the sacrament to a much earlier practice, in which the sacrament was intended for healing, and not just sending the dying person on their way to eternal life.

The impetus for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick comes from another passage in the letter of Saint James.  It says: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.  If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15) The sacrament is about healing: physical, sure, but also spiritual.  Having God’s presence in the sacrament with us in our time of illness is of great value – just ask anyone who’s been through it!

So I’d like to identify a few times when it would be appropriate to have the Anointing of the Sick.  The first is before surgery that is either life threatening itself, or is for the healing of some illness or injury.  Very often people will call, and they might come to a daily Mass before their surgery or the weekend before their surgery, and I’ll anoint them after Mass.  This is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament, because they’ve just been to Mass and have received the Eucharist. The combination of those sacraments is a great source of grace and healing.  Here at Saint Mary’s, we also have a monthly celebration of the sacrament at a service, usually the first Sunday of the month (although, because of Labor Day, this month’s takes place today) at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Another time someone might be anointed is if they’ve come to the hospital with a life-threatening illness or injury, perhaps even after an accident.  Or perhaps a patient is hospitalized for an addiction or mental illness.  Very often there’s a priest on call at the hospital who can do that, or if it’s one of the local hospitals here, we will be called to go over.  Being anointed at that time of crisis can be a great source of peace to both the patient and their loved ones.

Another time for the Anointing is when a patient is home bound, or after they’ve come home from having surgery and there is going to be a long time of rehabilitation.  Then a priest might come to the person’s home, anoint them, and then we can arrange for a parishioner to come give them Holy Communion each week.  We have a number of deacons and other parishioners who help us with that ministry, and it keeps the patient connected to the parish and to the Lord during difficult days.  I always like to say, when you’re well, you can come to us, and when you’re sick, we can come to you.

The final time for the Anointing is the one that most people think of, and that is near death. At the time of death, we have what is known as the Last Rites.  The Last Rites are a combination of three sacraments: the sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum, which is Latin for “bread for the journey,” one’s last Communion.  If at all possible, it’s good if the patient is well enough to participate in all three sacraments, but very often that’s not the case.  Then we just do what we can of them and entrust them to God’s mercy.

It’s important that we know about the illness so that we can care for the patient.  In today’s society that means a family member or the patient themselves, must call us.  Hospitals can’t do that any more, due to privacy laws.  So it’s very important that we know, and know soon enough that we can respond.  In a large parish like this, it can be hard for us to respond at the spur of the moment because of other things going on, but we do our best to get there as soon as we can.  And if, unfortunately, a patient dies before the priest can get there, there are still prayers we can do.  Sometimes we don’t know that the patient is going so quickly.  I had that happen just the other day, and we still prayed and I was there to spend some time with the family.

The healing work of Christ is what the Church is all about.  Today, Jesus continues to work through the Church to bring healing to all those who need it. He cries out “Ephphatha” that we might all be opened up to his healing work and that every obstacle to relationship with him might be broken down.

Thursday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You may have heard the saying that “If you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.” It’s so easy for us in our arrogance to think we have everything all figured out. And then maybe God taps us on the shoulder, or whispers into our ear, and sends us in another direction. We’ve all had that happen in our lives, I am sure. And if we’re open to it, it can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be a wild ride at the least, and possibly even traumatic. This is the experience Paul is getting at when he says in our first reading, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.”

Simon and his fellow fishermen must have been thinking that Jesus fell into the foolishness category when he hopped into their boat, after they had been working hard all night long (to no avail, mind you!), and said, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” What foolishness! But something about Jesus made them follow his instructions, he tapped on their shoulders, whispered into their ears, and they did what he said.

And not only were they rewarded with a great catch of fish, but they were also called to catch people for God’s reign. Talk about God laughing at your plans! They had only ever known fishing, and now they were evangelists, apostles and teachers. And we know how wild a ride it was for them. They never expected the danger that surrounded Jesus in his last days. They never expected to be holed up in an upper room trying to figure out what to do next. They never expected to be martyred, but all of that was what God had in mind for them. And all of it was filled with blessing.

So what foolishness does God have planned for us today? How will he tap us on the shoulder or whisper into our ear? Whatever it is, may he find us all ready to leave everything behind and follow him.

Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The presence of God, in some ways, is quite often really unwelcome, at least to those who have made their own gods. Saint Paul urges the Corinthians in today’s first reading to be good discerners of this reality; to turn away from the spirit of the world so that they can turn toward the Spirit of God. That’s good advice for us too, of course. In today’s Gospel the demons that possessed the poor man knew who Jesus was and what he came to proclaim. Those demons wanted no part of Jesus, in fact, they wanted him to go away. But of course, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life will not let the man remain possessed, and the demon flees.

But the demons that oppose God’s presence remain in our world and are quite active. They possess people, institutions, and social systems. They attempt to cloud a respect for life by preaching the so-called truth of “choice.” They attempt to oppress whole peoples and developing nations with greed and rampant consumerism. They attempt to derail justice with corruption, peace with selfishness, respect for authority with a kind of false freedom of expression. We have even seen evil present in our Church in these days.

So the demons would like Jesus to go away and not even recognize them, but Jesus will not go away; he will not be overcome by anything; he will be always omnipresent. Evil will never be triumphant. Jesus speaks words of authority; an authority that gives him power even over these unclean spirits. So we have come to believe that the forces of darkness will never have the last word. For the truth will overcome them like the thief in the night, and all that darkness will be put to flight in the bright light of day. We then are people of light, and we are called to sing of the Lord’s truth so that all people will continue to be amazed, just like the bystanders at the casting out of the demon. And with the Psalmist, we can rejoice that “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So often, when someone thanks us for something, we might say, “It’s the least I could do.”  As if it were some kind of badge of achievement to do the least thing possible.  I think it’s human nature to try to do as little as possible, without being perceived as lazy or something.  Sometimes we want to do as little as possible, and have others feeling good about it.

Well, I think it’s that kind of attitude that is behind today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Certain things are expected of believers, and over the course of history, people have tried to get away with doing as few of those things as they absolutely need to do.  The first reading sets the stage: Moses places the law before the people and tells them that they are a great nation, because they have a God so close to them, and who loves them enough to give them the whole law that they have received.

Now the whole law is more than we might think.  Perhaps when we hear that, we think of the Ten Commandments, to which we also are bound in our discipleship.  But for the Jewish community back then, there were a total of over six hundred laws and precepts that made up the law.  Because of that, there was always this constant discussion over which of the laws was most important, and often people would be concerned more about a tiny little precept than about the whole big picture that God was trying to accomplish.

This is the attitude Jesus came to address with the Gospel.  He wanted the people to get it right.  He wanted them to have concern for people more than for semantics in the law.  He wanted them to love as God loves, because if we do that, we’ll be keeping the law anyway.  But people didn’t always accept that teaching. If they did, Jesus wouldn’t have had to go to the Cross, and there would have been no need to preach the Gospel.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a major correction.  There was a law of purifying vessels before festivals, which is not unlike the way the priest washes his hands before the Eucharistic Prayer or the way that the vessels for Mass are purified after Communion.  But somewhere along the way, the precept got mangled, and everyone was bound to scrupulously wash themselves and every vessel they owned before a feast.  And Jesus chastises them for having more concern about a human tradition than about the real intent of the law.

The real intent of the law was obviously something way more important, way more personal.  The real intent of that purification was the purification of our hearts.  Jesus gives a rather horrifying list of sins at the end of the Gospel reading and notes that these are the things that defile; not some dirt on the outside of a cup or hands that had not been scrupulously cleaned.  If we want to really purify ourselves for the festival, which is to say the Eucharist, then we have to be cleansed of our sins.  That’s why we have the Sacrament of Penance, right?

James, in the second reading, picks up on the theme.  If we really want to be thought to be wise in regard to keeping the law, then we have to keep ourselves unstained by the world, which would be the same thing as Jesus was saying, but also to care for those in need, with which Jesus would certainly not disagree!  Indeed, that’s what was really at stake in the Gospel reading: people were more concerned about the minutiae of the Law than they were for securing justice for all God’s people.

The thing is, we are hearers of the Word.  We have experienced the love of our Lord in so many ways.  Everything that we have is a gift to us.  We have to be wise in regard to all that, and to be certain that we keep the whole of the law.  Not just those little minutiae, but the very spirit of the law, the law of love which binds all disciples and all people of good will.  Because when we lose sight of that, the whole Church can go off the rails.  And we have certainly seen the rotten fruit of that in these past weeks, haven’t we?

So our reflection in these days has to be on where and how we need to realign ourselves with the Law of love and resolve to live it more faithfully. Because, as the Psalmist says today, it is they who do justice who will live in the presence of the Lord. And that’s just where we all want to be.