There’s a story in the life of St. Benedict of Nursia that says that, after years of attempting to attain spiritual perfection as a hermit, Benedict was, reluctantly, called upon to take charge of an abbey of monks. The man of God, as St. Benedict is often called in this rather fantastic biography, upon arriving at the monastery, was distressed by the monks unlawful lifestyle. They couldn’t leave their former lives behind, for instance, in order to live the radical life necessary for monastic living. The monks became so perturbed at his constant correction that they decided to poison his wine so that they could elect a different abbot. St. Benedict was protected by God, however, for when he made the sign of the cross over the glass, it broke in two and Benedict, aware of their treachery, was forced to leave the monastery because of the selfishness of these monks and return to the peaceful, isolated life of a hermit, though eventually he began founding his own good monasteries.
In many ways, we live in a very selfish world, and we are painfully aware of this in January as we remember the anniversary of a profoundly selfish act on the part of this country, the legalization of abortion with the supreme court decision Roe V. Wade. Yet, it is but one way in which selfishness seems to be a corrupting force in American society. Abortion says not only will I not have this child I will not share it with someone who will love her and take care of her. Euthanasia says not only will I not suffer any pain but I will choose when I die. Embryonic stem cell research says not only will I get a cure for my disease but I will go to any length to get that cure. Capital punishment says not only will I mourn for the loss of my loved one but I will get revenge for his loss. And this is just the beginning of the selfishness that Pope John Paul II first called the culture of death and Cardinal Bernadin saw as needing a seamless garment to fix, including war and famine.
In the first reading, our Israelite brothers and sisters are living in a similar culture of selfishness. This reading is taking place after the third time that they had been living in exile in Babylon, possibly some 70 years since they had been a unified nation. They gather to be instructed by Ezra and the priests to begin reeducating the people about how they are to live the law and they start to weep. I wondered what would cause them to start weeping like that. At first, I thought they might be tears of joy, at being back where they belong, hearing what they should hear. But Ezra clearly says “Do not be sad”. So I thought they were tears of sadness for realizing all that had changed since they first went into exile. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought there was probably a mix of both. On the one hand they are overjoyed at being back in their home but they have to ponder all the years that they couldn’t live the Jewish life they wanted and even probably forgot some critical parts. Imagine what it would be like if we suddenly switched mass one weekend back into the pre-Vatican II mass. Most of us have never experienced it and, those who have, have probably forgotten a great deal about that celebration. These Israelites are saddened that they have forgotten so much.
Ezra, in calling for them to stop crying, is not simply a callous individual who can’t stand tears. He is trying to articulate a truth that I see when someone approaches me after not living their catholic faith as they should. Perhaps they don’t come to mass as often as they should, or they don’t come at all. Or, perhaps they have been saddled with living a double life in a state of serious sin while pretending to be a perfect Christian to the outside world. For whatever reason, they feel distant from their catholic faith and, tragically, feel unworthy to accept God’s forgiveness in order to start practicing their faith as they’d like. Ezra’s call is just as powerfully to them as it is to the people of Israel. He is, basically, saying to get past yourself. Today isn’t about the Israelite’s sinfulness. Today isn’t about your absence from church. Today is holy to the Lord your God. God is holy and has made today holy. Now live in today, this today of holiness.
It truly is as St. Paul says in the second reading, like being one body with different members. We are all connected to one another. My actions affect you and your actions affect me too. As Christians, we are not just members of one body but members of the body of Christ. St. Pauls uses this imagery especially to draw us out of our selfishness. He says, “those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety…” In other words, we are to especially care for those who cannot care for themselves. This is what makes those threats to human life that I listed before so dangerous: they affect the weakest among us and give into the basest sense of selfishness in each of us, a willingless to solve complex issues with simple answers. That’s why St. Paul adds, “If one part suffers they all suffer.”
In the Gospel, Jesus lists some things that are part of that very law that our Israelite brothers and sisters heard today that are fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection. In many ways we can find comfort in bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the unjustly captive, giving sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and making a year acceptable to the Lord. The really radical part of our faith that the culture of death will never understand is much harder for us to commit to: to die to ourselves, our ego and sense of entitlement to live an easy life, in order to truly be part of the body of Christ for this world. How can we Christians be a voice for the weakest in this world and promote a true sense of respect for human life?