Ars praedicandi: II Easter, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A few years ago I had the privilege
of collaborating on a writing project
with a very gifted and imaginative preacher, David Lose.

In his contribution to our joint project he narrated a section
from George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan
in which Joan of Arc seeks help in her crusade against the English.

She has come to Robert de Braidicourt, a military squire,
to solicit his support for her campaign.
In the course of Robert’s questions about her intentions,
Joan reveals that she hears voices directing her moves.
In fact, one such voice has instructed her
to come to petition Robert.

The squire is taken aback: “How do you mean? Voices?”
“I hear voices telling me what to do,” Joan replies,
adding, “They come from God.”

Robert is unconvinced: “They come from your imagination.”
To which Joan answers, “Of course.
That is how messages of God come to us” (Shaw 1924, 59).

Pastor Lose then notes how this scene sheds light on
an important, though often overlooked element of faith.
While it is easy to assume that faith is primarily about knowledge,
it is also very much about imagination.
For whatever knowledge or experience one may possess,
one still has to imagine the difference faith makes,
the world it assumes, the actions it demands,
and the kind of life it invites.
Imagination is central to the life of faith and a crucial means
by which God’s presence is mediated to us.

If that is true, then one of the tasks of preaching – of this homily –
is to bolster people of faith by stimulating their
religious imaginations.
Helping you – as well as me – envision
where God is as the world is quarantined;
where grace is, when first responders around the globe
are dying;
where hope is, as unemployment rises,
incomes evaporate;
and fear, even desperation, invade our lives.

Today’s readings are familiar to us:
Thomas the so-called doubter
who makes the ultimate gospel profession,
the idealized community of Acts
living in tranquility together,
and Peter promising us joy and faith more precious than gold
after the trials of the current age.

But how do we engage these ancient texts for
interpreting this unexpected medical and economic crisis?
What do they say about navigating uncharted waters,
about negotiating this personal and social threat?
About faith at a time of such massive suffering and death?
It may take a little imagination.

Poet and preacher Thomas Troeger opens a door here,
suggesting that one ancient form of preaching yet useful today
is based on the presumption that there is more to the story
than what is related in the biblical text.
Troeger argues that these are not flights of pure fancy
but theologically disciplined acts of imagination
that seek to honor the spirit of the text,
while they draw upon larger perspectives in the gospels,
in our traditions, and in our experience.

Troeger’s work inspires me:
to theologize in story form about what scenes might have been missing …
what events could have been erased …
what characters were probably forgotten …
that render this tale of a doubting Thomas life-giving for today.

And it is today in which I set these lost scenes and characters.
For today, this Sunday, this season is when we announce
Resurrection as a contemporary gift,
God’s life-giving Spirit as a modern companion,
Crucifixion as a dreadful reality in the current age,
and stone-rolling as well as tomb emptying
mysteries of the eternal now and not simply historical events.

There are many elements of the gospel
that lend themselves to a modern interpretation,
with the disciples apparently self-quarantined
in some unknown location,
fearing the same infectious hatred that killed their Lord
and now threatens their well-being.

Apparently, they had enough paper products
and a well-stocked pantry and liquor cabinet
so that they didn’t need to venture outside.

But if they were safe and secure in their self-isolation,
why did Thomas venture out?
Would he dare defy Mayor Lightfoot’s stringent directives?
Was he at the Walgreens or sneaking out to the Lakefront?
Was he wearing a mask? Did he have hand sanitizer?
Was he maintaining social distancing?
And would he endanger the other disciplines in returning,
exposing them to a contagion
they were trying to avoid?

There is a throw-away word in the Gospel
that helps me imagine answers to these questions.
It is a Greek term to which we pay little attention
“didymus” – which means twin.
Actually, the name Thomas itself was derived
from the Aramaic word for Twin.
So in his name and in his title the gospel asserts he had
a sibling counterpart.
We don’t know if it was a male or female,
identical or fraternal,
but Thomas was one of a pair … a companion … a counterpart.

