HOPE: JOY BEHIND AND BEYOND TEARS
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection on the Liturgy
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
January 24, 2010
“Preaching as an act of interpretation is in our time demanding, daring and dangerous.”
A curious detail catches our attention as we reflect on the first reading. The people of Israel were then fresh from their bitter exile in Babylon. Ezra leads the whole community (take note: “men, women, and those children old enough to understand”). One would reasonably expect people to be in a celebrative mood given the fact that the Lord made good His promise to deliver them from their Babylonian oppressors. But “the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law,” the passage from Nehemiah tells us!
Weeping and tears are two things our culture would rather not see in others nor show to others. Ordinarily, people feel uneasy seeing others cry. People feel odd to be seen crying in public. The feeling of sadness, like our religious faith, is considered something deeply personal, utterly private, and ought not to be allowed to surface. Just look at the way funerals are held in the Western world. In place of legitimate grief we see a lot of somber, hushed and eerily quiet formality characterized by clockwork efficiency and cold professionalism. The business of funeral services has taken over the whole culture of death and dying – and the inevitable process of “dispatching” people to their so-called “resting places.” The semblance of unfailing professionalism and utmost efficiency have covered up for what ought to have been most important – helping people in the process of grieving and helping them come to grips with the loss, and make sense of it all.
The Israelites today are shown to be “weeping as they heard the words of the law.”
Whilst I am not sure as to what explains the tears and the people’s emotional outpouring, whether it comes from guilt or remorse after being convicted by the word of the Lord, or whether it springs from joy at the realization that they have been greatly favored by the same Lord with the gift of deliverance, I am sure of one thing. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were unanimous in telling the weeping assembly: “Today is holy to the Lord, your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep […] rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.”
It is easy for the reader to see in this the language of “denial.” It is easy to go to the conclusion that “weeping” per se ought not to be part of the Israelites’ – and our – lives.
But the words preceding the exhortation “do not be sad and do not weep,” actually proves that shallow interpretation wrong. Ezra and Nehemiah were not telling people to deny their tears. No, they were actually telling them to “make sense of their tears,” to look beyond their tears, and put their tears or their sadness in the right perspective. “Today is holy to the Lord your God.”
Ezra and Nehemiah, being the Godly people that they were, were actually leading their people to “reframe” their current experience. They were leading them to see whatever it was that led them to tears, to see things from the viewpoint of their spirituality, of their faith, their conviction that their God was a God of fidelity, a God of righteousness, a God of overflowing mercy.
Ezra and Nehemiah, among other things, were challenging the people’s “hopeful imagination.”
It was very easy to lose such an attitude of hope given the fact that they were no longer exiles. A lot of complacency could easily set in when one’s object of longing is firmly set in place. A life of comfort and relative material wealth; a culture of instant gratification on all fronts; a society that fosters the belief and the corresponding attitude that everything is attainable and within reach … all this cancels out the need for a “hopeful imagination.” One does not need to hope. All one needs to do is to “pull the right strings,” make use of that “can-do” attitude and go out there and grab for oneself, and be number 1. Self-reliance and a great deal of self-confidence can make one go a long way.
Indeed, they can, and they do. The current craze now, “Reality TV” is what this “can-do” attitude is all about. They can make one go places. They can make one go beyond the “fear factor,” be a “survivor” on one’s own, and aim for that tantalizing 1 million dollars … that is, until reality sets in at some time or other. When the dust has settled; when the seemingly inexhaustible power of youth, beauty and brilliance has subsided, the reality behind what Karl Rahner wrote strikes us with piercing clarity: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
The “symphony” of Israel’s deliverance from Babylon by no means ended with the benevolent edict of Cyrus in 587 B.C.E. Freedom from foreign oppression definitely did not mean freedom from the sway of God’s law! After Ezra’s reading of the Law, in fact, the Israelites, with “their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen, amen.’” And it was the priests’ and the prophets’ job to keep the people’s hopeful imagination alive, at a time when bitter exile no longer constituted their daily experience.
It now falls on the Church and her ministers to do as Ezra and Nehemiah did. The Word of God speaks to people then, and the same living, unchanging Word speaks to people now. It is not a simple matter of reminding people now “what it meant” to the Israelites. Neither is it a simple matter telling people pointblank “what it means” at this very moment. Interpreting God’s Word is not a simplistic matter of searching for historical “parallels” between “then” and “now” and force-fitting Scripture to the events past and present. That would be to “accommodate” Scripture, and make it serve as a tool to support current ideologies, political or otherwise. No, the Word of God is alive. It speaks to the ancients even as it addresses itself to the men and women of all races, cultures, times, and places of the here and now! It speaks to us now wherever we are, and it speaks about timeless and ageless truths, and is thus always contemporary, current and convicting!
