Sunday, February 12, 2012

The importance of a touch

Here's my homily from this past weekend. Obviously, St. Terese has been working on my heart this week. There's a lot more that could be said about this, but I'll let the Holy Spirit fill all of that in for you.

By the way, I love it when you comment. Any feedback is always appreciated. May your week be blessed!

~ Given at Sacred Heart and Saint Augustine Parishes, Jeffersonville, IN: February 11-12, 2012

One of the most indispensible parts, it seems, of any intimate relationship is touch. Parents touch their children regularly in order to show them their care and affection. A husband and wife will hug and kiss each other when they are coming and going or when they get up in the morning or go to bed at night, and various other times in between. Children who are best friends will walk side by side each with an arm around the other’s shoulder (“they’re ‘joined at the hip’” is the common expression). Grown men, sometimes less comfortable with more sensitive expressions of intimacy, will often slap their friends on the shoulder as a sign of camaraderie. And for young couples, holding hands is often the first expression of a growing affection. From the opposite standpoint, turning away from touch is often an indicator that intimacy has been broken or damaged, such as when a husband or a wife gives their spouse the “cold shoulder.”

As a matter of fact, in the Catholic Church we know this very well. We ritualize the intimacy of human touch in the sacraments, most poignantly in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is designated in the Church as the “World Day for the Sick,” in which we remind ourselves of the special place that care for the sick and dying holds in the life of the Church. And in the Church’s sacrament for the sick, which is meant to be a spiritual strengthening for “one who has begun to be in danger due to sickness or old age,” human touch plays a prominent role, in the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. And so again we see that, for humans, touch is important.

In the first reading today, we heard the instructions given to Moses and Aaron regarding how to handle a person afflicted with leprosy inside of the community. The ancient Hebrews were deeply concerned with maintaining a status of “ritual purity” before God because they believed that to present an offering to God when one was “impure” would taint also one’s offering and thus render it displeasing to God. Thus, the segregation of lepers (who were considered to have been afflicted because of some impurity) was intended to ensure that the rest of the community was kept safe from defilement through contact with them. As a result, the physical suffering of the leprous person was compounded by an emotional suffering as he or she was literally cut off from all human touch, and, thus, intimacy, for fear of making others unclean.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we find a leper who was so moved by faith in Christ’s power to heal him that he completely disregarded the rules regarding the segregation of lepers and approached Jesus in order to beg him for healing. Jesus knew well the purity laws and what he would have to go through if he touched this man. He also knew that he would not have to touch this man in order to heal him of his leprosy. He knew that a simple word would effect the cure. Yet, he saw more than a physical ailment in this man. He saw the emotional suffering of shame and humiliation that comes from being cut off from one’s community and knew that more than just a word was needed to make him whole again. Thus, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was“moved with pity” and that he first touched the man before he pronounced his words of healing. No, it wasn’t the touch that healed the man of his leprosy, Christ’s word alone was sufficient. It was the touch, however, that made him feel human, connected again with the community that was his life.

Of course it’s easy to see modern day examples of leprosy in our own society. We simply need to look at those who have been marginalized and pushed“outside the camp” of our daily living so as not to defile our efforts to live a pure life. It would also be easy to remind ourselves of our duty to respond to these individuals as Jesus did by reaching out to them, touching them, helping them to find healing and inviting them to join the community once again. What is not so easy for us is to look inwardly, at ourselves, in order to discover the spiritual leprosy of sin that afflicts each of us.

St. Bede, in commenting on this passage, has said: “This man prostrated himself on the ground, as a sign of humility and shame, to teach each of us to be ashamed of the stains of his [or her own] life. But shame should not prevent us from confessing: the leper showed his wound and begged for healing.” St. Terese of Liseux has said that shame for our sins should never prevent us from reaching out to Jesus. In fact, she has said, our increasing awareness of and shame for our sins should make us reach out all the more desperately to him, because the more we acknowledge our sinfulness, the more we openly show our wounds to Jesus, the more, in a sense, attractive we are to him, to his mercy, and thus he is more moved to touch us and to heal us.

My brothers and sisters, the trick to living the Christian life is not just in reaching out to the marginalized in our society, the modern-day lepers with “outward” afflictions. Rather, the trick is being able to first recognize our own afflictions, our own leprosy, and having the courage—or rather the faith—to throw ourselves down before God, before Jesus, and beg for his mercy.

As his Body, the Church, Jesus wants us to be his hands in this world, bringing his healing touch to those who need it. He wants his hands to be pure, however. And so, as we seek to extend Christ’s ministry of mercy to those around us, let us acknowledge also our need for healing, let us seek out the sacrament of reconciliation and open ourselves to each other so that we may share each other’s burdens. And let us give thanks, as we do here today, for Christ’s saving mercy, so that we may go forth from this place making known the good things he has done for us.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Are you small enough?

I know, I know... I spent nearly a month in Italy and not a word about it, but I have no problem dropping another homily on you all... Let's just say that it's been a whirlwind getting back in to the swing of things.  Soon... I hope.  For now, this is what I have.


Homily for Thursday of the 5th week of Ordinary Time.  Given in the Saint Thomas Aquinas Chapel at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, February 9th, 2012.
(See Mark 7:24-30)
          One of the seemingly sinister things about cancer is that oftentimes the person who has it doesn’t know that he or she is sick until it is almost too late.  The one who doesn’t realize that he or she has cancer finds no reason to seek healing.  Once a person discovers the affliction, however, and acknowledges just how sick he or she is, he or she often wastes no time seeking out the most highly-reputed physician around, hoping to find a cure.

          In our Gospel readings this week, we see both sides of this story being played out in relation to Jesus, the divine physician.  In Genesaret, the sick begged to be carried out into the market places and laid in the streets just so that they might have a chance to touch the tassel of Jesus’ cloak and perhaps be healed.  These, of course, were those who sicknesses had manifested themselves outwardly, thus driving them to recognize their need for Christ and his healing.  On the other hand, we saw how the Pharisees had failed to recognize any need for Christ and his healing, relying instead on blind adherence to the letter of the Law even though a spiritual cancer was silently destroying them on the inside.

          While the Syrophoenician woman in today’s Gospel approaches Jesus seeking healing for her daughter, who was afflicted by an evil spirit, we see that it isn’t until she acknowledges her own spiritual depravity, that is, her own exclusion from the chosen people and her lack of any claim to Jesus’ help, that Jesus is moved to respond.  It’s as if her humility was so unexpected that it moved Jesus to pity and made him bend to her request.

          St. Terese of Liseux has said that if it seems as if God is ignoring us it’s not because we’re too small for him to take notice, but rather that we haven’t become small enough to move him to respond.  So often we come before Him seeking help for others who seemingly are more afflicted than we are.  Yet, we fail to acknowledge our own depravity—that is, our own need for Christ’s healing—when we approach him.  We need only to approach him from a place of truth, however, a place in which we acknowledge our brokenness and constant need for his mercy, in order to find him “defeated” also by our humility and moved to act on our behalf.

          And so as we approach this altar of grace today, may the acknowledgement of our “smallness” before God lead us to find his healing mercy, both in our lives and in the lives of those for whom we pray.