Ars praedicandi: Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Anyone who thinks that the Roman Catholic Church
does not have a sense of humor
should take a few moments
to consider the Catholic church’s official liturgical calendar.

Our calendar does a variety of bizarre things
like thinking that the new year begins in December with Advent
when the rest of our society understands
that it happens on January 1st.

Equally out of sync with societal reality
we announce that the Christmas season isn’t over
until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord,
which occurred last week,
but some years not until the 20th of January.
Tell that to my Walgreens that started
after-Christmas sales on December 23rd.

And maybe most jaw-dropping of all,
this Sunday announces that we have
not only left the Christmas season
but returned to Ordinary Time.

Now I don’t know about you,
but I find it impossible to consider this ordinary time
by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand, this seems to be a perennial problem
in syncing liturgical time with societal time.

Some years on this transitional week into Ordinary Time
planes were landing on the Hudson,
(remember Captain Sully?)
or the governor of Illinois was being impeached,
or a black man was about to be sworn in as President.

And I thought those years were unusual …
but they don’t hold a candle
to the conjunction of recent events.

So instead of “ordinary time”
are we floundering in Covid time?
On the brink of insurrection time?
Lost in impeachment time?
Or just stuck in “Hunker-down-until-vaccination time?”

The first reading today is about a boy prophet
metaphorically trying to figure out what time it is…
like a biblical parody on the famous “who’s on first” routine
or some zany script from a Marx Brothers film.

Samuel gets caught in the middle of an apparent holy joke
trying to apprehend if it is bedtime or Eli time,
voices-in-my-head time or the spirit-is-messing-with-me time.

Samuel only finds his way out of this dilemma
when the wise Eli helps him discern the truth in the voices
and so discover that it is actually God-is-calling-time.

Our nation could use a few dozen Elis these challenging days,
when a chorus of disparate voices
are twisting this country in so many different directions.

We could use a few Elis telling us
in the midst of this rebellious cacophony
to lie down, take a time out,
and listen with our hearts and not just our ears.

Ironically the human brain is not wired for empathetic listening, [1]
the kind of listening in which
we set aside our prejudices and fully attend to the speaker.

Empathetic listening is an exercise in suspended judgment
exerting more energy on generous hearing
rather than our usual ploy of quietly crafting rebuttals
poised to launch when the speaker is finished.

Rather than suspending judgment
and engaging openly with the moment,
in order to conserve neural energy,
our brains constantly generate predictions
that allow us to interpret our environments
in the most efficient and speedy manner.

Unfortunately, efficiency is not a synonym for empathy,
speed is not a hallmark of justice,
and prognostication is not the stuff of friendship or love.

Some neuroscientists argue that empathetic listening
requires no less than
a willful override of the brain’s preferred mode of operation.

It requires quelling our brain’s need for predictability.
It requires the courage
to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones.

While leadership and management professionals
train CEOs in strategies of empathetic listening
that actually contribute to a company’s bottom line
to the delight of stockholder and investors,
our Christian tradition, like some others,
takes a different tact for confronting the spiritual fog that arises
when reason is drowned out
and truth becomes the enemy.
We call that approach discernment.

Few spiritual leaders in our tradition
were more steeped in the process of discernment
than Ignatius of Loyola.
I know, he’s a Jesuit and I’m a Franciscan,
but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ignatius called the various voices in our heads and our hearts,
these various motives that move us, “spirits”
and he established a series of 22 guides or rules
to help in the discernment process
distinguishing good from evil spirits.

Even Jesuits admit that engaging these various rules,
undertaking such discernment, is complex,
requiring both time and the help of a wise director.

Since my homilies are already long enough
and I am no wise director in the ways of Jesuit spirituality,
maybe we can begin with a simpler approach to discernment
starting with that single gospel principle
Jesus articulates today for discerning godly leadership:
come and see.

Jesus returns to this criterion later in Luke’s Gospel
when he tells the disciples of John the Baptist,
who wonders if he is the true messiah,
to report what they have seen:
The blind see, the lame walk,
those with leprosy are cured,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life,
and the good news is preached to the poor (Lk 7:22).

Matthew’s gospel compresses this verse even more.
When in response to concerns about false prophets
Jesus says, “By your fruits you will know them” (Mt. 7:16)

As many of you remember, in April of 2019
a massive blaze at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral
devastated large parts of this icon of gothic architecture.

The process for rebuilding began almost immediately:
there were structural engineers overseeing the reinforcement
of weakened pillars and those famed flying buttresses;
damaged scaffolding and debris were removed;
the great organ was dismantled for repair.

One task in the rebuilding of this famed space
is to restore the building’s sonic signature, [2]
for Notre Dame was not just a church;
it was also a world-class concert hall
with a unique sound profile unlike any other.

To accomplish this, planners and engineers
turned to the field of “heritage acoustics.”
This newly emerging science makes it possible
not only to document the acoustics of a notable place,
but also to recreate the sonic grandeur
of destroyed or altered structures.

This effort at Notre Dame is greatly aided by the work
of Brian Katz and his team,
who precisely mapped the sound in that space in 2013
and could thus generate an acoustic map for Notre Dame
now employed in the sonic restoration of this gothic jewel.

Heritage acoustics is a provocative metaphor
for thinking about Jesus’ resonance in these turbulent times.
For testing an authentic Christ acoustic
and discerning with
what the mystic Rumi called, “the ear in the chest,” [3]
the good spirits from the bad,
enabling us, along with the boy Samuel,
to recognize the legitimate voices of the Holy Spirit
in the midst of so much dissonance and discord.

Mapping the divine sonority and acquiring a gospel acoustic
is an ecclesial task achieved by a community of disciples
attuned to each other on the journey,
especially to the poor and the marginalized,
whose cries found such resonance in the divine chest:
in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

With Jesus’ instruction to “come and see” guiding us,
we make this journey with eyes wide open:
alert to visible fruits of the spirit,
justice and care,
shared dignity and inclusion,
and peaceability rather than violence,
violence that finds no home
in the teaching of the prince of peace.

The path of discernment is certainly not an easy one,
something that Martin Luther King Jr.,
whose birthday the nation celebrates tomorrow,
knew all too well.

But he walked that non-violent path
with eyes wide open
and a unique ear in the chest.
His gifts for discernment and bolding announcing
what he had seen and what he had heard
ultimately cost him his life.
It was a sacrifice he was willing to make
so that God’s prophecy would be fulfilled
and justice would flow like a river (Amos 5:24).

On the bicentennial of our nation some 45 years ago,
Broadway gifted us with the award-winning musical 1776.
While a somewhat fictionalized version of the events
leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence,
much of the play meets historical muster,
especially the depiction of John Adams
and his unrelenting quest to persuade all 13 colonies
to vote for independence.

In the penultimate musical moment of the show,
Adams is alone on stage
and sings a poignant yet powerful piece that opens with the lines:

Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?

Adams sings on to announce that the Rubicon is crossed,
that this is now a time of commitment
and though his enemies all say he’ll rue the day,
through all the gloom, with threatening doom,
he sees the rays of ravishing light and glory.

Some of us might today feel a bit like John Adams,
or more recently like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
wondering if anybody is there;
if anybody cares;
if anybody is willing to go and see the way Jesus sees.

Today’s liturgical plunge into this extraordinary time
comes with the assurance that God is there
calling us,
inviting us,
cajoling us to discern the good spirits
and renewing the promise that one day
there will be ravishing light and glory.

But only if we are prepared to join with the boy prophet
and with that myriad of other holy voices
who have joined this justice chorus throughout the ages
and respond, in word and deed,
Here I am, Lord, I come to do your holy will.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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