Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, September 9, 2012, God Will Bring All Things to Health and Fulfillment, Fr. Dick Clifford SJ

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TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY B 9/9/12

I suspect that you have spent more than a few hours watching the Republican and Democratic Conventions over the last three weeks. You noticed the careful orchestration, the slick graphics and astute direction, and, most of all, the extraordinary promises of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. It’s hard to imagine how they could possibly paint a more glowing and beautiful picture of the future if they were elected. They would solve all our national problems and make our personal lives more secure and happier. And as we listened, often with enthusiastic and partisan ears, I suspect a small voice deep within each of us kept saying, I don’t think I should take their promises too seriously. They promise what politicians always promise and, besides, events unforseen will probably overtake their plans and curtail or block them. So do we react when we hear utopian dreams. We are happy to dream awhile, but we soon adjust such dreams downward and, realists that we are, figure that the next decade, and the far future,will be pretty much like the last decade and the past generally.

Hence I wonder what your reaction was to the reading from Isaiah (35:4-7): "Your [God]comes. . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert." Does it sound like what you have been listening to over the last weeks? It’s even grander than the politicians’ promises of a bright future!

What should we think? Is Isaiah like a modern politician, painting a rosy picture of the future to make us feel good? Is a picture like this meant to help us forget our problems for a pie in the sky bye and bye? Let’s defer answering that question until we look at Jesus in Gospel encountering the deaf man, because Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah.

The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus walks through pagan territory on his way to the Sea of Galilee. Walking through non-Jewish territory is a hint that Christian communities will someday be established there. It’s an indirect pointer to what will happen in the future.

As he arrives in Galilee, a deaf man is brought to him. Keep in mind that at that time most people could not read. Whatever they knew had to come from hearing and remembering what they heard. Today, we can read so that if we were deaf we would still be connected to the community and know what was going on the world. But this deaf man, we have to resume, was cut off from the life of the community. One indication of his isolation was that "people brought [had to carry him] to [Jesus]." Jesus takes the deaf man aside, put his fingers into his ears and spits, putting his saliva on his tongue. Very physical! He said an Aramaic word, "Ephphatha," which means "Be opened!" People remembered the Aramaic command; it must have been impressive.

Now we are in a position to return to the promises of Isaiah and answer our question whether Isaiah is simply talking like a presidential candidate–everything will get better and better, just elect me. Jesus’ healing of the man is a literal fulfillment of Isaiah, "the ears of the deaf will be cleared." Fulfillment takes place in the encounter with Jesus. Jesus is there, and so people are enabled to hear. The healing symbolizes something more. Being with Jesus enables people to hear what they haven’t heard before. What they haven’t heard before meeting Jesus is that special Word of God addressed to me. In short, it’s not only about the deaf man in the Gospel. It’s about us. We can conclude that Isaiah is telling the sober truth, but what he predicts will come about in a different way than we might expect.

Even though Isaiah’s prophecies of the healing of human beings is fulfilled in Jesus’ healing, it is only a first step in God’s word of promise coming true. We know that only one deaf man was healed that day, yet there must have been many such deaf, and blind, and lame people who were not. Jesus’ healings were real and helpful, but they were only a foretaste of greater things to come.

Isaiah speaks of a final time, and Jesus’ miracles point in the same direction. Jesus introduced the final phase of the Kingdom or Reign of God. The final phase has begun–we are in the midst of it–but it has not yet come to its conclusion. The climax lies in the future.

Meanwhile, it co-exists with another kingdom, the kingdom of the world. Jesus’ teaching and healings give us a glimpse of the full realization of the kingdom, but they are only glimpses, hints, of what will come later.

Maybe you did not notice something in Isaiah that has become of great importance in our own day–the healing of nature along with the healing of human beings: "For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water." The Bible sees humans as intimately connected to their environment. God’s touch heals and transforms not only humans but the ground on which they stand, the animals they share that land with, and food they eat. In God’s eyes, we are very physical beings, with bodies that express ourselves as much as our souls do. In the end time, the world–humans, animals, vegetation, earth–will be ennobled.

At the end, what makes the words of Isaiah and the gesture of Jesus different from that of politicians–ourselves–is that they words and deeds of God, who is all-powerful and whom we can trust. We hear the promises of Isaiah that God will bring all things to health and fulfillment, we see Jesus fulfilling these things in a small way. From that we gain certainty the fullness will come in the future, through God, and this is the basis of our hope. We are people of hope because we believe in God who is reliable and we trust in his promise.

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