Orbiting Dicta

23rd Sunday of the Year: The Call to Compassion

So much has happened in the past week, it is difficult to keep up with events even as they arrest our attention and concern. Most seem disastrous, if one goes by news reports alone. Some clearly are disastrous, from the devastating damage wrought by Hurricane Ida to the wreckage of its aftermath in the northeastern US to the record-breaking wildfires in the west. You hardly hear anything about Kabul these days, although COVID is always in the news…somewhere.

One thing does not change. The human suffering in all these events, which is inescapable no matter how much the majority of our countrymen may enjoy their Labor Day holiday. Or want to.

In the readings for this Sunday in what we still call “Ordinary Time,” there is a shift from the compassion and care we owe to the least

Is 35:4-7
James 2,1-5
Mk 7:31-37

fortunate among us, the widows, orphans, and refugees who were the focus of last week’s gospel, to those who suffer from more physical and economic and political calamities. Mark here looks to the blind, deaf, mute and those suffering from paralysis, to whom God’s love is extended

When I was a lot younger, the beginning of September wasn’t so bad, except for the start of school, and even that was a welcome change from the lazy last days of August. Things are different now. My father died on the 5th of September in 1986. And it was on the first Sunday of September in 1997 that I learned of the death of Princess Diana the night before. I was attending a conference in England at the time. Anguished, an entire nation came to a stop. Later that same week, we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died on September 5th. And then in 2001 came that terrible 11th day, which we are about to commemorate twenty short years later. For so many, the beginning of September brings a host of sorrowful memories to mind and there will now be many, many more. But it also reminds us that God is never far from us.

A memorable photo of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana taken several years earlier shows them walking hand-in-hand, the young princess being led, it seems, by the ancient nun through the halls and corridors of human illness and suffering. Both will be especially remembered for their efforts to alleviate poverty, sickness, and shame, just as the First Responders on 9/11 will always be recalled with honor because of their heroism and compassion. Despite the Christian faith these two women shared along with their commitment and compassion, they could hardly have been more different. But it is here especially that our lesson begins.

Like a city on a hillside, like a candle set on a stand, their good works were impossible to ignore. They illuminated our world. Of course, their ordinary human imperfections were also magnified by the public media in whose glaring light the two women spent so much of their lives. Both were hounded by the press, but both were also made world-renowned figures by the press. Such are the times we live in.

But in many ways, our times are not so much different from the world Jesus lived in. Then, too, people were sick, impoverished, suffered from what seemed to be incurable diseases, died in natural and military disasters, and languished under many kinds of oppression. In Mark’s gospel, how Jesus met these people and touched their lives pointed to his identity as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Savior.

In Jesus’ time, to be deaf, dumb, or blind was a personal and social catastrophe, far more than for us today. Not only did it deprive a person of a livelihood other than begging, and any role in the ordinary affairs of social life. Religiously, it meant that a man was not only disqualified from the priesthood, but even excluded from the inner court of the Temple, which was reserved for those without physical defect. Women were not allowed entry at all. It meant that a vast host of innocent believers could not hear the word of God, or speak it, and were thus distanced even further from the worshipping community. Such afflictions, like AIDS and other diseases and disfugrements today, were also thought by many to have been somehow deserved, a punishment for sin.

Like lepers, the blind, deaf, and mute found themselves at the mercy of others. Many still do, as Mother Teresa discovered, victims of a heartless economy and the numbing poverty it creates, as James reminds us in his letter. They were counted among the rejected, distant from God. Yet as Psalm 146 reminds us today, and Jesus showed us, God does not blight people with disease, injury, and want, but gives sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and hearing to the deaf, whether by some healing touch of a miracle worker or through the wonders of the medical arts and sciences and sheer human generosity.

Jesus also tells us that spiritual blindness, silence, and the refusal to hear are far more disastrous than physical disability. It is those who will not listen or see who are really deaf and blind to the wonders of life and unable to give praise. But sometimes it takes a shock to open our eyes and ears and mouths.

One way or the other it is the Lord who raises those crushed to the earth, the oppressed, the starving, refugees, orphans and widows victims of natural disasters and human greed. But God does it with human hands. Hands like those of Mother Teresa, Diana Spencer, and the First Responders in 2001 and this past week. Hands like yours and mine.

It is in human ways, sometimes extraordinary ones, but more often common acts of care and compassion that God works among us to end human suffering, to promote justice and peace, to increase love and care for all. This is the lesson we can take away from the commemorations of early September, one given us in the short life of the troubled young aristocrat who was deeply unsure of herself, and the little old woman who knew she was only a pencil in the hand of God, and the brave, fearful firemen and policemen and other First Responders who reentered the Twin Towers to save as many lives as they could only to lose their own. All their lives and deaths remind us how important it is to give voice to our love and compassion while there is still light and time and possibility. And surely this, too, is to hear the word of God, to see God all around us, and to announce the good news to those who desperately need it. May the example and achievements of all these great women and men draw us all ever closer into the healing circle of God’s love.

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” [Is 35:5-6].