29 January 2012

Him You Will Hear

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does it mean to have authority? To speak with authority?

"Authority" is a loaded word in today's world. We don't like to recognize or submit to authority. Typically we see the authority of others as a threat to our own freedom. Over and above this general human tendency, as Americans we tend to look critically toward authority—with apologies to Lord Acton, "authority corrupts, and absolute authority corrupts absolutely".

So that kind of authority isn't always positive. But there's another kind we recognize—the kind that comes from within. It's the authority of someone who speaks with conviction, from experience. We are much more willing to submit to this kind of authority. We get a sense of a person's access to truth, of having "been around" and gaining perspective through the school of hard knocks. We encounter this all the time, especially in those who have authority on account of what they've suffered—war veterans, mothers against drunk driving, cancer survivors, recovering addicts, what have you.

I think there's still a third sort--the authority that comes with being given a mission, of being grasped by something (or Someone) and responding with everything we have. A young woman by the name of Maria accompanied the Kansas delegation to the March for Life and spoke to us of her experience in sidewalk counseling with women in front of abortion clinics. She was a young, intelligent, articulate, attractive personality that clearly had some success in convincing women that it was not in their best interest to abort their own child. Her presentation was engaging and convincing. You might get the impression that she had come up with this idea on her own--saying to herself: here I am, a good listener, compassionate, generous, and convicted about this particular issue. I know, I'll become a sidewalk counselor!

Yet the reality is quite different--as I spoke with her afterwards, it became clear that this was most definitely not something she dreamed up for herself. Quite the contrary--she would be physically ill in the days and hours leading up to the morning on the sidewalk. These women, these unwanted babies, aren't her problems; but she makes them her own out of love for Christ. She spoke with an unassuming authority that was extremely compelling.

So, in what sense did the Gospel writer want us to understand Jesus' authority?

In the first place, we have to acknowledge Jesus' authority went far beyond a simple authoritative tone of voice, or speaking convincingly. He backed up his words with signs and wonders—in a sense, no one would've taken him seriously otherwise, given that he was subtly claiming divinity. For the way in which Jesus "spoke with authority" here meant not quoting a respected scholar of the law or referencing a venerable tradition of interpretation, but making himself the source of truth. 

As we well know, this was more than startling—he was, in a very real sense, claiming to be God in terms his contemporaries would have understood unambiguously. "You have heard it said…. but I say …" A good Jew would never speak in that way—it would be blasphemous to point to anyone other than God as the source of truth, yet Jesus claims this very thing!

It had to be more than just a subjective kind of authority. In fact, Jesus is the one promised by Moses in our first reading, a prophet chosen from "among the people", one that they will listen to.

You may have noticed in the reading that the prophet is promised because the people cannot endure the direct experience of God's self revelation on Mount Horeb. God appoints someone to speak on his behalf, so that the people are not overwhelmed by the "great fire" of God's glory. (What a great poetic way to refer to God--a "great fire"!) In the Bible, the result of seeing God face to face is death. The appointed "interpreter" is precisely what is meant by the biblical term "prophet": not so much someone who predicts the future (though it may involve this), but a mediator, someone who is able to endure direct communication with the Most High.

We need a mediator, not because we are deaf, but because the rawness of God's presence would annihilate us. Think of prophecy, of mediation, as something like the earth's atmosphere. The sun illuminates and warms our planet, but it also emits enormous quantities of radiation extremely hostile to organic molecular structures. Direct exposure to the sun's rays would lead to the rapid annihilation of most every living thing on earth. Yet the atmosphere (the ozone layer, etc.) absorbs that radiation while letting the light and heat through. So it is with prophetic mediation.

It was God's plan to ensure that through Christ's mission, that mediation would continue even after his ascension. He gave his own authority to his apostles, on whom he founded his Church. The voice that rebukes the demon and forgives sins had one single message to deliver: love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself; the promise of resurrection and eternal life is contained therein.

It is a commandment that is infinitely simple, but as anyone who has tried to live it out knows, it is also infinitely difficult. Yet it is not only possible for cloistered nuns and monks taking a vow of silence but in the everydayness of our mundane lives. So St. Paul points out in our second reading—not dismissing the married vocation as a distraction from serving God, but pointing out how some worldly people go about their lives seeking to please everyone but God. He says clearly: Each of us has a gift from God, by which we are able to serve him undividedly, with a whole heart, with integrity.

The Church preserves that message and speaks in Christ's name, calling the world from darkness into the light of love of God and neighbor. We ignore that voice at our own peril—picking and choosing what to believe and what to obey of what the Church proposes for a Christian life. We are called not to blind, irrational submission, but a trusting discipleship in which not only our minds but our hearts are active and engaged.

The Father's voice resounded above Mount Tabor at Jesus' transfiguration: this is my beloved Son, listen to him. Many listened, and obeyed; and followed him to the Cross. Many others found his teaching difficult and went their own way.

Christ says to us: this is my beloved Church, my bride: listen to her.

Lord, may we not be deaf to your voice!

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