3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached January 26, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
I am not impressed by computers and smart phones. Though they can serve as instruments for the communication of human knowledge, they are dumb and lifeless, they easily become idols, and they seem to do more harm than good to human beings.
I am not impressed by any of the modern forms of communication. Even if they allow us to get a message to someone on the opposite side of the world in an instant, they do not give us anything worthwhile communicating.
I am not impressed by airplanes and automobiles. They enable us to move faster, but they don’t provide us with any place worth going; further the need to go faster, is not made necessary by any true human good, but arises more from the very world these modern means have produced. In other words, they make us an impatient people in a hurry to go nowhere fast.
As for cameras and video devices they do not accurately show things as they are or were. They are only as good as the human eye that uses them. Only a human mind can judge how to use them rightly.
When we come to modern medical science it is indeed quite amazing the ability to cure diseases and perform surgeries that repair horrific injuries, but all of that scarcely reaches past the human body, which it tends to reduce to the status of a sophisticated machine. Meanwhile, the same science and technology that is capable of serving life, is just as readily placed at the service of death.
In a word all the marvels of modern science and technology build up an artificial world outside of man, an artificial world upon which we have become ever more dependent, but they do nothing to build up the human soul.
In the midst of the lifeless idols we have fashioned for ourselves, our own lives have become empty and vacuous. None of that is very impressive; instead it is rather depressing.
Do you want to know something truly impressive; we heard about it in today’s 1st reading. About 2,500 years ago – in an age that the pride of modernity would regard as backward and primitive – the priest Ezra read from the book of the law of the Lord from daybreak to midday and all the people, men, women, and children old enough to understand, stood and listened attentively. Who is capable of doing that today?
In the 19th century the capacity to listen and pay attention was still there.
In 1858 during the Illinois senatorial campaign, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a famous series of debates. Crowds came from all around to listen to them. What was the format of these debates? The first speaker would speak for 60 minutes. The other would then have 90 minutes to give a rebuttal. The first speaker was then allowed 30 minutes to wrap things up. Large crowds stood outside listening attentively to about three hours of continuous speech. The written record of those speeches makes for worthwhile reading even today.
Those crowds were not listening to the word of God – though both Lincoln and Douglas freely made reference to the word of God to an audience that was at least outwardly familiar with that word – they were not listening to the word of God, but at least they had the strength of soul that gave them the capacity to pay attention and listen.
If you study ancient languages you will discover that their words were full of meaning, while today our words are practically empty of meaning. That makes translation difficult because we need many more words to say the same thing and we still are unable to capture the fullness of meaning.
Even in the 19th and 20th centuries speakers and writers were able to craft lengthy, and complex sentences that united a multitude of elements into a single coherent thought.
Since then our decline has been rapid and accelerating.
Today we are scarcely capable of expressing ourselves at any higher level than “See Spot run.”
Today people are scarcely capable of thinking in anything but slogans; they have no patience for sustained and carefully reasoned argument. The human mind has been shut down, replaced by machines, while the human heart has been reduced to mere emotion and sentimentality.
But let us return now to the scene from today’s 1st reading: the whole people listening attentively to the word of God. Jesus says, Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word the proceeds from the mouth of God. (Mt 4:4)
If we consider well that ancient assembly in Jerusalem, then we say that the highest and truest education is the education that prepares a person truly to hear and to respond to the word of God. When we hear and respond to God’s word, the interior universe of the soul is built up, God himself forms us as persons, he instructs us as his children.
The word of God, however, does not come to us by way of some pure interior voice, but it comes to us from without by means of ordinary human words. That means that in order to hear the word of God we must learn to hear and read human speech; we must be truly literate.
Nevertheless, the word of God is not just human speech, it is indeed the word of God that can only be heard as such through faith and prayer. The word of God instructs us in the right way to live in order that we might draw near to and be united with God himself. The more we live in fidelity to God’s word, like the wise man who builds his house on rock, the better we will be able to understand his word. Understanding grows with practice.
Even more, all the words of Scripture and Tradition are surpassed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom all the words of God are fulfilled. He is the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Word that was God, the Word through whom all things were made. All other words, human and divine, are well spoken when they lead us back to the eternal Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who makes God himself known to us.
In order to make God known the eternal Word took flesh of the Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, was crucified in Jerusalem, rose again from the dead, and ascended to the glory of his Father’s right hand.
Though he has ascended into heaven he has not left us orphans, but he has entrusted himself into our power by his very words: This is my Body; This is the chalice of my Blood. These words are fulfilled in our hearing at every Mass.
I should mention something about how we actually hear these words at Mass.
50 to 60 years ago they were not heard, because the priest recited the eucharistic prayer in a bare whisper and in Latin. When Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular and facing the people a certain distortion resulted.
The introductory words take this all of you and eat of it … take this all of you and drink from it, leapt out of context and sounded as if they were spoken directly to the people by the priest. In truth, the congregation is overhearing, as it were, the conversion between the priest and God, the Father.
Before the words from the Last Supper, the priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. We could imagine God responding, “Why should I do that?” To which the priest answers something like, “Well, on the night he was betrayed, this is what your Son did, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying…”
In other words, in the context of the whole prayer addressed to God, the Father, the words of consecration, “Take and eat, this is my Body… Take and drink, this is the chalice of my Blood”, are addressed to the Father as the reason why he should send the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This reason always persuades God.
The congregation is now given the privilege of overhearing that conversation as the Apostles, at the Last Supper were given the privilege of overhearing what is called Jesus’ own high priestly prayer, in which he prayed both for the Apostles themselves, their successors, and those who would believe in him through their word. (Jn 17) He prayed, finally, That where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (Jn 17:24)
From the beginning, the prayer of Jesus and the prayer of the Mass has been both hierarchical and sacrificial.
So finally, the highest response to the word of God in this life consists in the worthy participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the reception of holy communion as the fruit of that sacrifice.
The Word of God made flesh, the Bread of life, is what truly builds up the soul and forms the human person in the life of Christ, the fullness of life, life that does not die, life eternal.