Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting What We Expect

What a sad story! What a depressing account today’s Gospel [Mark 6:1-6a] gives of Jesus’ failure to win over his hometown crowd! Not a lot of “good news” in this story! Jesus leaves his hometown amazed at their lack of faith, having not performed any mighty deed there. What went wrong?

Actually, it’s a very familiar story. It happens all the time. Someone we have known forever – a family member, a childhood friend, an old school classmate – has suddenly turned out to be a great success, a celebrity even. And how do we react? Do we join in the general acclaim? Or do we remember – and remind anyone who will listen, above all the new rising star – that we knew him way back when, when he was still just one of us, just an ordinary nobody? Just who does he think he is anyway, putting on airs now and expecting us to treat him like somebody?

Now, maybe that doesn’t happen all the time, in every single case. Human behavior being what it is, however, and jealousy and envy being the powerful emotional engines that they are, it certainly happens often enough. So, instead of rejoicing in what someone we know has accomplished, we’re likely to be jealous and envious. And, if the opportunity presents itself, the default response may be to denigrate and belittle. (Now, I’m not talking today about “being famous for being famous,” or the “everybody’s special, everybody’s a winner, everybody gets affirmed” nonsense that is now so much a part of our narcissistic entitlement culture. I’m referring to real accomplishments – like the wisdom and mighty deeds which Jesus had justly become famous for, but which evoked such resentment among his own kin and in his own house).

So this unhappy episode from Jesus’ life largely rings true, I think, as an example of human behavior in any time or place!

It may also serve as a metaphor for something similar that can easily happen not just in our ordinary relationships with one another, but also in our relationship with God. It’s probably yet another human tendency to seek “spiritual” experience in whatever is different, strange, exotic – and new. Just visit any commercial bookstore and check out the “Spirituality” section. It’s amazing the sheer quantity and variety of options available for the so-called spiritual “seeker.” Even believing, practicing, committed Christians can be tempted by this apparently desire for extraordinary, exotic experiences. Witness Saint Paul’s plight in today’s 2nd reading [2 Corinthians 12:7-10]. Paul had to defend himself (and his authority) against other would-be “teachers,” who based their authority on an abundance of extraordinary revelations. Paul’s defense was two-pronged. He challenged the claims of his rivals, claiming he had had exotic experiences at least as good and maybe better. But, secondly (and more importantly), he explained how his own personal experience had taught him to put all such special stuff in proper perspective – teaching him to value not his own accomplishments, but the power of Christ at work in his life.

For much of the first 25 years of his life, Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, was what we would nowadays call a spiritual “seeker.” For Hecker, however, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking is finding. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and he never desired or felt a need to look farther. Along the way, he examined as many as possible of the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, before finally finding his permanent religious home in the Roman Catholic Church. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, certainly speak to the spiritual longings of our own spiritually hungry century, with its legions of souls claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” But, while Hecker too can be said to have been “spiritual but not religious” for most of those first 25 years of his life, what was – and remains – significant about Hecker was precisely that he did not remain that way.

The point of the Gospel – what in fact actually makes it “good news” – is that the real seeking and searching has already been done – not by us, but for us, not by us, but by God, God who has found us in his Son, in whom he has become one of us like us in all things but sin, so that he might love in us what he loved in his Son [Sunday Preface VII].

“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Jesus’ neighbors at Nazareth knew him and his otherwise ordinary family all too well – too well, tragically to open up their hearts and minds to what God was really doing for them right then and there. The sad result for them was that they got exactly what they were expecting – nothing! No mighty deed took place in their presence. Let’s not make the same mistake ourselves!

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 8, 2012.

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