"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

March 1, 2014

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 27, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen

The passage we have just heard from the Sermon on the Mount is among the most familiar and the most beautiful in all the Bible. We can see the Lord Jesus pointing to the birds in the sky and to the lilies of the field in order to assure his disciples, that is, to assure us, that our heavenly Father surely has even greater care for us than for those fine and fragile creatures of this earth.

These lovely verses are bracketed by the challenge that Christ sets out today, a challenge in its own way as great as the ones we have heard the last two weeks in which he asked us to tear murderous and lustful and deceitful vices up by their roots in our hearts. “No one can serve two masters,” he begins, because you will wind up choosing one or the other, either God or Mammon, that is, wealth. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. St. Augustine used to say that we have no choice whether to love–everyone’s life is guided by some fundamental love. The whole question is what one chooses to love. Will it be God, or one or another of those other claims on our affections: wealth or power or sex?

And the other bracket drives home the point of the beautiful comparisons Christ makes today: that we not allow worry about food or drink or clothing take over our lives. He is not, of course, asking us to have no concern for them, which are, after all, necessities of life. But in our society, at least, when we think of those things, we are most often not thinking about necessities, but about the superfluous, food and drink and clothing that we don’t really need to survive. And don’t Jesus’ words have a special relevance in a society where obesity is now epidemic and where obsession with clothes and appearance is almost taken for granted–just watch and listen to tonight’s Oscar festivities!

The Lord’s main point is re-inforced by the beautiful image we heard in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah: If a mother cannot forget her infant, fail to be tender to her, how much more certainly will the Lord remember his people and be tender toward them. This is one of the few passages in the Bible where feminine images are used of God, and the attitude of trusting surrender that it should evoke in us is set out in one of the briefest of Psalms: “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2). Like a weaned child, he says, not one eager for the breast, but a child content simply to rest on its mother’s lap, in quiet communion of love.

One of the saints in our Catholic tradition who explored this vision of God was Juliana of Norwich. She did not hesitate to speak of God as our Mother as well as our Father, and used this image to convey the conviction that our lives, our very existence, is encompassed, surrounded, by love. Throughout the book in which she recorded her visions, she repeated, almost like a murmur, like a mantra, what she had heard from God in response to her questions and doubts: “I make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see for yourself that every kind of thing will be well. And in these words,” she concluded, “God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and peace.”

God knows that there are many times and circumstances in which it is very difficult to do what the Psalmist did, to still and quiet ourselves like a child content on its mother’s lap, moments when doubts and questions and despair may threaten to overwhelm us because of fearful anticipations or dreadful experiences of evil. It would be absurd to pretend that such moments do not occur. But if they occur, when they occur, it will be helpful to have, more than abstract doctrines, the conviction that today’s biblical readings embody in images: of a God who cares more for us than for the graceful birds of the air, more than for the beautiful flowers of the field, more even than a mother gently cares for her infant. And we could embody the trust that these images elicit almost spontaneously in the simple words of the medieval mystic: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

5 Comments »

  1. Having turned my attention each morning this week to reading one St. Augustine’s sermon on The Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5: 1-11), while studying a couple of your papers that contrast the theologies of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, your homily for today brings home a deeper understanding of the latter — unless I miss the point. Whereas St. Augustine sees a deep chasm between the natural and the spiritual world. St. Thomas allows us to experience grace in the smallest details of everyday life. In the midst of the harsh winter that seems never to end, we can remember that the flowers will emerge from beneath the snow, the birds will return, we will see our friends and families again, we will finish this dreadful assessment of learning outcomes work and return to working with students and writing about things that interest us — distant though that may seem at any given moment.
    Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Walters-Doehrman — March 2, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

    • Barbara: I don’t want to overstate the differences between St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Thomas was a great Augustinian! My contrast has more to do with the conflict, in the 13th century, between Albert the Great and Thomas, who sought to integrate the insights of Aristotle into theology, and the neo-Augustinians who pretty much resisted that effort out of fear that the wine of the Gospel would be turned into the water of philosophy–an image they used. There is, however, this difference between Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine tended to work with only two categories: grace and sin, while Aquinas systematically and critically introduced into that schema the notion of nature, not that he thought that nature escapes the dialectic of sin and grace, but that he thought a notion of nature was needed in order to understand the sinfulness of sin (falling short of nature) and the graciousness of grace (surpassing nature’s powers). I do think that this difference holds up and can ground ideal-types of “Augustinian” and “Thomist” approaches.

      Comment by komonchak — March 3, 2014 @ 10:22 am

  2. Thank you, Fr. Joe. The great thing about blogging homilies is that the congregation can blog back!

    The distinction between the Neo-Augustinians and Thomas, as you describe it is, I think, central to understanding the transformation of theology implicit in the doctrine of transubstantiation as defined in the Aquinas homily — not sure, but am sure that Augustine was a Neo-Platonist and that the distinction between them and Aquinas is central. I am trying to center my Orvieto paper on this, viewing the Liege office and Juliana as using texts to point out the conflicting doctrines by placing quotes in the same document. The current analyses have viewed the Liege office as part of the early 13th century school in which the Eucharist was viewed as a corporeal presence — literally. Actually, the office has quotes both from Alger of Liege and from Hugh of Saint Victor.

    Bracketing this for a moment, since it’s even more complex than outlining similarities and differences between Thomas and Augustine, I was surprised, for example, to find the seven gifts of the holy spirit in Chapter IV of Augustine’s homily on the Sermon on the Mount. The way in which he described these as an assent reminded me of the eight-fold path in Buddhism. But, here’s a quote that strikes me as marking the Augustinian “Ideal type.”

    Chapter 5: 15.
    “I do not think that it is the higher parts of this visible world that are here called heaven. For our reward, which ought to be immoveable and eternal, is not to be placed in things fleeting and temporal. But I think the expression “in heaven” means in the spiritual firmament, where dwells everlasting righteousness: in comparison with which a wicked soul is called earth, to which it is said when it sins, “Earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return.”

    Rather than the ideal type, it could be instructive to create something like a case pattern analysis. This allows for the creation of more detailed heuristic tables that can show similarities and differences. The one below is kind of simple-minded — off the cuff. But a more studied table might articulate important details for a non-theological audience.

    Augustine Aquinas
    God as present and visible through earthly signs x
    Biblical x x

    Comment by Barbara Walters-Doehrman — March 4, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

    • Thanks, Barbara. I’ve been hoping for some comments on the homilies, but they’ve been few and far between.

      I’m off to Edmonton, Alberta, tomorrow morning to give three talks on the ecclesiology of Augustine’s sermons, so it’ll be a while before I can reply to your comment.

      The Commonweal website is going to be posting a quote from Augustine for each day of Lent, chosen by me. I think this is the fifth Lent that I’ve done this little act of alms-giving.

      Comment by komonchak — March 4, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

      • Safe travels, Fr.Joe. We will look forward to seeing you at your celebration. It’s very kind of you to consider and respond to my queries. It takes me a great deal of time to read and reflect in ways that open thinking rather than defend positions already taken.

        Comment by Barbara Walters-Doehrman — March 6, 2014 @ 8:33 am


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