Purely Respecting Our Limits, 5th Wednesday (I), February 8, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Chapel of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN
Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
St. Josephine Bakhita
February 8, 2017
Gen 2:4-9.15-17, Ps 104, Mk 7:14-23


Today’s homily was not recorded. The following points were attempted: 

  • In the Gospel today Jesus asks the disciples, “Are even you likewise without understanding?” Lest we fail to understand the absolutely revolutionary point Jesus is making in today’s Gospel, let’s take some time to do what he asks, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.”
  • Jesus was continuing his conversation with the Scribes and the Pharisees after their criticism that Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with ritually unwashed hands. The Scribes had determined that in order for someone to be pleasing to God they needed to obsess about ritual impurity, washing their hands twice with one-and-a-half egg shells full of water, and watching pots, jugs, beds, themselves and any other thing that had touched Gentiles or things not consecrated to the Lord. Jesus yesterday called them hypocrites because the word hypocrite means actor and they were just pretending to be faithful to God, substituting human precepts for God’s word and will. Today Jesus extended the conversation to something that would have astonished the disciples, something that would have been totally revolutionary. He said, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” This point was revolutionary because it was precisely the things from the outside that the Jews of the day thought would defile them. We remember that Judas Maccabeus and so many of his heroic contemporaries were willing to lay down their lives on the battlefield because the Greeks, 150 years before Christ, were trying to force the Jews to eat pork. They refused. Many people were martyred. Many Jews today still refuse to eat meat unless it’s kosher, unless all the blood has dripped out. Jesus was saying that the food we eat ultimately can’t make us impure before God. In doing this, St. Mark comments, “Thus he declared all foods clean,” something that would take even the disciples a long time to come to grips with — St. Peter, for example, needed a vision in Joppa to help him to recognize that Jesus was not asking that Jews follow the scribal dietary laws.
  • What can make us impure before God? Jesus says it’s “the things that come out from within,” and then he defines them, “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” It’s from the tree of the heart that either good fruit or bad fruit comes. God wants us not to have “hearts far from” him, but hearts that are fully united to him. The type of purity he cares about is a pure heart that leads to pure hands, to pure speech, to pure vision, to thoughts, words and deeds of pure love.
  • In the first reading, we see the beginning of an illustration of what happens when one’s heart is not purely united to the Lord. We see where sin comes from. In the account of our beginnings in the Book of Genesis, we see that God placed Adam in the garden and gave everything over to him, to cultivate and care for God’s creation. He gave him only one restriction: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.” God didn’t place the tree there as bait to trip Adam up. He didn’t create it as a temptation. The tree symbolized good and evil. To eat of its fruit meant to eat of evil, knowing that we became what we ate. Everything else in the garden, we know, was created “good” and the human being was created “very good.” God, in giving this restriction, was reminding Adam to desire what was good and do it. But as we’ll see later in the week in the account of the Fall, Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the allure of the fruit of the Tree of communion with good and evil. Genesis will tell us that they “saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes and desirable for gaining wisdom.” They started to covet from the heart. That happened after they began to distrust God at the word of the Serpent who convinced them that God was a liar in telling them eating of its forbidden fruit would prove fatal. “You certainly will not die!,” the serpent exclaimed. “No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” God had created us in his image and likeness and desired us to be like God, but according to God’s wisdom rather than according to evil desire. But Eve and Adam took the bait to pretend that evil was good and sinned. It came from their heart. They were defiled before they even took the first bite. Jesus’ whole mission was to heal our heart, to take away the hearts that had become stony through sin and restore a heart that was pure, a heart that trusted God, a heart that said yes, a heart that treasured God’s word and sought to conform itself to God’s infinite goodness. Regardless of where our heart is right now, God wants to help us draw closer to him, to allow him to heal whatever parts of our heart that might give rise to evil, lustful, greedy, malicious, deceitful, envious, arrogant, and foolish thoughts, the types of thoughts that lead to deeds, to thank Him for all the goodness he has given and to enter into communion with the God who is goodness incarnate, rather than to enter into communion with evil.
  • Someone whose heart was good and from which flowed so much good fruit is the saint the Church marks today, the Sudanese St. Josephine Bakhita. She had suffered tremendously as a slave, but it didn’t change her heart, because her heart belonged to God, and because of that she has become a symbol of purity even in the most impure circumstances. When Pope Benedict wrote his beautiful encyclical on Christian hope, Spe Salvi, he featured her. We can quote his words: St. Josephine, he said, “was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying ‘masters’ who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of ‘master’—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron,’ before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’ Now she had ‘hope’ —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed,’ no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her ‘Paron.’ On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had ‘redeemed’ her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.” Her experience of Christ’s triumph and the desire to share it with others became the great desire of her pure heart. Rather than being filled with evil, lustful, greedy, malicious, deceitful, envious, arrogant, and foolish thoughts, she was filled with God.
  • The evil that began with coveting from the heart the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was redeemed by the new Tree of Life, which was planted on Calvary in the Cross. And now we’re prepared to receive the fruit of that life-giving tree: Jesus’ own body, blood, soul and divinity. As we prepare to consume him within, let us remember that this gesture is not just a physical act, because the mere physical reception of holy communion itself cannot sanctify us. What sanctifies us is whether we genuinely receive Holy Communion not in our mouths but in our heart. Today we thank the Lord for giving the grace to hear what he says with understanding. Let us receive him today in our heart so that from that heart may proceed deeds like those that emanated from St. Josephine’s heart to the praise and glory of God the Father and for the sanctification of the world.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 GN 2:4B-9, 15-17

At the time when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens—
while as yet there was no field shrub on earth
and no grass of the field had sprouted,
for the LORD God had sent no rain upon the earth
and there was no man to till the soil,
but a stream was welling up out of the earth
and was watering all the surface of the ground—
the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being.
Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and he placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The LORD God then took the man
and settled him in the garden of Eden,
to cultivate and care for it.
The LORD God gave man this order:
“You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden
except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
From that tree you shall not eat;
the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 104:1-2A, 27-28, 29BC-30

R. (1a) O bless the Lord, my soul!
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul!
All creatures look to you
to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul!
If you take away their breath, they perish
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul!

Alleluia SEE JN 17:17B, 17A

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Your word, O Lord, is truth:
consecrate us in the truth.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 7:14-23

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
When he got home away from the crowd
his disciples questioned him about the parable.
He said to them,
“Are even you likewise without understanding?
Do you not realize that everything
that goes into a person from outside cannot defile,
since it enters not the heart but the stomach
and passes out into the latrine?”
(Thus he declared all foods clean.)
“But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him.
From within the man, from his heart,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”