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23rd Sunday in ordinary time: Listening to the world’s pain

Today’s readings: Isaiah 35, 4-7; James 2, 1-5; Mark 7, 31-37.

If there is one characteristic that should distinguish those who claim to believe in God, it should be the ability to listen to the world’s pain without remaining untouched. Our call is to convey strength and insight when life is difficult and hard to bear. This is what the prophet Isaiah in the first reading reminds us of when in his context he addresses the faint-hearted.

As Rev. Justine Allain-Chapman writes in her book Resilient Pastors, we need to be resilient and compassionate in our contexts today. This involves facing difficult truths and naming them, and yet conveying this in a way that is as gentle and firm as is necessary to help others see it. This succinctly portrays our mission, which is not simply to preach and point fingers, or just to show solidarity with those suffering, but also to help others see clearly what’s going wrong.

The three Scripture readings today portray different situations and provoke us to see how adversity can be strengthening rather than disheartening. Isaiah addresses those of faint hearts and invokes “courage” in an almost hopeless situation. On the contrary, St James in the second reading says how shameful it is when in belief communities there are double standards that kill rather than instil hope. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus heals the terrible wound of isolation and restores communication.

Deafness and dumbness in this gospel text are symptoms of that serious disconnection that also characterises society today. With earphones plugged in, we often transmit the message that we want to be cut off from what is happening around us. We often want to be left alone, undisturbed. Our cutting off all communication many a time makes us complicit bystanders of all the abominable happening around us.

There is a season for everything, we read from the book of Qoheleth, a time for speaking and for keeping silent. We only need the wisdom to discern when to say what. There was a time when the Church was accused of systematically siding with the rich and the powerful. This happened often in the history of the West and in the wake of evangelisation of Third World countries. This weakened the Gospel strength and made the Church lose credibility. Currently the Church is emerging as complicit in perpetuating abuse of minors, making it lose its moral authority and enter a confusing desolation. Pope Francis says the worst temptation of all is to keep dwelling on our own discouragement. He speaks of “criteria of action” not to allow ourselves be dragged down by institutional desolation.

Like Mark’s Jesus, the Church is called to “roll up its sleeves and go out to touch the suffering reality of the faithful people, rather than giving in to an ecclesial introversion and defensiveness that are the institutional symptoms of failing to meet the challenge of desolation”. It is the “Ephphatha” of Jesus when in the Gospel he touches the man’s ears and tongue, breaking down the barriers of communication and inclusion.

Our task today as believers is to convey strength and insight in a world that easily and collectively falters in the face of all the black holes, this time not in the infinite cosmos but in the globe we inhabit. It is time for the Church to pick up the pieces and look forward, not ignoring the abominations around us, including those we ourselves committed, but in the belief, like Isaiah, that God is coming, that He is coming to vindicate Himself, and that it is from Him that we can have strength and perspective.

As long as the Church persists in its institutional introversion, its internal wounds will continue to fester and we cannot aspire to be the Church Isaiah portrays, a Church that can look people in the face and say to all faint hearts: “Courage! Do not be afraid. Look, your God is coming”.

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