Rediscovering Ordinary Amazement at Jesus’ Extraordinary Word, First Tuesday (II), January 14, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Tuesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
January 14, 2014
1 Sam 1:9-20, 1 Sam 2:1-8, Mk 1:21-28

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  •  At the beginning of Ordinary Time, the Church, with the help of St. Mark, has us focus on the pillars of the “ordinary life” of Christians. Yesterday we discussed following the Lord (discipleship) and trying to be God’s instrument to draw other people to follow Him (apostolate). Today we turn to what ought to be our attitude toward Jesus’ word and teaching.
  • In the Gospel today, those in the synagogue of Capernaum were “astonished” and “amazed” by Jesus words, because he taught with authority, differently than their scribes. The scribes were the scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures who, as they taught, would always cite the Torah or other parts of Sacred Scripture. “There’s a verse that says…” “Moses taught…” and so on. They did this, of course, because, as we will see in the Gospel, there was a gap between what God taught and commanded and what they themselves practiced. Jesus, on the other hand, taught as one with authority, as if he were the author of that word (which he is!). Rather than saying, “Moses taught and therefore…,” he would say multiple times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you….” On other occasions, he would just give us the truth, whether through direct speech, his famous beautiful parables, or his questions, or other means. He was able to do this not only because his was the author of the words, but because there was no gap between what he said and what he did.
  • People were astonished and amazed when they heard him speak. The Letter to the Hebrews said that the Word of God is like a two-edged sword capable of separating bone from marrow, something that incisively penetrates deep within us. People with Jesus could feel the power of that holy lance separating them from the masks, from their concupiscence, from their ignorance, from the cord that enslaves them to their sins.
  • Then Jesus would always back up the word of his teaching with great signs of power. On many occasions, including in the same synagogue of Capernaum, he would work great miracles, like he did with the man with the withered hand that he had stretch out in front of all. Today we see him exorcise a possessed man of the demon that recognized Jesus. We see in these miracles and exorcisms something very important about Jesus’ word. His word was not just informative but performative; it didn’t just tell us a truth, but it actually changed reality. Jesus’ word is always performative. He is the Word through whom all things were made. In the beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” light came into existence. When he said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness,” we came into being. When Jesus forgave sinners, their sins were wiped away. When he told storms to die down, they disappeared. That’s the power of Jesus’ word and it should never cease to astonish us.
  • The problem, however, is that many times we’ve lost our amazement at Jesus’ word. It’s a particular concern for daily Mass goers, who, because they hear the Word proclaimed every year at Mass can become desensitized to the wonder of it. Like someone watching a cliff-hanger movie for the 15th time, we no longer listen with suspense, but in a way in which the details of a dramatic exorcism no longer excite or astonish us. How do we overcome that danger of losing our amazement at God’s holy word?
  • The answer is that we must pray Sacred Scripture, not just hear it. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in teaching his fellow Jesuits and so many others how to pray, gave us a technique of meditation that can really help us maintain a sense of wonder and amazement. He called it the compositio locis, the “composition of place,” putting ourselves into the same place, the same scene, as eye witnesses and participants, seeing it in all its detail as much as we can, using all our senses. To take today’s scene, we could begin to enter in by pondering some of the following elements: What did the synagogue look like? What was it like when the chuzzan (keeper of the scrolls) gave Jesus the text to read and when Jesus began to speak? Did he speak with a high voice or a low one? Did he speak quickly or slowly? Did he speak energetically or in a monotone? Did he smile or was he serious? What was the reaction of people’s faces when they began to hear him teach in a new way with authority? Were their mouths open? Were they mentioning their amazement to others, to you, as Jesus continued to speak? What was it like when the demon began to speak? Was his voice guttural? Were the other people freaking out because of fear and running away from him? Was there any stench to his presence? Were any “security guards” rushing to try to protect the synagogue officials? What were the women doing in the synagogue balcony? Was anyone running out? What was Jesus’ face like as he looked at the possessed man? When the demon confessed him to be the Holy One of God? Did he scream or whisper, “Be quiet, come out of him!” What were the convulsions like? How frightening were the screams. What did Jesus do after the demon left the man? Did be help him up with a smile. When he turned to look at you at that moment, did you recognize he wants to expunge from you, too, whatever is unworthy of him? What were people saying in the synagogue after this great miracle? Were they whispering to each other their amazement or was it a cacophonous din after all that they had seen? How did the whole scene end? Did people run out to the others in Capernaum to let them know about Jesus? Who were the chief protagonists of letting his fame spread everywhere? Did anyone say to you, “If he commands unclean spirits and they obey him, do you think we should obey him too?”
  • That’s just a little taste of what it means to do a composition of place meditation on the scene in today’s Gospel. The more we do, the more we will maintain our astonishment at Jesus’ words. The Second Vatican Council taught that when the Scriptures are proclaimed in the Church, it is actually Jesus himself speaking live. That’s why we stand at the Gospel, because Jesus has entered into our presence in a new way and we respond with reverence. The Church wants us in ordinary life, in ordinary time, to listen with astonished hearts and amazed minds.
  • Jesus’ word is one that can answer the prayer of a sterile woman like Hannah in today’s Gospel and help her to conceive a son who would become a great prophet. His word is so powerful that, in a miracle far greater than a triumph of fertility over sterility or an exorcism, can take mere bread and wine and transform it into the Creator of the Heavens and the earth and the Redeemer of the world.  That’s the greatest ordinary example of the performative power of Jesus’ word that happens any day in the world when he takes a priest’s accent and says “This is my body… given for you,” and “This the chalice of my blood… poured out for you and for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” May God give us the grace always to be astonished and amazed when Jesus speaks, so astonished that we prayerfully meditate on his words as the one of the most exciting of all activities, and so amazed that we overcome all obstacles to hear him change simple foodstuffs into himself so that we can enter into a holy communion with him meant to last forever.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
1 SM 1:9-20

