Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Votive Mass for Persecuted Christians
February 9, 2017
Gen 2:18-25, Ps 128, Mk 7:24-30
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- “It is not good for the man to be alone.” These words from today’s first reading come in the Genesis account after God says, throughout creation, “It is good,” “It is good,” “It is good,” “It is good,” “It is good,” and with the creation of the human person, “It is very good.” Finally God exclaims, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” but he waited to make this judgment, we can say, until man himself had had this awareness. Even though man was in relation with God and with the animals he had named, there was still something missing. He needed a “suitable partner,” a “fitting helper” for him. And that’s what he did in the creation of Eve. God created such a fitting helper, so that the two of them could help people live as the image of God, live in true communion, and grow more and more into God’s loving image. This points to two existential realities: first, each of us needs help and it’s not good for us to be without this help; second, we are created as a helper for others. We are created as fitting helpers likewise always in need of suitable help.
- What we also see in the passage is the basic complementarity at work in this helping and being helped. God didn’t create merely someone to kill time with, or even a generic helper, but rather a “suitable helper,” a “partner,” someone who makes up for our weaknesses with strength and someone who draws from us our strength to remedy his or her weaknesses. God created Eve out of Adam’s side, to show that they stand side-by-side, equal, before God. The rib symbolizes what covers the heart (the loving center of the person) and the lungs (what is necessary to breathe and survive). Adam exclaims, “Finally this one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” a Hebrew expression meaning “strength of my strength and weakness of my weakness,” that they are like each other in strengths and weaknesses and need to help each other. The type of help that is needed is not just in terms of a “hand” in ordinary life, but with regard to their living as the image and likeness of God. They can’t grow in love without each other and without the analogy of human love, Adam had already discovered that he couldn’t really receive and reciprocate (however asymmetrically) divine love. The most suitable help given is with regard to their living in a fully human way in the divine image.
- That’s what human marriage, par excellence, is supposed to be, when a man and a woman, like Adam and Eve, fittingly help each other to become who they are. That’s why Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament, to give his help so that they might resemble the love in the heart of the Trinity, which Christ came as Bridegroom to make possible anew. But it extends to more than marriage. It’s not good for any of us to be alone, we all need fitting helpers, and we all need, to some degree, the complementarity between man and woman to remedy the ways in which, by original differentiation, we are not fully human. John Paul II talked about the “prototypical masculine” and the “prototypical feminine” and the way that men receive love by giving love and women give love by receiving love and how man’s relative strengths in complementarity to woman’s relative weaknesses, and woman’s relative strengths to man’s relative weaknesses provide the support we need to grow as God’s image. This applies to agape (Christ-like sacrificial love) and philia (love of true friendship) just as must as to eros (romantic love). Man’s courage confronting fears and the unknown, for example, can encourage women to similar boldness and women’s receptivity to the person can complement man’s task-oriented personality. This type of normal, healthy interaction takes place among brothers and sisters in the family, among dads and daughters, moms and sons, among friends of opposite sexes and in ordinary daily interactions.
- For those of us who are priests and religious, living ordinarily solely among men or solely among women, we cannot forget the importance of this complementarity for full human thriving in the divine image and must resist any attempt to pretend that faithful chastity means no or minimal interaction with those of the opposite sex. There are certain institutes of priests in the Church that have fundamentally formed their seminarians not to look at women in the eyes lest their be any lack of custody of the heart, eyes and soul; that basically treats every woman as a post-Fall Eve or potential temptress rather than as a Mary, as a sister, the only worthy response to him is chaste love. There are similarly institutes of women who basically discourage anything but the most antiseptic relations with priests with whom they interact, calling everyone just “Father” without first or last name lest any personal bond form. This isn’t chastity, because chastity forms us to love with charity (sacrifice), purity (seeing God in the other) and piety (reverencing God in the other); this is a total defect of basic humanity not to mention authentic agape and philia. None of this is to pretend that the devil doesn’t tempt or to deny that we may be vulnerable; we need to have appropriate boundaries; but there’s a difference between a fence and a huge wall and one constructed several zip codes away. Without chaste friendships with women, priests risk becoming cold, insensitive functionaries; without chaste friendships with men, religious women risk becoming overly sentimental and petty. And when chaste, non-exclusive friendships form between religious men or priests and religious women, their complementary spiritual gifts can help each other too; religious woman teach religious men how to be alone before God, how to be receptive rather than Pelagian before his graces, how to build communion in depth rather than in superficial activity or pleasures; religious men teach religious women how to wipe the dust off their feet and move on rather than nurse injuries and how to take risks for Christ and the faith. While acknowledging how the devil always wants and strives to corrupt something good and holy, at the same time we have to acknowledge that priests and religious are not exceptions to God’s statement “It is not good for the human person to be alone,” and “I will make for the person a fitting helper.”
