by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
New York/Paris, January 31, 2021. | IV Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32 -35; Saint Mark 1: 21-28.
The First Reading gives us today the key to understand what happened that Saturday in Capernaum. What Moses says is surprising, for he had been a faithful and effective messenger of the divine will for the people of Israel and the liberator of his people, and what else could a prophet do? But he announces a new prophet, one different from all, who will not just repeat what he has heard from Yahweh, but God will put his words in his mouth. The fulfillment of this prophecy was experienced by the amazing listeners in the synagogue on that Sabbath.
They had a similar feeling to that experienced by their fathers, when they told Moses: Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die (Ex 20: 19). But now, Jesus’ words did not produce fear, but attraction, and only the unclean spirit that dominated the possessed wretch who turns to Jesus is terrified.
Words do more than conveying information. Of all the creatures on this planet, only man has the ability to communicate through the spoken word. Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before God: For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Mt 12: 37).
The power to use words is a unique and powerful gift from God. From the listener’s point of view, there are three types of words.
Firtsly, there are shallow words. You know when you hear shallow, empty words. A grade school student offers made-up excuses for incomplete homework. Someone who always speaks with exaggeration or artificial enthusiasm. Someone is not being completely sincere, and it puts us on alert. If they keep on acting this way, we find it hard to take seriously anything they say. Their words have lost authority, and we know it.
Secondly, there are words that destroy, that kill in many ways. Sometimes a person’s fame, other times his dreams. Violent words can even stir up hatred and violence. A sadly common example in families is verbal abuse in its many forms.
When verbal abuse is combined with gaslighting, that is when something is said and then denied by the parent, forcing the child to consider whether he has a grip on reality or might be as “crazy” as the parent says, the impact is extremely toxic and undermining.
Words that are not appropriate can also undermine our own efforts. Aesop shares a helpful fable to illustrate this point: Once upon a time, a donkey found a lion’s skin. He tried it on, strutted around, and frightened many animals. Soon a fox came along, and the donkey tried to scare him, too. But the fox, hearing the donkey’s voice, said: If you want to terrify me, you’ll have to disguise your braying. Aesop’s moral: Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.
Thirdly, there are words that give life, that illuminate and redeem. We all remember moments when a phrase, sometimes a single word, has been a balm in our lives, the beginning of a stage where our talents and energy were put to work. They are words that demonstrate the truth often repeated in the Old Testament: Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body (Prov 16:24).
An old blind beggar was sitting stretching his hands to passerbyers asking them for help.
The old man had a sign beside him and thereon the following expression was written, “I Am Blind; Please Help”. Very few people were encouraged to help him and he only collected very few coins. A woman who seemed very practical passed by him. Noticing his sign and what is written on it, she took a marker out of her purse and wrote on the other side of the sign something and she left without giving the man any money.
What happened next was amazing, as people started to throw coins, many coins, to the man and they were encouraged to help him.
The woman came back after a while and the old man asked her, “What did you do? What did you write on my sign?”. She replied, “I wrote the same but with different words.” She wrote, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”
Yes, there are certain words that touch the heart, that move one to compassion, but ALL of Christ’s words are transformative. Moreover, those who were present at the Synagogue of Capernaum experienced what the Word made flesh means, that is, that every act, every movement, every silence of Jesus is meaningful, speaks to us of God and of His will for us, with more clarity than any moral code or speech of this world.
Redeeming speech only comes from godly wisdom being imparted to us. Aesop was correct, our speech and the type of wisdom that governs our lives displays the state of our heart. His solution was to control your tongue, but we know that there is more. We have the experience that the word of God, and only the word of God, truly changes us. The good exhortations, warnings dictated by common sense, the wisdom of this world often show themselves useful, but they never worked wonders. Miracles happen only if the announced word is that of the Master.
That is why the saints have sought all possible ways to listen to and accept the divine will. St. Ignatius, for example, writes in his Exercises about the “Composition of Place” (compositio loci). To pray using Composition of Place, you have to use your imagination and have faith that God is working through that mental capacity that we have. This faculty we lose as we enter adulthood, but Ignatius is asking us to reclaim it. Composition of Place is the act of creating a visual work, albeit one that is temporary, internal, and personal, to participate in meaningful events of the Bible, especially those connected to the life and passion of Jesus Christ.
The reason why we have to listen to the Word of God continuously is explained in the Second Reading: the state of anxiety, produced by our intimate division. St. Paul gives the example of the married person who is obliged to take care of his spouse, but the demands imposed on us by illness, work and social obligations, the difficulties of living together and our own limitations, lead us to a permanent struggle, which is manifested and well described as a conflict of passions. For example, the desire to succeed, to receive affection, to be better than others, or to see immediate fruits, can stifle our compassion and mercy.
Even more dramatically, the man who interrupts Jesus in the synagogue speaks in the plural: What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are! Because the forces that divide us and separate us from God and our neighbors are many.
That explains why our Founder speaks of Resolving the Conflicts of Passions through Gospel Lesson as a continuous exercise, a permanent effort that is NOT limited to resorting to the Gospel “in case of temptation” or when we are faced with a moral problem.
The Gospel is not an instruction book or a repair manual. It is not even a book, but the Word made flesh, the person of Christ who invites us to walk with Him at all times, when things are going well and when nothing seems to make sense.
With tact and sensitivity, he tries to convince us that we need his advice at all times, both when faced with an attack of passion and when we are preparing to do a daily activity that does not represent a challenge, for example, spending time with a person who loves us. At that moment, too, Christ whispers in our ear: Let me help you make it a sacred moment, a moment of glory for my Father and our Father. It is the authority that a person displays when helping a close friend through a difficult time…talking gently whenever possible, but firmly if necessary, and always with respect and affection. As Pope Francis said, authority does not consist in commanding and making oneself heard, but in being coherent, being a witness and, in that way, being a companion on the path of the way of the Lord (Jan. 14, 2020).
Like the possessed man in today’s Gospel, we are not masters of ourselves. Unexpectedly, passion in a violent form or in the form of silent mediocrity takes hold of us, possesses us and is able to thwart the fruits the Holy Spirit expected for that moment.
Paradoxically, it is the impure spirit who first perceives the presence of Christ and announces his true identity: The Holy One of God. This should make us think that, despite our condition as sinners, despite our mediocrity and our infidelities, we can always, in a permanent way, perceive the presence of Christ at our side and his desire to make us free, in the same way He gave sight to the blind, made the dumb speak, offered food to the hungry, liberty to the captives and joy to the broken-hearted. If He turned the sinner into a disciple, the dishonest tax collector into an apostle, the chief tax collector into a son of Abraham and a bandit into the first of the guests at the heavenly banquet… He can change me too.
Jesus shares this authority with his apostles: Then he summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs, giving them authority over unclean spirits (Mk 6:7). Despite Jesus’ generous sharing of his spiritual authority with them, the apostles began to fight among themselves for political authority. They began to quarrel among themselves about who was the greatest. So Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant (Mk 10:42-43). So then basically, the gospel meaning of authority is a spiritual one: it is the authority to share wisdom, to forgive, and to enhance life.
A story that illustrates speaking with authority.
Once a number of rabbis gathered for a festivity, and each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. However there was one exception -a man by the name of Abram. The son of a simple baker, Abram possessed some forthright qualities of a man of the people. At a certain point each rabbi was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished ancestors. One rabbi after another delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Abram to say something. He rose and said, “My father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing, and that I must avoid stale bread at all costs. This can also apply to teaching.” And with that he sat down.
In the Eucharist, the words of Christ over the bread and wine, transforms them into His very own Body and Blood. If we reamin in close contact with Jesus, struggling to always apply the Gospel lesson to the conflicts of our passions, He too will transform our lives to spread His Kingdom.
What does it mean that Jesus was a Prophet, the new Moses? Of course, to transmit the divine truth and will in a new way, admired by all, because he did it at the same time with words and deeds. But this is something we can aspire to, not only to admire in the person of Christ. It is difficult to define what intuition is, but we all have experience of it as friends, fathers, mothers, students, or teachers. Prophecy is a gift that enhances our intuition, Fernando Rielo tells us. Of course, not for any kind of knowledge, but to know what our neighbor needs.
Let us not distrust our vocation to be prophets. It is not something of the past. At our very own baptism, God put within us His authority. Through our baptism, we have received the mission to be Prophets, to speak with authority the truth and to do good to others so as to set them free. Free from darkness and selfishness. Thus when we use this authority for the good of others as Jesus, we bring eternal life to others and to ourselves.