Monday, July 6, 2009

A Stairway To Paradise

Once upon a time, a three-year-old was playing in the back yard of an apartment block in a certain city in western Massachusetts. Aunt Mary was babysitting the boy, as his mother was in the hospital, soon to bring home a new brother for him. As Aunt Mary told the story, the boy was lifting first one foot then the other into the air, over and over again. She came downstairs and asked the boy a question: “What are you trying to do?” “I’m trying to climb up to heaven”, was the boy’s answer.


Perhaps it might have been easier if the boy had seen Jacob’s ladder. But even Jacob did not climb the ladder. The world in which we live is below the sky, where the sun shines during the day and the moon and starts dot the firmament with light at night. Only God’s angel s move up and down that stairway to paradise, and he saw them only in a dream, which might well have been provoked by his using a boulder as a pillow.

There is a message to the story, as there always is. The distance between Heaven and Earth is not infinite. The angels moving up and down Jacob’s ladder are messengers of God’s blessings upon, and sometimes of God’s warnings to, His children in this world. But that’s not the end of the story. The LORD spoke to Jacob in his dream: I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

When Jacob awakened from his sleep he remembered his dream, and though, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of his presence.” He was filled with fear of the Lord – not frightened, but awestruck – and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is the house of God; here is the gate of heaven.”

Early the following morning, Jacob took the stone on which he had laid his head, poured oil over top of it, and set it up as a monument. He called the place Bethel, which means, “The house of the Lord”. And he made a vow, “If God will abide by me, and watch over me on this journey, and will provide food for me to eat and clothes for me to wear, so that I might return safely to the home of my father, then the LORD will be my God, and this stone will be God’s dwelling place.

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In today’s gospel, a Roman official came to Jesus, who had just finished speaking to the crowd. He knelt before Jesus and said, "My daughter has just died, but come, lay your hand on her, and she will live."Jesus rose and followed him, and so did his disciples.

A woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him, and touched the tassel on his cloak.She said to herself, "If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured." Jesus turned around and saw her, and said, "Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you." And the woman was cured.

When Jesus arrived at the official's house and saw the flute players and the crowd who were making a commotion, he said, "Go away! The girl is not dead but asleep.” And they ridiculed him.

When the crowd was put out, he came and took her by the hand, and the little girl arose. The news spread throughout all that land.

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Father Donagh O’Shea, S. J., gives us the commentary of Saint John Chrysostom on this gospel: “Perhaps the man was exaggerating his misfortune. It is not uncommon for people who are in need to exaggerate their problems. They do so in order to provoke a more effective response.” Here, the bishop with the golden tongue sounds just a bit too intellectual. There have been scholars who’ve taught that you have to scrape away the “myths” of the scriptures in order to find the truth hidden beneath the words and imagery. But what if the truth also can be found in the wonder and in the poetry? God is a poet, a Greek word poietes that is translated into Latin as creator (which needs no translation into English).

A key figure in this gospel is the woman with the hemorrhages. She was simply looking for a healing, private and impersonal. But Jesus cut through her humble anonymity. “Who touched me?” he said. These are words to break through the strongest walls of anonymity. He wanted to be a friend to her, not just an anonymous benefactor.

The Roman official had confidence that Jesus would save his daughter from death, and the woman with the hemorrhage believed she would be healed. They were aware of being in the presence of God.

Some of us may identify more closely with Jacob, who was slow to realize that God is always present. In childhood, I knew that God is everywhere, so much so that I tried to walk up Jacob’s ladder into heaven. But now that I am grown, the education in scripture, in theology and in church law I have received can totally stifle the na├»ve imagination of the three year old I once was. Thank God, I become aware of His presence in my life, especially when I “make him present” at the Consecration of my daily Mass. Please God, I will bring his presence to the patients at the hospital and to the residence of the nursing home when I go there this morning and this afternoon.

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