Hannah rose after a meal at Shiloh,
and presented herself before the LORD;
at the time, Eli the priest was sitting on a chair
near the doorpost of the LORD’s temple.
In her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping copiously,
and she made a vow, promising: “O LORD of hosts,
if you look with pity on the misery of your handmaid,
if you remember me and do not forget me,
if you give your handmaid a male child,
I will give him to the LORD for as long as he lives;
neither wine nor liquor shall he drink,
and no razor shall ever touch his head.”
As she remained long at prayer before the LORD,
Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently;
though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard.
Eli, thinking her drunk, said to her,
“How long will you make a drunken show of yourself?
Sober up from your wine!”
“It isn’t that, my lord,” Hannah answered.
“I am an unhappy woman.
I have had neither wine nor liquor;
I was only pouring out my troubles to the LORD.
Do not think your handmaid a ne’er-do-well;
my prayer has been prompted by my deep sorrow and misery.”
Eli said, “Go in peace,
and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
She replied, “Think kindly of your maidservant,” and left.
She went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband,
and no longer appeared downcast.
Early the next morning they worshiped before the LORD,
and then returned to their home in Ramah.When Elkanah had relations with his wife Hannah,
the LORD remembered her.
She conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son
whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.

Responsorial Psalm
1 SM 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8ABCD

R. (see 1) My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.
“My heart exults in the LORD,
my horn is exalted in my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies;
I rejoice in my victory.”
R. My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.
“The bows of the mighty are broken,
while the tottering gird on strength.
The well-fed hire themselves out for bread,
while the hungry batten on spoil.
The barren wife bears seven sons,
while the mother of many languishes.”
R. My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.
“The LORD puts to death and gives life;
he casts down to the nether world;
he raises up again.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he humbles, he also exalts.”
R. My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.
“He raises the needy from the dust;
from the dung heap he lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles
and make a glorious throne their heritage.”
R. My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.

MK 1:21-28

Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers,
and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
“What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.