Memorial of Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the ChurchIS 35:1-10
PS 85; 9AB AND 10, 11-12, 13-14
LK 5: 17-26
The capacity of Biblical texts to transcend their original context never ceases to amaze me. At one level, the passage from Isaiah speaks to a very particular situation, foreign to most of us: exiles returning from afar will come home in joy as the desert springs into life and threats to safety vanish. 'Hope' takes on a very specific tenor in a desert: the bloom of flowers, the availability of water, and the disappearance of threatening animals.
For us, living in St. Louis in 2015 as more or less privileged people, the world created by the poetry of the readings might seem very far away. I lived in the Arizona desert when I worked among the Navajo people, so prayers for rain and awe at desert flowers are not foreign to me, but all in all, the world of the Biblical text is manifestly not our world. Yet the strangeness of the landscape it describes stands in tension with the hope with which we can so easily identify: a passion to overcome fear, to strengthen those who have been crushed by the weight of their lives, and to work through the traumatic encounters that still doom so many people to truncated and pain-filled existences. How relevant, even for those of us who never visit literal deserts, who could not tell a jackal from a hyena, and for whom "Carmel" is the stuff in the middle of chocolates.
Similarly in the gospel, the urgency of healing for a friend in need transcends the cultural strangenesses that blocks full appreciation. A house, a crowd, a hopeful few people with a friend who is out of options. Luke's Gentile audience was familiar with tile roofs rather than the daubed stick roofs that a Semitic audience would recognize, and the thought of breaking through any kind of roof (Where are they? Jesus' house? Are they screwing up his roof?) might seem outlandish to us. Whether we can identify with their culture, we can identify with their pain and their sense of urgency to help someone in need.
When Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, and the elders are offended, he tells them that saying that sins are forgiven seems easy (there is not much in the way of evidence for it actually happening), so he will do something harder to say (since there IS evidence for it happening) - take up your mat and walk. Which the paralyzed man does. Which indicates that the other part is true too: if Jesus can cure the paralyzed, then he can certainly do something less visibly dramatic, like forgive sins.
I can't literally enable paralyzed people to walk, but the first reading holds several imperatives addressed to the reader, which are presented as literal tasks: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!" No magic there, just the courage to share compassion and recognize kinship across barriers. I can do that. Then, says Isaiah, God will give sight to the blind, open the ears of the deaf, enable the lame to leap and the mute to sing. Glad God is doing that part, because that's all outside of my skill set.
If we can reach across millennia and wildly diverse cultures to make sense of such strange texts, with their talk of miracles and Middle Eastern landscapes, how do we continue to be so utterly baffled by people in our own time? How is understanding so often out of reach? Watching the news gets depressing fast: massive racial injustices; ongoing violent crime; environmental catastrophe looming ever closer; and the silencing of women, people of color, the young and the old, gender and sexual orientation non-conforming persons, and more. I can't wave away any of that terror and pain, but I can do something precisely because, even if I don't always know from the inside the anguish that the other feels, I do know the urgency to love and be loved, the silencing power of pain, and the crush of injustice. The distance between people is real, but it need not be absolute: we can seek to understand the other in his/her/hir reality and hope to respond in love.
Patrick Cousins is the Assistant Director of Campus Ministry.