Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lord Will Guard Us As A Shepherd Guards His Flock.

Memorial of Saint John Vianney, priest
Reading I
Jeremiah 31:1-7
At that time, says the LORD,
I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel,
and they shall be my people.
Thus says the LORD:
The people that escaped the sword
have found favor in the desert.
As Israel comes forward to be given his rest,
the LORD appears to him from afar:
With age-old love I have loved you;
so I have kept my mercy toward you.
Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt,
O virgin Israel;
Carrying your festive tambourines,
you shall go forth dancing with the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits.
Yes, a day will come when the watchmen
will all out on Mount Ephraim:
“Rise up, let us go to Zion,
to the LORD, our God.”

For thus says the LORD:
Shout with joy for Jacob,
exult at the head of the nations;
proclaim your praise and say:
The LORD has delivered his people,
the remnant of Israel.
Another upbeat reading from the prophet with a (not really deserved) reputation for doom and gloom. Jeremiah today continues his message of hope for the restoration of the two kingdoms, north and south, once again to be formed as one nation under God.

We are now at the beginning of chapter 31. Continuing the theme of restoration begun in the previous chapter, Jeremiah records the words of the Lord to

(1) all the people of God, v.1);
(2) the restored northern kingdom of Israel, vv.2-22;
(3) the restored southern kingdom of Judah, v..23-26; and
(4) Israel and Judah together, vv.27-40.

Today’s reading contains just the first seven verses of the chapter which speaks of the good news of the return from exile of Israel, the Northern Kingdom.

It begins with the repetition of the covenant promise: “I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel, and they shall be my people.” God had never been unfaithful to this covenant but the people had, again and again.

There is now pardon in the desert for those “who have survived the sword”. They are the just remnant which will return home from years of captivity and exile in the alien land of Babylon.

The desert or wilderness is sometimes seen by the prophets (e.g. Hosea) as a place of conversion. Israel’s original journey through the desert was seen as a time of childlike fidelity to God. Here, there is now seen a second Exodus, this time from the Arabian Desert, which will bring Israel back once again from exile and slavery into its own land.

“Israel is marching to his rest.” Israel originally was Jacob’s other name but here it refers to the Northern Kingdom. It is also called by Jeremiah Samaria, Ephraim, Jacob and Rachel.

The Lord now expresses his affection for his people. “I have loved you with an everlasting love, so I am constant in my affection for you.” This gentle and tender language is in strong contrast to some of the severe chastisements we have seen in previous readings from the prophets, including Jeremiah himself. But this love was there even in their times of suffering when they felt they were abandoned. Later, we read in the Book of Revelation, “God chastises those whom he loves” (Revelation 3:19).

Now God promises to restore Israel, the Northern Kingdom, as it was. There will be music with festive tambourines and dancing, signs of religious joy. Tambourines were played especially after military victories and this contrasts strongly with their sad plight in Babylon. “Beside the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion, leaving our harps hanging on poplars there… How could we sing one of Yahweh’s hymns in a pagan country?” (Psalm 137:1-2,4)

They will plant vineyards once more in Samaria. It had been conquered in 722-721 BC but one day would be resettled by God’s people. “Those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits.” Since the law laid down that the fruit of a tree could not be eaten until the fifth year after planting it, a return to long-term peaceful residence is envisioned, a situation of political and social stability.

On the mountains of Ephraim the watchmen will call out, “Let us go up to Zion”, that is, to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the role of watchmen to be stationed on high points to observe the phases of the moon which would decide the celebration of the big festivals. (Today, Muslims also have watchmen to observe the rising of the new moon indicating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.)

“Rise up! Let us go to Zion, to the Lord, our God.” In the days of King Jeroboam I, the people of Ephraim, that is, the northern kingdom, were required to worship at shrines within the kingdom but now the prophet sees them going, as they used to do, to the Temple in Jerusalem which was in the southern kingdom - one sanctuary for a united people.

“Go up” was a technical phrase to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The city was built on a hill. We see the phrase used in the New Testament also.

The reading ends with a series of acclamations of joy and triumph. Israel is the greatest of the nations, not because of its size or power but because of its special relationship with God. The people will cry: “The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!” The Hebrew word for ‘save’ is the basis for the “Hosanna”, which the people of Jerusalem cried out to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday (see Matthew 21:9).

Once again we hear the same words of hope by a people who had every reason not to hope. But their hope was justified as ours will be too.

And let us pray for the restoration of modern Israel in a way that guarantees justice and peace for its people and all their neighbours.*
+++    +++    +++   +++
Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12ab, 13
The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
proclaim it on distant isles, and say:
He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together,
he guards them as a shepherd his flock.
The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob,
he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror.
Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings.
The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Then the virgins shall make merry and dance,
and young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
I will console and gladden them after their sorrows.
The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Matthew 15: 21-28
At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district
came and called out,
Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But he did not say a word in answer to her.
His disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did him homage,
saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Jesus is seen on one of his few visits outside Jewish territory. The cities of Tyre and Sidon are on the Mediterranean coast in what is today Lebanon.

While he is there he is approached by a Canaanite (that is, a non-Jewish) woman whose child is “troubled by a demon”. Whether it was an actual possession or some natural physical or mental ailment does not really matter. Already the woman’s faith and trust in Jesus is indicated by the way she addresses him, “Lord, Son of David!” coupled with her plea for his compassion.

At first, Jesus ignores her completely. The disciples intervene and ask Jesus to give her what she wants because she is making such a nuisance of herself. Jesus replies that his mission is only to the “house of Israel”, to which this woman clearly does not belong.

In the meantime the woman continues her pleading, “Help me, Lord!” She is following, in fact, advice that the Gospel gives - keep on asking. Jesus replies in words that sound very harsh, if not racist: “It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”

‘Dogs’, together with ‘swine’, was a common colloquial expression among Jews for Gentiles (cf. Matthew 7:6: “Do not give what is holy to dogs or cast your pearls before swine.”) The dog was regarded as an unclean and promiscuous animal. Because it was such a common expression, it is probably not as harsh as it sounds to us and, if spoken with a measure of humour (implied by Jesus’ use of the diminutive, ‘puppies’), would not have given offence at all. As they say, everything is in the tone of voice. Jesus was not a racist; that is clear from other situations where he dealt with non-Jews and with other commonly despised groups.

For her part, the woman certainly is not in the least fazed. She comes right back: “Even the dogs eat the leavings that fall from their masters’ tables.” That was enough for Jesus. She had proved her genuineness. “Woman, you have great faith. Your wish will come to pass.” Her daughter was cured on the spot.

It is a hint of what is to come. Membership of God’s people will be measured not by birth or circumcision but by a living faith in Jesus as Lord.

A story like this is an occasion for us to look at our own attitudes to people of other races, ethnic groups and nationalities not to mention the socially disadvantaged or physically or mentally disabled - in other words, any people who are ‘different’. How inclusive are we in word and action? And does our parish community go out of its way to provide a welcome for the ‘outsider’? These are very real questions in societies which are becoming more and more inter-cultural.*
St John Mary Vianney, Priest

John Baptist (Jean-Baptiste) Vianney was born at Dardilly, near Lyons, in 1786. He was the son of a farmer and spent his early life as a shepherd boy. He got little formal schooling. The anti-religious violence of the French Revolution, with the outlawing of priests who remained faithful to their calling, also may have affected his opportunities for education. At the age of 20 he did begin studies for the priesthood but they were interrupted by his being conscripted for military service. However, like many others, he soon became a deserter and continued his seminary studies in secret until there was an amnesty in 1810. At this time he received the tonsure, the first step in becoming a cleric, and was accepted by the seminary at Verrieres. After three years he transferred to the seminary at Lyons in 1813. Studies did not come easily to him, especially the mastery of Latin which would have been the medium of instruction in philosophy and theology. He failed in his final oral examination but was admitted to major orders (subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood) in 1815. Although he had the reputation of being the least capable student at Lyons, he was also regarded as the most devout. In accepting him for the priesthood, the vicar general said that the diocese needed not only learned priests but also holy ones. For his first appointment he became curate at Ecully for two years until his parish priest, who was very austere and deeply appreciative of Vianney, died in 1817.

Vianney was then appointed parish priest of Ars-en-Dombes, a remote and insignificant village with only about 250 inhabitants. From now on he would be known as the CurĂ© d’Ars (the pastor of Ars). This would be his home for the rest of his life. He lived a very austere and penitential life, living mainly on potatoes. He strongly attacked all blasphemous language and obscenities. He was the cause of village inns closing down because of a lack of custom. He attacked all forms of sexual abuse, dancing and immodesty. But all was not negative.

He excelled at preaching and spiritual direction, both inside and outside the confessional. He seems to have had supernatural gifts of looking into people’s hearts, of knowing of events which had taken place far away and an ability to see into the future. There is well-established evidence that he was persecuted by poltergeists, which he attributed to Satan. These included loud noises, personal violence and even the burning of his bed. More positively, he was responsible for the unexplained multiplication of food, especially for the orphanage which he had founded. His fame began to spread. Vianney himself attributed these happenings to St Philomena, to whom he had a special devotion and for whom he set up a shrine. But the people believed that Vianney himself was the source of all that happened. Between 1830 and 1845 as many as 300 people a day arrived by train from Lyons to see him. A special booking office had to be opened in Ars to deal with them.

Every day at 11 o’clock he preached at Mass and then spent long hours in the confessional. He could spend up to 12 hours a day hearing confessions and, in the years preceding his death, when the number of visitors reached 20,000 a year, he sometimes spent as many as 16 hours a day in the confessional. With the passing of the years and his deepening and more compassionate understanding of people, he became less severe and more understanding of human weaknesses, although listening to lists of sinful behaviour pained him deeply. He also began to insist more and more on the love of God and the power of the Church’s liturgical prayer.

Three times he left Ars with the intention of entering monastic life but each time he returned to his parish. He turned down all ecclesiastical promotions but, with reluctance, accepted his being made a canon. But the canon’s robes he sold and gave the money to the poor. A rather surprising honour was the government recognising his work by the conferring of the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honour. However, he declined to attend the investiture and never wore the decoration.

Worn out by the austerity of his life and the endless numbers of people coming to him for direction, he finally succumbed on 4 August 1859 at the age of 73.

He was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 31 May 1925 and named patron of diocesan priests.*

The Irish Jesuits  

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'The people that escaped the sword have found favor in the desert.
As Israel comes forward to be given his rest, the LORD appears to him from afar:'

In a desert, there is nothing to block the view and dry air means there is often no haze so that even the furthest horizon appears sharp. This passage seems to show how losing everything can make us see the one thing that abides always - God's love for us, however remote He seems.

The Canaanite woman, in her distress, sees clearly who Jesus is. The phrase 'Israel comes forward to be given his rest' perfectly applies to her.

To call someone a 'dog' is insulting, but dogs have positive features that this woman personifies : perseverance (doggedness) and faith (Fido). In Hebrew, the words for 'faithful' and 'dog' are very similar, so perhaps people listening to Jesus might have started to see how despised outsiders (dogs) could become insiders (faithful).