Thursday, January 26, 2012

12-01-29: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:1-28

There’s a powerful scene in the film The King’s Speech when King George VI is sitting with his family watching a newsreel of Hitler delivering a speech (in German, naturally) with consummate emotion filled with fury and determination. Princess Elizabeth looks at her father, whose greatest weakness is his inability to speak without a stutter, and asks what Hitler is saying. “I don’t know,” the king answers. “But he says it well.” It will become a great irony of history that George VI will be able to rally the British to victory precisely because he faced that personal weakness and made it a strength.

Yet, there is little doubt that the content of words often plays back seat to the manner in which they are conveyed. The gospel today is a case in point. St. Mark makes the seeming important point that Jesus taught “with authority,” something obviously lacking in the other religious leaders of his day. But St. Mark neglects to tell us what precisely Jesus was teaching that day in the synagogue. I would bet that by the time Mark was writing his gospel, Jesus’ words and teaching were long forgotten, but not the impact they produced – that made an indelible mark. What was remembered was the exorcism that followed his teaching. That emotionally charged scene could not have been easily forgot and has become inseparable, in Mark’s memory, with Jesus’ teaching – whatever that was. Jesus’ words produced a physical effect. His words carried an emotional impact. And emotion, not talk, is what seals the memory.

You can’t read anything Catholic today without coming across the phrase “New Evangelization.” At the risk of sounding a bit disrespectful it has begun to sound, to my ears anyway, more like those meaningless “five-year-plans” the Soviet Union used to issue over the course of seven decades rather than the saving message it’s supposed to embody. Although those that employ the term are always quick to tell you that the “New Evangelization” is not about programs, they inevitably follow up their presentation with program after program on how to get young people to church and lapsed Catholics back into the fold; the result being no different than those Soviet five-year-plans. Others, like some newly ordained clergy, see in the “New Evangelization” a call to return to more solid Catholic teaching. They seem to think if people only knew what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, they would enthusiastically follow. Ah, there’s a bridge I know of that’s up for sale…

Teachings, doctrines, rules of religion are all-too-soon forgotten or, if not forgotten, relegated to the realm of the less-important for most people, believers and non-believers alike. In today’s gospel it’s interesting, to say the least, that it is the unclean spirit who does the evangelizing: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” St. Mark is trying to reveal what the unclean spirit already knew: that Jesus of Nazareth was an engaging, charismatic, compelling individual whom people would want to get to know, whom you had to get to know. Perhaps the “New Evangelization” is meant to be no different from the old: an invitation to engage in an encounter that involves the heart more than the head, emotion more than doctrine, experiencing rather than cogitating. All other things, like tenets of faith, sexual mores, and rules of behavior are always - always - of secondary significance. The encounter is what remains of greatest importance. Or, as Alec Guinness had engraved on the pocket watch his mother told him once belonged to the father he never knew: “The readiness is all.”

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