Sunday, August 26, 2012


As predictably happens every three years with this Sunday's second reading, one of our readers at Mass today asked with great trepidation whether we'd be using the long form or the short.  When I told him we'd be using the long one, he pointed out that today just happened to be Women's Equality Day, and he found this all a bit ironic.  I pointed out that, when we actually take the time to understand it on its own terms, Saint Paul's message to the Ephesians is a far more radical call for real equality than this world has heard in a very long time...

   Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

It’s great having a newly ordained priest around, isn’t it?
Not only am I impressed and inspired
by Fr. Tom’s great eagerness and energy,
but I keep learning new things from him.
In fact, Fr. Tom just shared with me that this Sunday
has been given a new name of which I had previously not been aware:
“Bruised Rib Sunday.”
It arises from today’s second reading…
…and all the elbow jabs that start flying
between husbands and wives in their pews!

Such a strong reaction to a difficult teaching is nothing new.
Just look at the gospel.
After Jesus’ declared that his flesh is true food
and his blood true drink,
some of his disciples—
not newcomers or casual listeners,
but those who’d followed him for some time—
are heard to ask, This saying is hard; who can accept it?
And as a result, many no longer walked with him.

In general, when you’re wrestling with a difficult question,
it’s best to consult with the experts,
and so I have two experts for our consideration this Sunday.

The first has been around a little while:
Saint Thomas Aquinas,
who was a professor of theology at the University of Paris
all the way back in the thirteenth century.
Commenting on this Sunday’s gospel passage,
he once lectured to his students:
          A saying is hard either because it resists the intellect
          or because it resists the will,
          that is, when we cannot understand it with our mind,
          or when it does not please our will.  
To put it another way:
If a teaching doesn’t sit right in your gut,
the real problem isn’t in your stomach:
either it’s in your head because it disagrees with what you know,
or it’s in your heart because it disagrees with what you want.

The Church has a long list of doctrines and disciplines
which people find controversial.
I find that most of people’s strong, negative reactions to them
are based on two things: misinformation and raw emotion.
We wouldn’t want anyone to make an important decision
based on either of these in other circumstances,
so why should we in matters of faith?

If you’re struggling with a teaching of the Church,
the first thing to do is get your head around it.
If you’re getting all your information
from news briefs on TV, in the newspaper, or on the Internet,
then that just might be the root of your problem!
Controversy is (literally!) their business,
and they have a vested interest in stirring the pot.
Don’t settle for sound bites or someone else’s take on things.
Educate yourself.  Go to the source. 
(For that, I highly suggest the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Getting accurate information
is oftentimes enough to clear things up.
The teachings of the Church 
haven’t developed rashly or haphazardly,
but are the result of centuries of thought and prayer.
They’re not rooted in human opinion, but in divine revelation.
We shouldn’t jump to quick conclusions
that they’re wrong and we know better.
We should take some time to make sure that we really understand.

And if you’re still struggling with a teaching of the Church,
then you need to try and get your heart around it.
This calls for soul searching and honesty.
I know for myself 
that when there’s something which I find challenging,
it’s usually because it touches a part of my life
where I actually need to be challenged.
Do I find a teaching hard
because it gets in the way of other things I want
or tests my cherished assumptions?
What are the true priorities and principles
around which I've ordered my life?
When calling for the Church to change,
is it simply because I am unwilling to change?
If we dare to pray that the Father’s will be done,
then we must allow God—when necessary—
to bend and shape our own.

Let’s apply this lesson from Aquinas to the second reading.
What’s the only line anybody ever remembers?
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands.
There go those bruised ribs again!
Which makes it pretty clear
that this is a kneejerk (elbowjerk?) reaction, an emotional response.
If we want to bring our hearts—our wills—along,
then let’s get our heads—our minds—around it.
That one line—Wives should be subordinate to their husbands
would have been the least controversial of all in Saint Paul’s day.
Why?  Because that’s just what everybody expected him to say…
...and expected him to stop right there.
You know what line would have caught their attention—
and which snuck right by us?
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That was a radical—I’d even say, subversive—idea!
In a society based on inequality between men and women,
adults and children, citizens and foreigners, masters and slaves,
such mutual deference was completely unheard of…
…but it is at the very heart of the Christian life.
Paul doesn’t linger on what’s expected of a wife.
But he goes all out on what’s expected of a husband,
who’s called to much more than subordination:
a husband is called to total self-sacrifice
like Christ, he must be willing to give up his very life,
loving and caring for his wife as if she were his own body.
If we know full well that somebody’s willing
to do or give up absolutely anything and everything for our benefit,
then it’s a joy—not a drawback—to surrender ourselves.
That’s precisely what the Church must do as the bride of Christ;
this great and awesome mystery
is also precisely what ought to distinguish Christian marriage.

Hopefully even that brief study of this text and its background
helps you think and feel a bit differently…
…or at least put those elbows down.

So much for the insights of our first expert.
Our second is more contemporary.
Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology 
at Harvard University
and is widely known for his studies of human happiness.
Using his own students as guinea pigs,
which reach striking conclusions 
about what makes us happiest.

It seems that people are happier
when they make a decision that can’t be changed,
rather than when they make one which they can later reverse.
When people have the opportunity to change their minds,
they spend a lot of time worrying if they made the right choice
or if they should go back and decide again differently.
Our culture tells us that we should keep our options open,
that we shouldn’t limit our choices or restrict our freedom…
…but science seems to indicate that commitment
is a surer recipe for happiness.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to faith.
Joshua lays it out before all of Israel.
They must make a choice and stick with it.
They can’t go on proudly saying they’re the Lord’s chosen people…
…yet still clinging to their former ways
and still serving the false gods of their neighbors.
Which will it be?
They can’t have it both ways.
And Jesus does much the same for his apostles.
Watching many disciples turn away, he asks that haunting question,
Do you also want to leave?
Simon Peter sees where true happiness lies.
Where else would we go?
We have come to believe
that you are so much more than a mighty prophet.
You are the Holy One—God himself!
Yes, your words may be hard…
…but through them you alone have the power to give us life.

So when a teaching of the Church, whatever it might be,
just sticks in your craw—or even causes minor bruising—
remember to take some time to consult the experts.
Don’t settle for easy or hasty conclusions,
but make full use of your mind and your heart.
And above all, be sure to see things in the light
of your committed decision to follow Christ.
Subordinate yourself in reverence to him
who is head of the Church—his bride and his body.
It’s the only sure way to taste and see the Lord’s goodness—
to find real happiness in his company,
both now and forever.

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