Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Seed of the Word: Reflections on the Readings Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ordinary Time focuses on the growth of the Church.  I would prefer we called it “Extraordinary Time,” because there is nothing ordinary about the Second Person of the Divinity becoming enfleshed in our presence through the Sacrament.

Be that as it may, the Readings for this Lord’s Day are clearly united by the motif of sowing the seed of God’s Word.

The First Reading (Isa 55:10-11) is one of the earliest passages in Scripture where an explicit analogy is drawn between the natural cycles of agriculture and the fertility of God’s Word. 

The Responsorial (Psalm 65) is a hymn of praise to God for the goodness of creation, particularly the seasonal rains which bring abundant food to the people of Israel.  The natural environment envisioned appears to be the hill country of Judea, which surrounds Jerusalem.  The Church’s placement of this text in combination with the other readings clearly encourages the perception of a spiritual sense in this text: ultimately the gift of water from God is the Holy Spirit which waters the seed of the Word in the soil of our hearts, bearing fruit for eternal life.  The Church is the New Jerusalem and its environs, a “fertile land” that responds in grateful fruitfulness to the downpour of the Spirit.

The Second Reading is a striking passage from Romans (8:18-23) whose full implications are usually ignored:

Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

St. Paul asserts that there is a real and not just metaphorical connection between the children of God and the creation itself.  All things in creation tend toward decay, a principle related to the concept of entropy.  In Christ, the child of God has been set free from the inevitability of decay.  Not only do we participate in eternal life, but our bodies themselves will one day be restored and transformed.  St. Paul anticipates that this same principle will at last be applied to the creation itself: “the creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption.”  So the resurrection of the children of God is the first step in the transformation of the cosmos. 

St. Paul’s use of the term “firstfruits of the Spirit” is particularly striking.  The Feast of Firstfruits was part of the ancient Jewish liturgical calendar:

Lev. 23:9   And the LORD said to Moses,  10 “Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest;  11 and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, that you may find acceptance; on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.

The “morrow after the Sabbath” was the day after Saturday, that is, Sunday.  Which Sunday?  The Sunday after Passover.  Therefore, Our Lord rose from the dead on the Feast of Firstfruits, which, as St. Thomas would say, seems fitting.  St. Paul was doubtless aware of this fact, and for his Jewish readers it would add “punch” to his description of believers as “the firstfruits of the Spirit.”

A good co-text to Romans 8:18-23 is John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  The Christian is conformed to the Seed of the Word.  Just as Christ the Word came to earth, and was planted in the ground through death, but rose as firstfruits on the third day, so the Christian, too, will finally be “planted” but will rise again.  This applies also in a spiritual sense to our daily lives as Christians, which involve countless contradictions, frustrations, humiliations, sufferings, and even persecutions—some at the hands of fellow members of the visible church.  All these little “deaths” we must accept in order to become the soil that brings forth “thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.”

Finally, the Gospel is the Parable of the Sower:

“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

We know this parable and its interpretation very well, so only a few comments are in order. 

First, observe that, while we cannot apply strict mathematical percentages to this parable, it does clearly suggest that only a minority of those who receive the Word are going to become fruitful through it.  This is an important reminder in our efforts at evangelism and apostolic work.  Sometimes the problem is not with our presentation or technique—there are simply those who do not want to receive the word for whatever reason. 

I had a friend in seminary who was convinced that when his Christian rock band achieved the right “sound,” they would convert his whole generation. 

It doesn’t work like that.  We can and should seek effective means of outreach, but there is not some “trick” that is going to cause a majority of our contemporaries to receive the Gospel.  Our Lord was able to perform miracles in plain sight to confirm his preaching, and still did not convert the majority of his contemporary Israelites.

This is not an excuse for laxity in outreach—which is a major problem in the American Catholic Church.  However, it is a reminder to keep our expectations realistic.  Laboring in the fields of the Lord is a lot like actual farming, which does not have many shortcuts and requires a lot of continual hard work.

The majority of those of us in the pews this Sunday do not need to worry about being the “seed on the path” or the “seed on the shallow soil.”  If we were that kind of seed, we probably wouldn’t still be coming to Mass to hear this Gospel proclaimed.

No, the majority of us need to watch out for the third soil: “Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.”

This is where so many church-goers end up.  It is not that they “die”—if you look at Jesus’ explanation, the seed among thorns does not die, it just becomes “unfruitful.”  In the same way, so many of us show up for worship each week, but in our private lives are living a cleaned-up version of the same rat race the rest of the culture has bought into.  We want our ranch-style in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and a two stall garage just like the Jones, except we vote pro-life.  Where is the personal apostolate?  Are we doing anything to bring others to eternal life?  Where is evidence that we are living this life with the Next Life in view?


Matthew Kennel said...

Challenging reflections, Dr. B!

I think these passages bring out nicely an interpretive idea I've been thinking about lately: the idea of that the allegorical sense of the Old Testament can be a connection between the literal and anagogical senses of the OT promises.

For example, take Psalm 65 from today's reading. The literal sense has to do with the fruitfulness of the land as a covenant blessing to Israel. The allegorical sense of Ps. 65, as you point out, has to do with the fruitfulness of God's word through the Holy Spirit in Baptism. But I think that this is a connection, also, to the anagogical sense.

In this case, I think that the anagogical sense of Psalm 65 has to do not only with the working of the Spirit in our hearts working out to our own eternal life, but with the actual renewal and blessing of all of creation through that act of God. After all, it is the same God of New Creation (I would even argue the same act of New Creation) which renews both our hearts, our bodies, and the entire cosmos!

So, I think that the original covenant promises relating to the land, old age, seeing children's children, etc., weren't merely there because the people hadn't been raised up yet to the spiritual sublimity of the New Covenant, but also because they reflect (in at least a transitory way) the blessings of the New Heavens and New Earth in which death will be undone and the terrible curse of Gen. 3 erased!

John Bergsma said...

Amen, Matt. Preach, brother!