- We see an aspect of this complementarity in the beautiful interaction in today’s Gospel. At first glance it seems a little harsh, but Jesus in an almost brutally masculine way was helping the Syro-Phoenician woman to grow in faith and truth, and she, with her beautiful femininity, not only drew forth the Lord’s loving and miraculous generosity, but his extraordinary compliment for her receptive faith. St. Matthew’s account of this scene gives us many more details than St. Mark does today. When this Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus asking her for a miracle for her daughter, the Lord ignores her. When she harasses the apostles begging for their intervention and they ask Jesus on her behalf, Jesus stresses he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not to pagan women in Phoenicia. When she continues to pursue and falls down begging, “Please, Lord!,” he replies by saying, “It’s not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But she still doesn’t give up. She retorts, “But even the little dogs eat the scraps that comes from their master’s table.” She reminded him that he was the Good Shepherd even of puppies. “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” At this, Jesus replies, “Woman, great is your faith” and performs an immediate exorcism on her daughter at a distance. Jesus behaved in this way precisely because he loved the woman and was helping her to grow in the type of persevering faith and prayer that God wants to develop and see in all of us. Her feminine, maternal persistence led to one of the greatest compliments Jesus is ever recorded giving. And that woman’s great feminine faith was a means to draw greater faith from the apostles.
- Today we’re celebrating a Mass for persecuted Christians, for the Church suffering. We remember what St. Paul told the Colossians, that we are called to make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (1:24). On the Cross, Christ was suffering not only for his Bride and Body, but taking to himself the sufferings of his Bride and Body. Our sufferings complement his, and that’s what he intended from the beginning. Just as we shudder at what Jesus had to endure but no in faith that the Cross is the greatest sign of love ever seen, capable of enduring such torments for us, so we shudder at what our Christian brothers and sisters in places like the Middle East or in the Boko Haram controlled areas of Nigeria, or in communist countries or elsewhere need to undergo; at the same time, however, we recognize that, united to Christ’s passion, those sufferings are co-redemptive and are among the most eternal and significant actions that will take place in the world today.
- “It is not good for man to be alone.” And the suitable help God made for Adam was not just Eve. God made himself a suitable helper, entering into the human race, in order by his humanity to restore us to the divine image and make us partakers in his divinity. And where he carries that out each day is here at the altar. We know that Jesus in the Gospel quoted the words of the Book of Genesis after Adam rejoiced at the creation of his wife, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” St. Paul, after citing that phrase, will tell us in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” Human marriage is based on Christ’s marriage to his Bride the Church; because Christ will never abandon us, sacramental marriage is indissoluble; because Christ is faithful, human marriage is faithful; because Christ’s marriage with us is fruitful, generating newborn Christians in the baptismal womb of the Church, so human marriage increases and multiplies. To understand what happens in the Eucharist, we need to look at it in this spousal key. The early Christians used to illustrate this reality between marriage and the Eucharist in their architecture — as we’ll see when we get to Rome — covering the altars with a baldachin just like ancient beds were covered, to communicate that the altar is the marriage bed of the union between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church. It’s here on this altar that we, Christ’s bride, in the supreme of love, receive within ourselves the body, the blood, of the divine Bridegroom, becoming one-flesh with him and made capable of bearing fruit with him in acts of love. This is the means by which we enter into one flesh union with Christ. This is the way by which we receive within Christ’s love for us and become more capable of sharing that type of love with each other. This is the greatest help of all and something that leads us to say, with the words of today’s Psalm, “Blessed are those who hold the Lord in awe!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Gn 2:18-25
“It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a suitable partner for him.”
So the LORD God formed out of the ground
various wild animals and various birds of the air,
and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them;
whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
The man gave names to all the cattle,
all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals;
but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.
So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man,
and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs
and closed up its place with flesh.
The LORD God then built up into a woman
the rib that he had taken from the man.
When he brought her to the man, the man said:“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman,’
for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.”That is why a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one flesh.The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.
Responsorial Psalm Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
Your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Alleluia Jas 1:21bc
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mk 7:24-30
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone.