Sunday, January 29, 2012

Worry, anxiety, fear and distress; they all fade away when the love of Christ takes charge (Reflections on the 4th Sunday in Ord.Time, Mk. 1:21-28)

Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance,
attains all things.
He whom God holds
shall want for nothing;
God alone suffices.

(Teresa of Avila)

Beneath the amazing account of healing and exorcism in today’s gospel reading is a thought that ought to guide and direct the life of every Christian, a thought summed up perfectly in the poem written by St. Teresa of Avila (often called her “Bookmark” since it was found tucked into her prayer book after her death in 1582) as well as the second line of the reading from St. Paul: “I should like you to be free of anxieties”.

No one is exempt from the storms of life, not even the most faithful and devout follower of Christ. And while Scripture tells us that God “gives his sun to shine on both the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), it is equally true that suffering and pain are visited and distributed by life equally on everyone, good and bad, believer and unbeliever alike.

And yet, as Teresa says in her prayer, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. One who believes and trusts that his life is always in God’s hands has something that no one else possesses, and that is that unshakeable confidence that no matter what happens, “all will be well”, for “the lives of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever harm them”. (Wisdom 3:1)

If there is one thing that today’s gospel reading so confidently proclaims, it is the fact that God is in control; Christ is in charge, even of the darker areas of our lives. Jesus heals a sick man—and even the unclean spirits obey him. And because Christ is in charge, St. Paul is able to urge us, just as he urged the Corinthians in the second reading, to cast off anxiety, worry, and fear in our lives.

“Worry, anxiety, distress, fear”—these words should not be part of the vocabulary of a Christian, for Christ casts them all away, just as he cast away the unclean spirit that held the man hostage. In the ancient world, illness was attributed to the possession by unclean spirits. We don’t attribute illness to demons anymore—and we no longer fear diseases as much. But fear, worry, and anxiety are still demons that plague our lives. They still have power over us today.

Today’s readings tell us that with Christ, all these demons that sometimes bother us—are cast out. Christ is in command. God is in charge. And there is no need to be anxious, fearful or worried—about anything. But we do have to ask: what does it mean to say that God is in charge? What does it mean to say that Christ is in command? What does it mean to say that God has control? There are two ways of being in control:

There is the way that suffocates. It takes away our freedom and our ability to decide for ourselves. There’s the kind of being in charge that controls every single detail of a person’s life. But there’s another way. It gives a person space and room to grow. It doesn’t take away our freedom, but simply guides us and encourages us to seek the good for ourselves. The first way stifles growth and sometimes it can actually do more harm than good. The second way is the way of Christ. It’s God’s way of being in charge. It’s his way of being in control.

Pope Benedict calls it “love” in the first encyclical he addressed to us Catholics. And he also says that there are two ways of loving. These are two ways that reflect the two kinds of control: (i) there’s the way the world loves, and (ii) the way that God loves.

The way the world loves is directed towards oneself. It seeks the good of oneself before anything else. It always asks the question: “What’s in it for me?” It loves others because of what it will get back in return. “I scratch your back; you scratch mine”.

Is there anything wrong with this way of loving? Not really. It’s how the world operates. And we should look for a return on our effort. It’s natural and normal to seek a return in our investments, even in other people. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the way the world loves. But it isn’t God’s way. It may be the “real” way, but it’s not the “ideal” way. And it certainly isn’t the Christian way!

God’s way, Christ’s way of loving is the love that gives and seeks nothing in return. That’s what the pope says in his letter. Now that’s not easy. But it’s also what makes the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels.

When Jesus did something good, he asked for nothing in return. When he healed people, he did it for the sake of the sick person. When the Pharisees and Scribes did something good—it was usually so that they can be noticed and praised by people. Their love was usually self-seeking. Christ’s love was selfless. Their love was the way the world loved. Christ’s way of loving was the way of God.

We can certainly love in the way the world loves. But the readings today, and the pope’s letter, invite and encourage us to love in the way God does. It’s not going to be easy, because it’s part of human nature to want something in return, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, or that we won’t succeed.

Today we are presented with two ways of being in charge, two ways of loving: the way of the world—the way that’s founded on fear, on worry, on anxiety, and distress; or the way of Christ—the way that rests secure knowing that, as Teresa of Avila says, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. Which way are we going to choose? That choice is ours alone to make.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)