Thursday, January 14, 2010

Redeem Us, O LORD, Because OF Your Mercy.

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Reading I              1 Samuel 4:1-11
The Philistines gathered for an attack on Israel.
Israel went out to engage them in battle and camped at Ebenezer,
while the Philistines camped at Aphek.
The Philistines then drew up in battle formation against Israel.
After a fierce struggle Israel was defeated by the Philistines,
who slew about four thousand men on the battlefield.
When the troops retired to the camp, the elders of Israel said,
“Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today
by the Philistines?
Let us fetch the ark of the Lord from Shiloh
that it may go into battle among us
and save us from the grasp of our enemies.”

So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there
the ark of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim.
The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the ark of God.
When the ark of the LORD arrived in the camp,
all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth resounded.
The Philistines, hearing the noise of shouting, asked,
“What can this loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”

On learning that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp,
the Philistines were frightened.
They said, “Gods have come to their camp.”
They said also, “Woe to us! This has never happened before. Woe to us!
Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?
These are the gods that struck the Egyptians
with various plagues and with pestilence.
Take courage and be manly, Philistines;
otherwise you will become slaves to the Hebrews,
as they were your slaves.
So fight manfully!”

The Philistines fought and Israel was defeated;
every man fled to his own tent.
It was a disastrous defeat,
in which Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.
The ark of God was captured,
and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were among the dead.


Today’s First Reading from 1 Samuel digresses from what we have read so far. It is linked only by the mention of Shiloh, and of Eli and his sons; Samuel does not appear. This passage is centered on the Ark of the Covenant. The overall context is more like the story of Samson, including the Philistines.

The Philistines are introduced as the "bad guys" who are having it all their own way – at this stage. As usual, though, there is an implication that the Israelites are only getting their deserts for their infidelities before Yahweh.

The passage begins by our being told that the Israelites had encamped at Ebenezer to repel a planned attack on them by the Philistines who were encamped at Aphek. The location of Ebenezer (the name means ‘stone of help’) is not now known but it is presumed that it was probably not very far to the east of Aphek and not to be confused with the place of a stone, called Ebenezer, erected by Samuel to commemorate a victory over the Philistines (see 1 Sam 7:12). Aphek was in northern Philistine territory, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) northeast of the coastal city of Joppa (Jaffa). Philistine presence this far north suggests they were attempting to spread their control over the Israelite tribes of central Canaan.

A fierce battle between the Philistines and the Israelites near Aphek ended in a disastrous defeat for the Israelites in which 4,000 were killed. The leaders immediately see in the defeat a message from God. “Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines [infidels that they are]?” The elders understood that their defeat was more an indication of God's displeasure than it was of Philistine military superiority. Israel's pagan neighbors also believed that the outcome of battle was decided by the gods. Things – both good and bad – never happen simply by chance in the Bible.

In an attempt to secure the Lord's closer presence with them in the struggle against the Philistines, the elders sent for the Ark of the Covenant. They were correct in thinking there was a connection between God's presence with his people and the Ark and no doubt they remembered the presence of the Ark at notable victories in Israel's past history. But they incorrectly believed that the Lord's presence with the Ark would also produce the results they wanted. They reflected the pagan notion that the deity was fully identified with the symbol of his presence and that God's support could automatically be guaranteed by manipulating the symbol.

The Ark of the Covenant was brought from the sanctuary in Shiloh, the “ark of the Lord of Hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim”. We know that on each end of the atonement cover of the Ark were golden cherubim with their wings spread upward over the Ark (see Exodus 25:17-22). In the space between these cherubim God's presence with his people was localized in a special way, so that the atonement cover of the ark came to be viewed as the throne of Israel's divine King (see 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1; 99:1).

The Israelites carried the Ark with them into battle. They were fully confident that with God's presence among them, they would not be defeated this time. It did not actually help that the Ark was accompanied by the two wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. Among other misdemeanors, these had been in the habit of appropriating sacrificial offerings in the temple for themselves (1 Sam 2:12-17). Here too, they are using the Ark in a way which reduced it to the level of a pagan charm. For such desecrations they would pay a high price. When the Ark arrived among them, the people sent up such a war cry that the Philistines were alarmed. Such a war cry was, in fact, part of the Ark ritual. And when the Philistines realized that the Ark was actually present, they were even more afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. Like the Israelites, they identified the Ark with the actual presence of a god. They knew well that it was the God of Israel which had brought on the plagues in Egypt and rescued the Israelites from slavery. “Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” The Philistines could think only in polytheistic terms.

