Jan 27, 2012

4th Sunday: Bring people to Christ and Christ to people

"He taught them . . ."

We often acquaint authority with words that are spoken.  If someone in a leadership position speaks with a certain confidence and passion about their topic, we are impressed.  If politics is the “art of persuasion” then we know how important words spoken by politicians can be.  In the legal profession, the meaning of words is essential as one is defending a client or presenting the facts of a case. For myself as priest I know that when I stand in the pulpit and face the congregation, I will be judged on the words I say.  We form an opinion about what we hear. If someone puts words with deeds then we may find that person astonishing.  When the rubber hits the road, as the saying goes, things begin to happen.

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mk 1: 21-28) we hear that in this synagogue scene, “The people were astonished at his (Jesus’) teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes . . .” We could only imagine what it must have been like to sit in the synagogue at that moment and hear Jesus speak, then to be so deeply impressed by his presence as to be “astonished.” The deed became the power of exorcism that he worked just moments after he spoke.  Things began to happen.

Yet, this placed Jesus in a precarious position. Yes, the folks were astounded but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were pleased. Jesus’ authority lay in his own spoken words and that word had power for it was the very word of God.  Others would have more likely taught, “As Moses said . . .” or “As you read in the writings of the prophet . . .” or “As Rabbi Jacob has said . . .” 
As the scribes often did, the quoting of past teachers in the faith would have implied that the one who now interprets the Scripture for you is not speaking solely on his own authority but standing on the tradition of the past or on the teaching authority of those who have gone before him. The quoting of others to support your position places you in a line of past authority that you now respect through the use of their quotes. You then become the messenger in this line of tradition.

However, in the case of Jesus, he took his own stand and spoke in his own divine right.  As he stated in another synagogue scene after reading the passage from Isaiah: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing …” (Lk 4: 21).  In other words, I am the fulfillment of this long awaited hope and these scriptures are now fulfilled in me. Such boldness was unheard of for a teacher in Jesus’ position. Yet, in our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses alludes to, "A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you . . ." We Christians see that promise fulfilled in Christ.
If we fast forward to our own day, this line of authority from Christ continues to be exercised in and through his Church. But, the times have changed to be sure.  Today, the Church exercises its authority essentially as a spiritual and moral force in the world; as an organization that is both ancient and new.  History has proven the power of the Church has not been exercised wisely at times as we may note through the Crusades of the twelfth century. Yet even with that dark history, great saints were raised up through the grace of God such as Francis of Assisi. For many centuries the power of the Church was such that it became not only a spiritual and moral force but also a great contributor to culture of the time.  When the Church spoke people listened and generally followed.

Today, the trend has changed and in many cases it seems the Church no longer has much power to influence the culture of our day. If you feel sometimes like a “voice in the wilderness” in the popular culture, you’re likely right on.
We as Catholics and Christians, then, are caught in a choice.  To be Catholic today is something more deeply personal. If the mission of the Church is essentially to bring people to Christ and Christ to people, then our mission is one of an evangelical witness.  A most recent case in point reveals this all the more.

Our federal government has just issued a most troubling mandate that deals a heavy blow to Catholics and millions more. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that all employers, regardless of Church affiliation or not, will be forced to offer health coverage for their employees that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception.  It has given such religious communities one year to decide how to use this mandate. Bishop David Zubick of Pittsburgh describes it well:
“For our Church this mandate would apply in virtually every instance where the Catholic Church serves as an employer. The mandate would require the Catholic Church as an employer to violate its fundamental beliefs concerning human life and human dignity by forcing Catholic entities to provide contraceptive, sterilization coverage and even pharmaceuticals that result in abortion.

“Practically speaking under the proposed mandate there would be no religious exemption for Catholic hospitals universities, colleges, nursing homes and numerous Catholic social service agencies such as Catholic Charities.  It could easily be determined that the “religious exemption” would not apply as well to Catholic high schools, elementary schools and Catholic parishes since many employ non-Catholics and serve both students and, through social outreach, many who do not share Catholic religious beliefs. Such a narrow “religious exemption” is simply unprecedented in federal law.”
It is time that we as Catholics face the reality of our mission to bring people to Christ and Christ to people as we do not accept such a blatant violation of our cherished Constitutional rights and fundamental human rights of conscience protection.  We are in this instance and there will be others, when every one of us will have to decide what kind of Catholic I want to be. There is much that can be done and I offer some choices here on this Blog. 

The crowds were astonished at the teaching of Jesus because he spoke with authority. We can speak with that same affect if we only are true to what we are called to be. The sending forth at the end of our Eucharist is a wake up call!
Grant us, Lord our God,
that we may honor you with all our mind,
and love everyone in truth of heart.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.  

(Collect for Sunday)