“Preaching as an act of interpretation,” says Brueggemann, “is in our time demanding, daring, and dangerous.” As a priest over the past 27 years, I can vouch for the veracity of Brueggemann’s insight. How often have I been both praised and cursed by people who belong to both extreme sides of two conflicting ideologies! A more socially aware and more enlightened believer would expect to hear a more “socially and politically committed” homily. Someone who identifies with a more “traditional,” more vertically focused type of spirituality that emphasizes the “other-worldly” aspects of a more “privatistic” faith would cry “foul” every time there is mention of politics, whether tangentially or directly.
Incidentally, it has never ceased to make me wonder how certain people identified with the so-called “religious right” rant and rave against abortion but who never do so much as make a grunt when it comes to war and capital punishment! In the same vein, it has never ceased to surprise me how people can be so vociferous about animal rights and yet at the same time be so callous to the deaths of the unborn (humans!). Again, it seems so odd that some parish priests and pastors insist that parishioners obey and respect them, while at the same time, bad-mouthing and disparaging the authority of their bishops, and even of the Holy Father!
We are figuratively out of the Babylonian exile but we are equally enslaved by a whole lot of conflicting political ideologies that have gradually seeped into every single facet of our mainstream culture that encompasses even our lives as Christian believers. Given the so-many conflicting, poorly digested and ill-understood ideologies that have affected even the “theologies” of many pastors and members of the flock alike, people end up being polarized, with many taking refuge in either an “ultra-traditionalist” mode of thinking, or to an “ultra-liberal” way of looking at things. The traditionalist behaves and believes in a more “rigid” cut-and-dried manner. The liberalist sees everything as tentative, as fluid and, therefore, not to be taken seriously.
In this “Babylonian exile” of our theological and pastoral confusion, the Word of God – that is, what it meant and what it means - has been made to take a back seat. Both the rightists and the leftists tend to make use of it as a tool or even a weapon to drive home its own brand of truth. In the process, something that is basically living has been treated as a dead document that serves an inanimate ideology instead of being at the service of a living faith community. That is essentially what fundamentalism is all about. Fundamentalism is all about extremes. It is all about being either black or white, with no shades of gray in between. It is all about being categorical and cock-sure about most everything in this world. Just look at the “religious terrorists” in our midst! What is more “religious” than killing yourself and others (the more the merrier) and being sure of going to heaven? What is more “religious” than killing in God’s name and being proclaimed a martyr after the gruesome deed?
God’s people, as a whole, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or belonging to any other religious affiliation is “weeping by the rivers” not of Babylon, but by the rivers of division, uncertainty, polarization, and utter confusion! The tower of Babel has grown even taller in this fractious and fragmented world. Catholics are divided into categories like “religious right” and “religious left” with the greater majority caught up in a culture of poorly understood ritualism and sacramentalism with hardly any commitment to societal, much less, political issues. Morality is reduced to personal ethics, with no bearing at all on religious and social (and definitely not political) ethics. Spirituality is then consequently reduced to “feeling good” with a lot less emphasis put on “doing good.” Just about the only thing they “fear” is “missing Mass” on Sundays which they take part in physically but not “worthily, actively and devoutly.” These are the people who get “scandalized” when preachers relate the Gospel to current political and social issues, branding them as “rebels” and “activists.” By and large, their sole focus is on a “feel good” spirituality with no real connection to the real world of gross social inequality where political power is concentrated in the hands of a few elitist rich.
This is the arena into which the “hopeful imagination” of Ezra, Nehemiah, Paul and Jesus is directed. This is the arena in which we, as God’s people find ourselves in, the very same arena where we ought to “work out our salvation” where we are called to participate in God’s salvific work begun in Jesus Christ.
This cooperation with God has to begin somewhere. Today’s liturgy tells us where. Like the Israelites who “rejoiced in the Lord,” we must find “strength” in His Word, in His law. “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life.” We have to begin in honest-to-goodness discernment of God’s Word, through the teaching mediation of the Church, Christ’s mystical body.
Jesus, we are told today, began His ministry by unrolling the scroll of God’s written Word. Reading Isaiah’s passage, he spoke of “glad tidings, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed” – all in all a “time acceptable to the Lord.” Jesus made it happen. He committed himself to what he read. “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Tears of uncertainty and maybe sadness flow down our faces as we hurdle the challenges of our world in our times, as the massive indescribable human suffering of the people of Haiti shows us these days. But behind and beyond the tears, today, we find quiet but sure strength as we rejoice in the Lord who assures us: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Joy behind and beyond tears … this we can experience here and now in this Eucharistic assembly.