Saturday, June 30, 2012

God, Death, and Life: The Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings for this Sunday focus on the theme of death, and God’s power over it.  The first reading poses some issues that have to be discussed:

Reading 1 Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

The modern person, of course, will immediately object that natural history seems to indicate that death was always a part of nature.  Plus, there are poisonous plants and animals, and isn’t nature “red in tooth and claw,” etc. 

First of all, death is not a “thing,” it is a privation, a lack, an absence of life.  So God did not “make” it, because it does not have existence.

Second, although its true that there are carnivorous creatures, etc. in nature, the concept of “nature red in tooth and claw” is overblown.  Modern study of ecology has impressed upon us the truth that an entire ecosystem is a living thing, and marvelously balanced to promote life and vitality.  So in previous generations we looked upon wolves, for example, as “unwholesome” and shot them nearly to extinction, now we realize that wolves were an important part of the vitality of the entire ecosystem, and we make great efforts to nurture their numbers and reintroduce them to wilderness areas.  So in a profound sense, modern ecology has supported the ancient wisdom of the Old Testament: properly understood, every creature is “wholesome” and has its proper place in the ecosystem.

Of course, the Sunday homily is not the place for lectures on ecology.  But the point is theological: the natural world is marvelously designed for life.  Cosmologists, in fact, talk about the “anthropic priniciple”: the incredible balance of the mathematical values of the natural constants which seem contrived specifically to permit human life to exist and flourish.  On both a natural and supernatural level, God designed creation for life.
The Gospel Reading shows our Lord restoring physical life and health to two women.

Gospel Mk 5:21-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat
to the other side,
a large crowd gathered around him, and he stayed close to the sea.
One of the synagogue officials, named Jairus, came forward.
Seeing him he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, saying,
"My daughter is at the point of death.
Please, come lay your hands on her
that she may get well and live."
He went off with him,
and a large crowd followed him and pressed upon him.

There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years.
She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors
and had spent all that she had.
Yet she was not helped but only grew worse.
She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd
and touched his cloak.
She said, "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured."
Immediately her flow of blood dried up.
She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.
Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him,
turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who has touched my clothes?"
But his disciples said to Jesus,
"You see how the crowd is pressing upon you,
and yet you ask, 'Who touched me?'"
And he looked around to see who had done it.
The woman, realizing what had happened to her,
approached in fear and trembling.
She fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth.
He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has saved you.
Go in peace and be cured of your affliction."

While he was still speaking,
people from the synagogue official's house arrived and said,
"Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?"
Disregarding the message that was reported,
Jesus said to the synagogue official,
"Do not be afraid; just have faith."
He did not allow anyone to accompany him inside
except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.
When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official,
he caught sight of a commotion,
people weeping and wailing loudly.
So he went in and said to them,
"Why this commotion and weeping?
The child is not dead but asleep."
And they ridiculed him.
Then he put them all out.
He took along the child's father and mother
and those who were with him
and entered the room where the child was.
He took the child by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum,"
which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"
The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.
At that they were utterly astounded.
He gave strict orders that no one should know this
and said that she should be given something to eat.

Our Lord’s concern for the healing and physical life have been reflected in the Church’s involvement in what we now call “health care.”  To my shame, it wasn’t until I was in my doctoral program in Scripture at the University of Notre Dame that I discovered the “hospital”—a concept I always took for granted—was a Catholic invention, and that traditional nurses outfits were actually derived from the habits worn by women religious (i.e. “nuns”).  This Sunday may present the homilist with the opportunity to say something about the Church’s contribution and role in health care, a subject which is of rather acute concern, since recent government legislation poses the risk of forcing the Church out of all public health care provision, by forcing Church agencies to be involved in killing (i.e. abortion) as the price to be involved in healing.  No irony there!

Be that as it may, our Gospel today stresses that Our Lord came “that we may have life, and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10).  As good as physical life is, we also have to remember that it is only a relative, not ultimate good:

Luke 12:4   “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.

Luke 9:24 For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.

So even as we celebrate today Our Lord’s concern with life and our physical healing, at the same time we remember the martyrs Peter and Paul from the Solemnity this Friday, who lost their physical lives to gain eternal life.

Ultimately, we are all going to die physically.  The promise of the Gospel is that, for those who die united to Christ, we will awake to find our hand in his and hear his voice, “My child, I tell you, arise!”


Nick said...

This article is a great tie in with What is the Secret to Understanding Scripture?

John Bergsma said...

Yes, that's a great reflection by Msgr. Pope.

De Maria said...

Msgr. Pope? What a great name.

Like many, I have struggled with what it means that Adam brought death into the world.

I was not aware of this passage in Wisdom, but I had come to the conclusion that "death", Biblically speaking, is more about "spiritual death" caused by "mortal" sin, than about the physical dying of the body. We see this explicitly stated, I believe, in the term "death is the wage of sin". Because, the body does not immediately die upon committing sin. But the spirit or soul does become estranged from God.

Although, when it comes to human beings, spiritual and bodily death, I believe are tied together in the Original Sin.


De Maria

De Maria said...

I forgot to mention another point. I believe it was Scott Hahn who said it in one of his books. And if I remember, he was quoting the Catechism. Anyway, when I read his words, it brought so much clarity to my understanding of the Sacraments. He said that when we present ourselves for the Sacraments, we are doing the same thing as all the people in the Gospel who would seek Jesus out in order that He might heal them. I had never seen the Sacraments in that light before.


De Maria