Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 09 2018 | 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Isaiah 35:4-7a | Psalm 146:6-10
James 2:1-5 | Mark 7:31-37
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the most frequent complaints that my wife, Deacon Sharon, has about me, is that I don’t listen to her. Yes, it’s very true that sometimes when she is speaking, my mind is elsewhere, sometimes on current events, other times on liturgy, and often I’m composing music in my head. But she’s not unreasonable in wanting me to take seriously the message emanating from her, nor is any other spouse in the same situation. Sharon probably wishes Jesus would open my ears the way He did in today’s Gospel for the man who could neither hear nor speak. I am sure all of us who are married will agree that listening to your spouse goes a long way towards a smooth relationship.
The way many people would perceive the situation described in today’s Gospel is that Jesus possessed supernatural powers, and therefore, Jesus is God. That, however, is a very surficial analysis. This story is not just recounting an event in the life of Jesus. Like much other material in scripture, we don’t know if this incident is historical record of an actual event. What is important is the truth of its meaning. Jesus opens our ears to listen and frees our tongues to speak and sing. Jesus helps us to communicate with one another, and to communicate, we must listen, as well as talk.
The world has very few good listeners. God has spoken to humankind from the beginning of creation. A small portion of what God said is contained in the Bible, particularly in the prophets, who first listened to God and then delivered what God said to people. The prophet Samuel famously said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Too often, however, we approach God in just the opposite way, pleading, “Listen God, your servant is speaking.”
You might want to think about allowing the Holy Spirit to give you grace to be a good listener. To do so, however, requires humility. So many people place themselves on so high a pedestal that they cannot identify with the situation of the person speaking to them. Jesus, however, was different. He humbled Himself to be one of us.
Humility brings us what’s called “active listening.” The humility of active listening means getting ourselves out of the way and really hearing what the other person is saying. We must empty ourselves so there is room for others, just as Jesus emptied Himself to find room for humanity.
Various stories in the Gospels portray Jesus as an active listener. “Active Listening,” the kind that Jesus does, characterizes a good pastor, friend, spouse or parent. Jesus is fully engaged with everyone He met. He is completely mindful of them, their lives, their interests, their joys and sufferings. When He is with fishermen, He talks fishing. When He is with farmers, He talks about seeds, soil, and weeds. Jesus is always present with the people He meets as if there was no one else in the world. When Jesus ministers to people, He begins by listening carefully, deeply and attentively. Even when he is asked a question, he responds with another, gently probing question, softly inviting whoever comes to him to open up and reveal herself. Jesus doesn’t impose. He listens. He may know all things as God, and yet, he waits patiently as each person reveals as much of himself as he is willing to reveal.
Active Listening as done by Jesus means are willing to listen to understand another person’s perspective. Jesus appreciated learning about people’s concerns, values, and spiritual condition. After the resurrection along the road to Emmaus, Jesus asked those walking with Him, \”What are you discussing together as you walk along?\” They stood still, their faces downcast. Cleopas asked the Lord, \”Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?\” \”What things,\” Jesus asked. Jesus knew how to ask informative questions that allowed Him to find out what was really important to people. If you want to be good listener, learn to ask what, why, when, where and how type questions which allow people to explain things from their own level of understanding.
Jesus listened to the emotions, ideas, and implications of the peoples speaking to Him so he could identify the speaker’s needs. Jesus took time to show people how important they were to Him by giving them His undivided attention. He listened to people with all of his senses and in a way that empathized with the person talking to him. A good example of this is Jesus at the Cana Wedding Feast. You will recall that the festivities halted when the wine ran out. His mother brought that to the attention of her Son, Jesus, who responded, “What has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Mary persisted. She told the servants, “Do as He tells you,” whereupon Jesus commanded the servants to fill the jugs with water, and presto, it became wine, exactly how, we do not know. Here, Jesus not only listened with his ears, but with his heart. He realized the urgency of this situation and empathized with what was going on in the minds of the wedding guests. He listened to all of what was going on around Him in a way that allowed Him to perceive the needs of others and respond to those needs.
Jesus was willing to put away negative feelings, grudges, hurts or misunderstandings to really hear what people were saying. Do you remember the Samaritan woman at the well? She said to Jesus, \”You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?\” This was significant, because the Jews of the era in which Jesus lived did not associate with Samaritans. Jesus risked being accused of becoming ceremonially unclean if He used a drinking vessel handled by a Samaritan, since the Jews held that all Samaritans were unclean. But Jesus was willing to overlook even this deeply embedded cultural value for the sake of reconciling one human person to God. We find the same idea in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman told Jesus that her daughter was possessed by demons. At first, Jesus ignored and dismissed her, saying that He was sent only to save the Jewish people. She knelt before Jesus and said, “Please help me.” Jesus, still skeptical, said that food for the Jews was not to be given to the Gentiles. Yet the woman persisted, just like Mary His Mother and the Samaritan woman, and won Jesus over when she said, in so many words, that God has enough grace to go around for Gentiles as well as Jews. Moved by her great faith, Jesus heals her daughter.
What these three stories have in common was that they involved Jesus listening to women. That was unusual in His times, when women were considered the property of their fathers until they married whereupon they became property of their husbands. Jesus, however, treated women as people, not property. He took seriously what they have to say. Jesus recognized that men and women communicate differently. Jesus recognized that women are more likely to be people-oriented listeners and that women connect with the emotional message and undertones of a conversation, more concerned with the occurrence of the conversation than with the pertinent information discussed. In the stories of the Cana Wedding, Samaritan Woman and the Canaanite woman, the focus was more on the fact of the conversation than its results.