Their only hope was to fight with everything they had. If they lost they would become the slaves of the Israelites as the Israelites had once been their slaves. In spite of the presence of the Ark, there was another disastrous defeat for the Israelites in which 30,000 died (probably an inflated figure to emphasize the calamity of the defeat). And, what was worse, the Ark of the Covenant was carried off by the victors. This phrase, or a variation of it, occurs five times in the full story, making this the focal point of the narrative. Both this and the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli, were cryptically foretold to Samuel (1 Sam 3:11-12). It is perfectly clear that the defeat was punishment for sins which even the presence of the Ark could not avert.

There is frankness about this story which is refreshing. The expected, stereotyped, triumphalistic ending does not materialize. Perhaps the mistake of the Israelites was to identify the presence of God with the Ark itself so that they used it as a kind of charm or talisman to scare their enemies. Superstitious though they were – the Israelites ruse nearly worked – the Philistines in desperation set aside their superstitious fears, used the resources they had and won the victory.

It is possible for us Christians (and especially Catholics) to behave like the Israelites. We can identify the statue, or the picture, or the medal with the person they represent and endow with them with a kind of magic power by which we think we can manipulate not only events and other people but even God himself. But God must always remain utterly free. It is not for us to manipulate him but to know what his will is and to accept it, on the principle that God always wants what is best for us (although it may not, in the short term, seem like that). We pray to Our Lady and the saints not to tell them to twist God's arm on our behalf but to help us, to be like them and to accept God's will in all things.

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Responsorial          Psalm 44
Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
Yet now you have cast us off and put us in disgrace,
and you go not forth with our armies.
You have let us be driven back by our foes;
those who hated us plundered us at will.
Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
You made us the reproach of our neighbors,
the mockery and the scorn of those around us.
You made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
Why do you hide your face,
forgetting our woe and our oppression?
For our souls are bowed down to the dust,
our bodies are pressed to the earth.
Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
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Gospel                  Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.


This healing story does not actually belong to that “day in the life of Jesus” which we reflected on over the past two days.

Lepers were among the most piteous of people in scriptural times. Although little was known of the origin of the sickness, it was clearly known to be contagious and therefore greatly feared. The only solution was to isolate the victim and not allow him/her to approach people. So, apart from the appalling physical disintegration of body and limbs, there was the social ostracism, the contempt and the fear which the victim engendered.

What was probably even more tragic was that many who were branded as lepers were suffering from some other ailment, which may not have been contagious at all – such as ulcers, cancer or other skin diseases (some of them perhaps purely psychosomatic). The signs for diagnosis are given in chapter 13 of the Book of Leviticus and, by our standards today, are rather primitive indeed. The room for a wrong diagnosis was huge. It was a question of being safe rather than sorry.

The leper in the story indicates his great faith and trust in Jesus, a necessary and sufficient condition for healing in the Gospel. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” he says. He knows this because he has undoubtedly seen or heard of what others have experienced.

Jesus is filled with a deep sense of compassion for the man's plight. Highlighting the emotional feelings of Jesus is a characteristic of Mark’s gospel and is seldom found in Matthew. What Jesus feels is compassion not just pity. In pity we feel sorry for the person; in compassion, we enter into the feelings of the other, we empathize with their experience. And in doing so Jesus does the unthinkable – he reaches out to touch the leper. This must have been a healing act in itself. The leper was by definition untouchable. “I do will it.” says Jesus, “Be made clean.” The man is immediately healed.

But that is not the end of the story because the man has still to be reintegrated into the community – this is the second part of the healing process. He is told to go to the priests to make the customary offering of thanksgiving. They will examine him and then pronounce him fit to re-enter society.

He is also told not to say anything to anyone about it. Jesus wanted no sensationalism. But how could the man refrain from telling everybody about his wonderful experience of coming in contact with the whole-making power of Jesus? He becomes an ardent evangelizer, a spreader of good news – something we are all called to be.

What is the outcome of our experience of knowing Jesus? How come we do not have the enthusiasm of this man? It is worth noting that that experience was the result of his first having been the victim of a terrible cross. It is often in our crosses that grace appears.

Once again, Jesus goes out into the desert to avoid the enthusiastic crowds. Jesus was not interested in having “fans”, only genuine followers. He would not be ready until his full identity was recognized. That would only happen as he hung dying on the cross (Mark 15:39).

Before we leave this story, we may ask who are the lepers in our society today? One very obvious group is those who have contracted contagious diseases like HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases which are becoming ever more widespread. Even though these are of little danger to most people who have no physical contact, the victims are often rejected in fear or disgust or embarrassment by family members, friends, employers, colleagues, even medical people.

There are also people like homosexuals. If many of them are not lepers it is simply because they dare not reveal their orientation. They dare not do so because they are most likely to be "leperized" by even family and friends. There are other marginal groups, like drug addicts, poor single mothers, the homeless, alcoholics, immigrants … Truth told, we have many lepers among us. Let us examine our attitudes today and revise them if need be.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

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