The poet Denise Levertov (d. 1997) had a fondness for Thomas,
even writing a Mass of sorts for the Day of St Thomas Didymus.
In another poem she explores the saint’s “twinness”
not by conjuring his biological sibling,
but by imagining Thomas finding his spiritual twin
in the doubting father of the gospel of Mark (9:24)
who brings his possessed son to Jesus for healing
and exclaims “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”
The poet puts Thomas in the scene and has him speak thus:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,
and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,
and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

Thomas’ spiritual twin was someone who knew grief intimately.
This twin was someone who parented the broken,
who daily encountered crucifixion,
and yet clung to hope and professed faith.

In these horrific days
when we are ordered and cajoled to shelter in place,
there are angels and heroes, in the hospitals and on the streets,
who wager their own well being for the sake of others.
Some drive a bus, some check out your groceries.
Others show up when we dial 911,
or comfort the dying as substitute families
through shielded faces and gloved hands.

These are the metaphorical twins of Thomas
like the heart broken father in the gospel of Mark.
These are the people who confront danger, even death,
yet cling to hope, though some of them in truth will die
and sadly have died.

I imagine Thomas was out there with his twins,
the med techs and nursing home care givers,
the firemen and paramedics,
and they are showing him how to touch the wounds.
They are teaching him where to find the newly crucified.
They are inviting him to recognize the true Christ,
the one poets call Jesus of the Scars:
never immune to the cost of love.
Never immune to the price of his own belovedness.

In my imagination
Thomas was insistent … maybe even belligerent …
about putting is hand in nail marks
and the pierced side of the Lord,
because he knew that it was only a wounded Christ
that was an authentic Christ.
It was only a broken body
that could heal a broken people.
And that it was only a God-Man
who himself had descended into hell
who could raise up all the broken, of every age
from whatever hell they are now enduring.

And were the other disciples endangered by Thomas
and his reckless behavior
as he returned to their sheltered environment,
bringing with him some unwelcomed pathogen,
some fearful vapor or breath?

To be honest, Thomas’ imagined foolhardiness
did jeopardize something, did put something at risk.
For it threatened and imperiled a quarantined spirituality
that sometimes allow Christians to believe
in the complacency that frequently lures us all …
that we can have today’s first reading without the second…
that we can have some kind of idealized community
without suffering,
and that a faith more precious than gold
can possibly be smelted without the fire of Golgotha.

Holy week is over and Good Friday
does not appear again on the calendar
until April 2nd of 2021.
But the mystery of the death of the Lord
cannot be shelved for another 12 months,
nor the gift of resurrection be pried free
from the necessary suffering – even death –
that gave it birth.

We are a community.
We are a city.
We are a nation.
We are a world
that is experiencing its own stigmata of sorts,
like a Francis of Assisi.
We are not only touching the wounds of Christ,
we are now bearing them
on our individual and collective bodies.

As we pray for comfort and healing,
for courage and hope,
for peace and new flourishing,
we also pray that the invitation of this terrible plague
be not too easily forgotten …
That coming this close to Jesus scars
and the profound wounds on his body in the world,
fresh charity might flourish,
renewed respect for all humanity might arise,
an invigorated social bonding across races
and ethnicities might emerge,
and authentic resurrection might bloom,
eradicating darkness, fear and hopelessness,
Through Christ our Lord.

3 comments

  1. Perfect for this time of social distancing. My husband and I are isolating ourselves for the next 2 weeks after flying home from Florida. We miss our children and grandchildren but have hope that we will all come out of this safe and well. We pray that all of the clergy, musicians, readers and staff at Old St. Patrick’s, who bring us this beautiful liturgy, stay safe and well. Thank you.

  2. I appreciate you.
    Today during OSP services, you Absolutely touched our hearts with this message.
    Thank you. Peace and good health.
    Kate

  3. Thank you for such a heart and mind opening Homily. You
    Have left us with much to ponder and take action on! God has given you a great gift of clearly imparting his words of love, faith, endurance and service. In our quiet time the Lord reveals in our imagination!

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