“All the hairs of your head are numbered.” Matthew 10:30
Notes for a homily, Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A
For some of us, God doesn’t have to take a long time to number our hairs. But he still knows how many we have and cares for us.
Last month I read a most interesting commentary on this theme in Alive in God by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.:
Preaching on the text ‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted’ (Mt. 10.30), one of my brethren described delousing the lice-ridden scalps of street kids in Glasgow, hair by hair. God counting the hairs on our heads, an ever easier task in my case, is an image not of useless divine omniscience but of the infinite tenderness and patience of his care. Nothing is too small for his attention. I have occasionally seen parents carefully examining the hairs of a little kid, gently removing the lice. It’s a tender moment and show us the tender care that many parents have for their children – and the even more tender love of God who does not hesitate to get his hands dirty, delousing the hairs of a child, washing the dirty feet of his followers, and even dying for us.
I have occasionally seen parents, usually a mother, carefully examining the hairs of a little kid, one by one, gently removing the lice. It’s a tender moment and show us the care that many parents have for their children – and the even more tender love of God who does not hesitate to get his hands dirty, delousing the hairs of a child, washing the dirty feet of his followers, and even dying for us.
God does this for us. How can we not do it for others!
“Living my baptism is letting go of that narrow and boring little story [of my private life] so that I can flourish with my brothers and sisters in the spacious love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” -Timothy Radcliffe, OP, Taking the Plunge, p. 166
Pope Francis has asked us to remember the date of our baptism. Even before his request, I knew that I was baptized two weeks after my birthday, on June 15, 1947.
A few years ago I came across these photos of the day of my baptism.
I give thanks to God for my baptism – for my biological family and for the family of faith.
This week the first lectionary readings are from the Elijah cycle in the First Book of Kings. Elijah is one of those prophets that I love but who has a few character flaws – most notably his killing of the 450 prophets of Baal.
What surprised me today is that the lectionary skips over three very important stories.
The first is a follow up to Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath in Tuesday’s reading. The widow’s little boy dies and Elijah raises him to life (1 Kings 17:17-24).
The second is the end of the drought and his encounter with Obadiah, the master of the place who had hid 100 prophets when Queen Jezebel (the original one) was slaughtering all the prophets of the LORD.
But the scene that strikes me most is the meeting of Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 18: 16-21).
When Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is it you, you disturber of Israel?” He answered, “It is not I who disturb Israel, but you and your father’s house, by forsaking the commands of the LORD and you by following the Baals.
Dan Berrigan in The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power puts it even more boldly:
The king enters. His welcome is decidedly frigid: “So it’s you, the scourge of Israel!” Not at all set back, the prophet retorts, “Not I; you are the scourge of Israel!” And he proceeds to upbraid the king unmercifully for his defection to Baal, and to propose a test, a public showdown between himself and the entire coterie of practicing Baalian priestdom. Bracing, we say – and bravo! At long last we encounter a spirit undaunted daunted by royal persiflage, threats, blandishments.
As I read about the letter of Archbishop Viganò to Donald Trump and the archbishop’s unkind, probably calumnious words about Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and I wonder if we are in the midst of a “Baalian priestdom” who worship the false gods of power, violence, and domination and pretend to provide divine blessings on the US president.
Who is the real prophet – Archbishop Wilton Gregory or the retired archbishop who is spouting conspiracy theories and defending Trump?
Who is more like Elijah? Who is more like the court prophets?
I have my opinions. I may be wrong, but I don’t see vitriol or calumny as a sign of a follower of Jesus.
Today I am breaking myusual reticence to speak about specific persons and politics, but recent events have caused me a bit of perturbation.
[Ephrem] remained a deacon all his life, and to escape episcopal consecration he is supposed to have feigned madness. Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J.
Ordained a deacon late in life, St. Ephrem the Syrian declined the priesthood and escaped being ordained a bishop by pretending to be mentally disturbed.
I like him for that. He did not seek higher “rank” within the Church, finding his service as a deacon – as a servant – as his calling, his vocation. The diaconate as a permanent state is something that many people here in Honduras don’t understand – even some clergy. They are so accustomed to the diaconate as something transitional – and therefore not as important.
Saint Ephrem distinguished himself in many ways. He wrote commentaries on much of scripture and was renowned for his preaching – so much so that he was called the Harp of the Holy Spirit. He is also acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church, the only deacon so named.
As a deacon, he instructed the people in the faith with words but also with songs. He knew the value of music and how it forms us. About 500 of his hymns survive and some are still used in the Syriac liturgy.
He came to write some of his hymns – and set them to popular melodies – in response to a Gnostic sect that set its teaching to such melodies. He had no qualms in taking secular tunes to sue for his hymns. His hymns were often sung in church by a choir of women!
The liturgy was very important to Saint Ephrem, but he did not neglect charity. Though he lived in a cave outside Edessa, he did not separate himself completely from the world. In fact, a few months before he died he organized a major relief effort for famine victims. He left his cave and went to help the victims, because the people asked him to oversee the distribution of grain because they trusted no one else with the task.
He was a diakonos, a servant of the Word, the Altar, and Charity. What all deacons should be.
I especially treasure his prayers.
He wrote a prayer which is used during Lent among Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox and which expresses the spirituality of a servant of God:
O Lord and Master of my Life, give me not a spirit of sloth, lust for power, and idle talk. But give me, your servant, a spirit of charity, humility, patience, and love. O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge another, for blessed are you forever.
There is not madness in such a prayer – but much wisdom.
In 1975 I encountered another prayer. I had sent a donation to the Catholic Worker and received a thank you card back. On it is written this prayer, taken from Helen Waddell’s Desert Fathers:
Sorrow on me, beloved! that I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold winter hath come upon me and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me. I marvel at myself, O my beloved, how I daily default and daily do repent; I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have builded. At evening I say, tomorrow, I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I water the day. Again at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when night is come I am full of sleep. Behold, those who received their talent along with me, strive by day and night to trade with it, that they may win the word of praise and rule ten cities. But I in my sloth hid mine in the earth and my Lord makes haste to come, and behold my heart trembles and I weep the day of my negligence and know not what excuse to bring. Have mercy upon me, thou who alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art merciful and kind.
I still have that card and occasionally pray this prayer. I keep the card in a book of the Grail translation of the psalter, at Psalm 51, the psalm of repentance.
In many ways, his service of the Altar with his hymns, his service of the Word with his preaching and commentaries, and his service of Charity with his care for famine victims and others exemplify what a deacon is and what a deacon does.
Saint Ephrem, pray for all deacons and all God’s people.