Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Goodness of Life: The 13th Sunday of OT

The readings for this Sunday focus on the theme of death, and God’s power over it.  They discuss God’s relationship with, and intentions for, the natural world: topics that resonate with Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si. 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. But 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.

This reminds us of a glowing passage from Pope Francis’ encyclical:

§ 77  “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made" (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God's love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it" (Wis 11:24). Every creature is thus the object of the Father's tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure," while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars." Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy."

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. (see here for a quick summary of this argument). On both a natural and supernatural level, God designed creation for life.  I point these facts out in my book, Yes! There is a God!, as part of the opening argument that the cosmos points clearly to a creator.

It is very important for Catholics to be educated on these topics, and I recommend a series of videos: The Privileged Planet and The Mystery of Life.
2.  The Second Reading continues from 2 Corinthians (2 Cor 8:7,9,13-15):

Brothers and sisters:
As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse,
knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you,
may you excel in this gracious act also.

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Not that others should have relief while you are burdened,
but that as a matter of equality
your abundance at the present time should supply their needs,
so that their abundance may also supply your needs,
that there may be equality.
As it is written:
Whoever had much did not have more,
and whoever had little did not have less.

We can see a deep connection with this passage and the First Reading.  The Book of Wisdom asserted the goodness of creation, and that each creature was good.  And we see how that has been confirmed in the study of ecology, as we have perceived that there exists a healthy balance of an entire ecosystem in which each creature plays its part for the whole to flourish.

There is an analogy between the natural order and the supernatural order of the Church.  The Church participates in the renewal of creation.  It consists in humans who, through Christ, have entered into the New Creation.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a New Creation!” St. Paul will say in 2 Cor 5:17.  So within the Church, the principle of cooperation and balance between living beings discovered by the science of ecology should find supernatural expression.  Christians should support one another: those with abundance share with those who lack, that everyone’s needs should be supplied.  This requires generosity and detachment from those who have abundance, that the Church will become a kind of flourishing “ecosystem.”

When the Church does not show this concern for equality, she risks provoking demonically-inspired efforts to grasp that equality by force.  Marxism, in my opinion, was and is a movement that resembles a secularized Christian social ethics, a sort of “un-Church” that, in the name of nothing, seizes wealth and redistributes to the poor.  Or at least purports to.  The Godlessness of Marxism proved (and proves) to be its undoing, as its disregard for human dignity and liberty become more oppressive than the conditions of poverty it attempted to address.  But in some parts of the world, Marxism took (or takes) root because Christians have failed to model generosity and implement means to help the impoverished.

The Church cannot heal the world when she herself is sick.  So the first goal of the Church is to care for her own members, and model a society of voluntary equality and generosity within parishes, dioceses, and internationally.  Then the Church can be a model of human solidarity to the world.  In fact, she has succeeded in doing so in many ways: much of modern international aid efforts are inspired by Christian principles.

§82. Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26).—Pope Francis, Laudato Si

3.  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”).  Many languages preserve the connection between the nursing profession and women’s religious life: in German, a nurse is a “Krankenschwester,” a “sick-sister”or “sister for the sick.”  This Sunday may present the homilist with the opportunity to say something about the Church’s contribution and role in health care, which is constantly being threatened by so-called "progressive" initiatives (which are really regressive) that try to impose abortion, embryonic manipulation, and "euthanasia" (the killing off of the elderly) on all health care providers.

§136. It is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit.  —Pope Francis, Laudato Si

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.

As good as the material creation is, it still remains penultimate.  Due to sin, 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!”  Far from making our temporal lives unimportant, it is only this hope in eternal life that breathes joy and meaning into our daily lives, since we know our temporal actions can have implications for eternity.

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