As to the Samaritan Woman and the Canaanite woman, the fact of the conversations highlight the inclusivity with which Jesus conducted his ministry as not only did they involve Jesus interacting with women, as such, but also that these particular women were from ethnicities whom the Jews disfavored in the days of Jesus. Nonetheless, I am sure Sharon wishes that I listened to her as much as Jesus listened to women.
When we learn to listen to God in our prayer time, it will become easier to listen to people as well. Take, for example, Job, who when suffering, cried out in prayer to God, “Oh that I had one person to hear me out.” His friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar thought they had all the answers, but they didn’t have the wisdom to first listen to Job. Like Job’s friends, all of us have been guilty of coming to people with our own agenda and answers before learning the truth about what’s really happening. Spouting a quick answer rather than take the time and reflect is all too easy. True listening is being silent with another person in an active way, open and sensitive to what the person is saying, listening with both head and heart. Job’s friends gave advice before hearing everything he had to say. They see his suffering and assume he must be guilty, since God is just. Job, knowing he is innocent, concludes that God must be unjust. But ultimately, the Book of Job declares that that God alone is just, and the source of all wisdom and power. Hence, Job’s so-called friends misled him, to his detriment.
Jesus did not listen to people just to find something to criticize. Allowing our own agendas to interfere with our listening to others means we don’t give our full attention to what people are saying to us because we are formulating a response as they are speaking to us. Sometimes as the other person is speaking, we form an opinion about what they are saying. This is particularly true in political or religious discussions where disagreements are bound to occur. If you respond with an opinion that is the opposite of the one you are hearing, the strong potential exists to create hostility. Also, when someone is describing a problem, we construct a solution as they are speaking which we then present. Many times, however, the person describing as a problem is not looking for advice. They merely want someone to hear them out. Jesus, however, gave them the time to unload what was in their heart.
But listening is only half of communication and only half the problem that Jesus cured for the man in today’s Gospel. Jesus also freed the man’s tongue so he could speak. Speaking, however, and listening are closely related. One cannot be an effective speaker without being a skilled listener. When we are children, we learn to speak by listening to those around us. The same is true when we try to learn a foreign language. I can tell you I remember a lot more Spanish when I am in a Spanish-speaking environment, though I wish Spanish speakers would speak more slowly so I can understand them better. I find myself constantly asking, “Puede hablar mas despacio, por favor.”
All of what I have said thus far relates to the spoken word. However, speaking is not the only form of vocal activity known to the human voice. We can also sing, and our first reading today recognizes that. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
Here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community for Sunday Mass, we do far more singing than speaking. Why are we not like all the other churches in our area, where the overwhelming majority of the service is spoken? Let’s start with Saint Augustine of Hippo, who famously declared, “When you sing, you pray twice.” Augustine correctly recognized the empathetic chord between music and the human soul, which has been true since the very beginning of Judeo-Christian worship.
Christianity’s roots are in Judaism. Ancient Jewish worship was sung, a tradition that continues in today’s Orthodox and Conservative Jewish synagogues. References to singing for God appear throughout the Jewish scriptures. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra contain numerous references to singers in their descriptions of the temple restored for worship after the Jewish people returned to their land after the Babylonian exile. The psalms contain many references to song in worship. My favorite, from Psalm 104 is, “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being.” The Gospel of Luke contains the Song of Mary, known as the “Magnificat”, begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” the Song of Zechariah, known as the “Benedictus” declares, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people,” and the Song of Simeon, known as the “Nunc Dimittis”, prays, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” And don’t forget that when Jesus was born, the multitude of the heavenly angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth to people of goodwill.”
Our Sung Mass here is hardly a novel idea. Sung liturgy was the norm in the undivided church for many centuries in both Eastern and Western Catholic traditions; in the Eastern Church, it still is.
In parts of scripture, singing isn’t an option. It is a command. In Colossians, we read, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” In Ephesians, we hear, “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” The Acts of the Apostles tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned at Phillipi, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. The jailer freed everyone and was converted into a follower of Jesus. Good things happen when you sing to God.
Music, with its tools of melody, rhythm, harmony and timbre, communicates emotions in a way mere words cannot. At the primordial level, faith is an emotional response to the world, not an intellectual one. It is an encounter between the soul and the universe that is way beyond anything that can be expressed in words alone. Our hearts and souls are what interact with God. Hence, when the liturgy is sung rather than spoken, we not only hear it with our ears, but feel it within us, and it becomes part of us. Unlike spoken words, music connects with us on a subconscious level. To imbibe music into our consciousness requires us to let go of our conscious selves and interact with God’s word beyond the level of our brains, deeply into our souls. When we sing, we connect with God in a strong and deep way like nothing else, as we experience a purposeful penetration into our conscience, which leads to a warm and close relationship with a God who surrounds and loves us. The reality of God, Creation, Jesus, and salvation, are simply too great for mere speaking; they must also be sung.
Our hearts, that is, our feelings, are as important for reflecting the glory of God as the work of the head. That is why music and singing is so important for Christian worship. The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights, intensities and emotions, that will never be satisfactorily expressed by the spoken word, be it as prose or poetry. Many realities demand to break out of prose into poetry, and some demand that poetry become song.
Every week, when we sing the Our Father, we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Applying that to worship, we cannot help but sing. Consider the worship of God in Heaven, as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, where the author proclaims,
“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever…all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,…Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”