Sunday, January 31, 2010

Year C 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 71: 1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30

As Christians we talk about love all the time because love is fundamental, not just for our lives, but for all of reality. After all, love is the reason there is something rather than nothing. When we speak of love we often do so by way of a reduction. Very often we repeat from Scripture, "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16). In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict points this tendency out and attributes it, at least in part, to the poverty of our language. In English we have one word, "love," that we use across a vast range of meaning. In koine Greek, the language in which St. Paul composed his letters, we encounter three distinct words that we translate as "love": philia, agape, and eros. Philia refers to a particular kind of love between friends, exalted by Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle. The word eros, as we know, means something like the "love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon" them (par. 3). This brings us to agape, the word that St. Paul wrote about in our second reading, which is the same word used in 1 John to describe the divine nature of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In western Christianity, taking Latin as our normative language, agape becomes caritas and, in turn, charity.

As with the word love, charity takes on many meanings, perhaps the most common of which in our day is bound up with being something of a do-gooder. Hence, our reduction is often revealed to us when a person we try to help says, "I don’t want or need your charity." This rejection is understandable and arises from a well-intentioned effort that fails to take full account of the humanity of the person we wish to help. In short, people cannot be the objects of a charitable act because true charity involves only subjects. It is precisely Jesus’ refusal to be reductive in today’s Gospel that causes him refuse to perform miracles in his home town in order to prove the truth of the messianic declaration he made in the synagogue, namely that the words of the prophet Isaiah, which he read to them at worship, were fulfilled in their hearing that very day. What was the messianic declaration of Isaiah? Let’s look back at last week’s Gospel: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19). Without getting too cute with this passage, because in reality, even prior to his return to Nazareth, especially in Capernaum, he did restore sight to the blind, make the lame walk, and the deaf hear, we ask who are the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed? In this passage it is those who were there present. Their blindness is manifest by the fact that they do not recognize Jesus as the anointed one, the Messiah. They become infuriated that he refuses to demonstrate his claims with physical healings and other great signs to the point of trying to kill him. Jesus’ refusal shows that he has no ego-centric need to prove his identity.

Msgr. Luigi Giussani makes a distinction between charity and generosity. According to his view, "[g]enerosity arises from within you and therefore is like an escape valve" (Is It Possible to Live This Way?, Vol. 3 pg. 61). As such, it is an attempt to meet your own need and is not primarily concerned for the person you seek to help. For example, if you don’t give to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti, you feel cheap, and so you give. Looking at things like this if you give $1,000 instead of $100, you feel as though you have done more. When we act out of caritas, it works contrary to generosity: caritas "arises from without, from a presence in front of you," a person "who moves you and asks you" (ibid). Stated simply, "[c]harity poses itself in the relationship with another when there is no reason, no calculation" and can often only be done by us with great difficulty, which makes it a sacrifice acceptable to God (pg 38). This is the lesson of the widow, who we will encounter later in St. Luke’s Gospel, whose "two small coins" amounted to more than the contributions of the all the wealthy people combined because, while the wealthy "made offerings from their surplus," she gave "from her poverty," thus offering "her whole livelihood," everything she had (Luke 21:1-4). Charity always requires sacrifice.

Fr. Leonardo Grasso, a missionary sent from Venezuela to Haiti after the earthquake, when asked what he found upon his arrival in Haiti, said he "found people who are not as they are reflected in the current news, where they are portrayed as desperate, a prey for violence, and who are looting the aid. This is not true." He says that in his daily interactions with people he does not see, nor do people complain about all the conditions reported in the media. Rather, Fr. Leonardo says that because the Haitians "are people who have suffered greatly" that "they are also capable of facing conditions which seem impossible… They are able to recognize, in the circumstances of the catastrophe, a strength that comes from a relationship with God and with others. Haitians know the difficulties that confront them and embrace them in an extremely positive way." He says that "[i]nto the disaster, they breathe the desire to start over." One piece of reportage has stayed with me throughout these past few weeks came via Twitter from one Troy Livesay, who was in Port au Prince on the very night of the quake: "Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy." Charity always includes prayer through which we acknowledge the One who is our hope, the LORD who tells Jeremiah, "I am with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:19). In all of this we see that God does not so much deliver us from circumstances, but through them.

Reflecting on love in light of the Gospel, I see that if my actions derive from something dictated to me, which gives rise to a felt need of my own, then I am engaging in child’s play, a kind of mechanical calculation. If, however, my actions arise "from the awareness moved by the presence of a [person] destined for the eternal, it’s no longer child’s play" (Is It Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 3 pg. 60). Without reference to Christ, I cannot help but reduce the humanity of those I try to assist as well as my own. Returning to the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, we read that "[s]eeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave" (par. 18). Hence, I can never look at another person "with the eyes of Christ" and see a problem to be solved. Indeed, our greatest need is to be loved, which is why St. Paul can confidently say that love "endures all things" and "never fails" (1 Cor. 13:7c-8a).

Finally, let’s look at the devastation wrought by the spread of HIV throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is not uncommon to hear the response that we must make condoms more widely available, but this response ignores the humanity of those we want to help. What is the more charitable way? Rose Busingye, who runs Meeting Point International, a place in Kampala, Uganda for women infected with HIV and those with full-blown AIDs, many of whom are victims of rape and violence, tell us that we must "start from the fact that we need to be educated" and that "education primarily concerns the discovery of self: the person who is conscious of himself. He knows that he has a value that is greater than everything. Without the discovery of this value - for themselves and others - there is nothing to hold." Therefore, if we start, as those who think the distribution of condoms is either the only way, or merely the primary way, of combatting the spread of this deadly virus, from a negative hypothesis- that people in Africa, or anywhere, like teenagers in high school, will inevitably behave in an irresponsible manner, we fail to take seriously their humanity. Dear friends, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must recognize that charity always trumps mechanics, be they physical, psychological, or even moral. Our ability to do this can only arise from our awareness of first being loved, which love gathers us here and makes what we do Eucharist, which moves us from what is partial to what is perfect.

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