Jul 8, 2017

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The "little ones."

(James Tissot)

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened . . . "

Zech 9: 9-10
Rm 8: 9, 10-11, 13-14
Mt 11: 25-30

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

When I first heard that statement I was deeply struck by how bold it was.  After a long period of prayer, reflection, stories and teaching, those already baptized in another Christian faith now express their desire and willingness to embrace Catholic Christianity.  Unlike the non-baptized, these folks have no need for another baptism.  They have already expressed their faith in Jesus Christ and are familiar with a Christian tradition – more or less. 

Yet, they have come to examine more fully their call to embrace Catholicism and now are ready to express publically their new belief.  The statement above is what they publically declare and then are formally received into the Church, Confirmed and receive the Holy Eucharist. We joyfully celebrate that event, along with the newly baptized, every year at the Easter Vigil.  Yet, what is “bold” about that statement are the words: “. . . ALL that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God” ALL of it?  Well, I’m not sure what the word “all” means other than everything. I find that not only beautiful but greatly challenging, particularly in light of our present day. 

How many Catholics, baptized from infancy and raised in the faith, believe ALL the Church teaches? That can be answered only by each individual.  The Creed we profess on Sunday is one thing but how that teaching is applied and explained is another for many.  Yet, with the newly professed we too are asked to make that same statement as we live out our faith with all of its beauty and radical call for conversion - "love your enemies, forgive those who do you wrong, turn the other cheek, the last will come first and the first will come last" is among the most daring of Jesus' teaching.  

In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus prays in gratitude for those who have embraced his teaching and been consistent as his followers.  It strikes as a kind of come away and rest invitation from our Lord.  A kind of let’s take a “time out” and relax together.

In ear shot of his disciples he prays to his Father in heaven: “. . . for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have reveled them to little ones . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”   Who are the “little ones” – children? Certainly Jesus showed tenderness toward children but more so consider the crowds who truly hung on his word, witnessed his miracles and came to him for healing as they expressed their faith in him – those on the borders, the “sinners,” the outcast, the rejected, the simple folks of the country side, those without any influence on society, the poor and forgotten.

The words of Jesus are more understandable in light of where Matthew places them in his Gospel.  The passage we hear this Sunday comes at the end of Jesus’ own rejection experience.  He strongly rebukes the cities around the Galilee region which rejected him. Although they had witnessed his great wonders, they rejected his teaching.  Even his own home town of Nazareth called him to task and drove him out of the town.  As a human being, despite his equal divine nature, Jesus must have felt the pain of rejection and personal judgement. 

We also know that the “learned and clever,” the leaders of the Jewish faith as Pharisees and others, were hostile and resistant to him due to their stubborn and closed minds.  So, where does he go and to whom does he preach the good news with success? To the “little ones” who perhaps at first with some surprise on Jesus’ part, received him with great hope and gratitude.  To those who were learned in so much more, their minds and hearts were fixed on narrow things. 

So, this brings us back to the original statement about embracing “all” that the Church teaches. If those who accepted Jesus’ teaching and responded with faith were among the lowly and simple what might this say about our own attitude?  In the case of our newly accepted in the faith, it is a moment of joy but also a time to continue the journey.  To “believe and profess” all the Church teaches is to embrace Christ and his Church in spite of our full lack of understanding.  Christianity is not a test we pass or fail but a call to conversion and a new way of life. 

Paul in our second reading from Romans reminds us that we are in the spirit and that we must live not by the flesh (material world only) but by the Spirit that we have received from God in baptism and beyond.  That means that we open our hearts to a new reality, a new vision about who we are and who God is. We see life somewhat differently than purely secular values which basically expel God from its teaching and strongly present a clear morality based in what’s good for me rather than what is good for the whole.  I can be the sole determiner of my personal morality; there is no objective truth but rather each person determines according to their own vision, what is true for them: subjective morality.

That being said, rather than reject the teaching of the Church, we are invited to embrace it and question our own limitation and lack of understanding.  Why does the Church, for example, teach that artificial birth control is wrong?  Why does it so strongly speak out against a woman’s “right” to seek an abortion?  What about marriage?  Why does it clearly reject what our society has embraced and redefined in light of present day experience that a “marriage” is defined as between two loving persons regardless of gender? 

This is the “all” that many find controversial. We don’t so much concern ourselves today with the two natures of Jesus Christ which so bound Christianity for its early centuries but it is the social things, those human experiences that our Church so radically touches and that a good number have either out right rejected it or not very enthusiastically embraced it at best.   

What the Church proposes to us is not the freedom to reject simply through disagreement which leaves us in ignorance but rather to explore, question, pray over, and seek understanding.  While I may not agree with the Church’s teaching on this or that issue yet I have not closed my mind to its’ truth. 

Why does the Church teach this?  I am willing to learn more and to seek to understand what I recognize as my own lack of understanding.  Why does the Church teach that true sacramental marriage is only possible between a man and woman?  Why does the Church clearly state that only a male can be ordained as a Catholic priest? 

If I can come to a point where I am willing to even accept what I don’t fully understand but am always open to more, to live by the Spirit of God who is the ultimate teacher of the faith in and through the Church, then my walk with the Lord is graced. Along the spectrum of understanding we also must know that to live with some mystery and walk the way of faith. The gradual acceptance of certain teachings and the willingness to not close off the possibility of grace is how we may accept “all” the Church proposes.    

There is a reason why our Lord reminded us that we must be like a child to understand the mysteries of God.  My academic degrees and skills and professional expertise all have great value of course.  And we should use them for the common good of all. 

But, if my learning becomes a road block or a substitute for the things of my faith then maybe something is out of balance.  While science demands verifiable facts to discover what is true the ways of our faith call us to trust and the higher road of mercy, love, and self-denial. So, if we find we are resistant to the Gospel and the way in which the teachings of our Lord have been applied in our present day maybe it’s time for some self-examination rather than the defiance of rejection or a general indifference to the Church or even a more watered down Gospel absent of wonder and awe.   

We have role models that can teach us much about the core of the Gospel message: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Calcutta come to mind.  Here are two radical Christians centuries apart but in the same spirit of the Gospel.  Mother Teresa and her present day Sisters who reach out without distinction to the suffering and rejected.  Francis whose radical life-style of simplicity and love may question our own sense of what we think will change society for the better.  It shows us, I think, that what will really change the world is love, compassion, mercy all after the example of Christ himself.  If we can take our knowledge and skill acquired through learning and important resources and apply that with the human spiritual force of God’s love, then I think we may indeed have an unbeatable team.

God in his Son has given us much; a treasure that we may not completely understand but even the most brilliant scientists live with a sense of mystery as they explore how things are.  Our Eucharist is likely the most mysterious of all our Sacraments yet we know by faith, and have most likely witnessed, the power it gives us to unite with Christ our head.

Sometimes we must just follow the lead of our Lord and his Church and trust that all will be well. “My yoke is easy, and my burden light.”   

Prayer for the Church 

We thank you, our Father, 
for the life and knowledge
which you have reveled to us
through Jesus your Child.
glory be your through all ages!

Just as the bread broken 
was first scattered on the hills,
then was gathered and became one,
so let your church be gathered
from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, 
for your is glory and power through all ages.

- Didache (1st-2nd Century)