To say that we live in fraught times is an understatement, but may be our lot for some time to come for reasons that are often hard to fathom. The crafted visions of the abundant life, free from pain, worry, and disease that we witness daily and nightly interlarded between news reports of calamities, disasters, mayhem, and terror strike a strange counterpoint. There’s more than irony in the proliferation of TV advertising for high-end cars followed by visions of empty lots and desperate salesmen – not to mention would-be consumers. That hundreds of thousands of our citizens (and many abroad) continue to oppose life-saving vaccines as COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to overpower our medical facilities staggers the imagination. Today, in the public view, even world-threatening climate change plays a very remote second fiddle to the antics of rogue senators and bowl games. The clock is ticking.
I suppose it has always been like this to some extent – I just can’t recall when.
No doubt the era in which Jesus lived, taught, healed, suffered and died had its own fraughtness. Perhaps we can learn something from all that, even though our readings for today seem oddly disparate. A single verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a continuation from last week’s reading, provides a clue. Before launching into an exhaustive catalog of gifts and ministries, Paul simply states, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” [1 Cor 12:13].
We’re all in this together and we need each other.
It was something very much like that realization that led the prophet Ezra to summon the remnant who had returned from their exile in Babylon to the wreckage of Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah would soon embark on a heroic effort to rebuild the Temple itself. Here, Ezra assembles the people and, we learn, reads the Book of Deuteronomy to them. It would take more than a few hours to read our present version of 34 chapters, and it is likely that the book was edited and expanded over the centuries. But the heart of the matter was the reading of the Law as it was handed down from the time of Moses centuries earlier.
Here too a long-remembered verse from that remarkable book provides a connection to the gospel account of Jesus’ citation from the Book of Isaiah when he rose to read in his hometown synagogue, apparently for the first time. In Deuteronomy 18:15-18 Moses proclaims,
“A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. This is exactly what you requested of the Lord, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
“And the Lord said to me, ‘This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.’”
Nehemiah does not tell us why the people wept when he read to them the book called Devarim (“The Words”). Was it from sheer joy or possibly from remembrance of the ancient promise? One way or another, the prophet instructs them to observe this day with a huge celebration, surely a tall order for a mob of hard-pressed refugees. “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” [Neh 8:10].
Today, many churches through the United States will observe Respect Life Sunday. Others did the same last Sunday, recalling a tradition begun in 1984 when President Reagan designated January 22 to be set aside to celebrate God’s gift of life, and committing ourselves to protect human life at every stage – from conception to natural death. This date was chosen because on this date in 1973 the Supreme Court made abortion legal in all 50 states in the Roe vs Wade decision.
Positions on abortion continue to divide US citizens, perhaps more than ever and sometimes violently as the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade nears and the Supreme Court appears poised to reverse the 1973 decision. The issues are grave, to say the least.
In the debate, and hopefully the decision, all the victims of unwanted pregnancy should be considered and held close, especially the very poor and defenseless. Nor should we forget those forced to undergo abortion against their will. Many years ago, I said this and I don’t think I would change it today:
“During the worst period of Communist party oppressiveness in China, the government ordered that a deformed fetus be aborted and that the mentally retarded could marry only if they were first sterilized. All pregnant women had to undergo mandatory pre-natal examinations. If tests indicate possible deformity or other problematic conditions, abortion ensued as a matter of course. Given the number of those under state care, the toll of that decision probably exceeded 10 million human lives annually.
“At almost the same time, I became aware of new treatments for children born with Down’s syndrome, which assist many in developing faculties and activities once considered forever beyond their ability. But even in the case of children who are severely retarded, as well as those born with birth defects, parents have often told me that the love of and for these poor ones have come to be the living heart of their lives. Henri Nouwen discovered that personally by working with developmentally challenged people in the L’Arche community in Canada. The revelation transformed his life.
“One of the most amazing scholars I met during my teaching years at Oxford University was a woman born without arms or legs who traveled the narrow, cobbled streets in a powered wheelchair. She tutored, lectured, and engaged in normal faculty activities. Such instances could be multiplied many times. The point is simple; God’s grace is poured out abundantly, perhaps more abundantly, through those who are accounted of little worth and is magnified by the compassion with which we address their needs.
“Compassion for the poor and suffering remains the bottom line of all world religions. This is certainly one of the lessons that God teaches us in today’s readings. We need each other. For we are all one in Christ’s body. And we are reminded today that each moment presents a new opportunity to build up that body, to become the whole Christ, to realize the unity of the Spirit in the gifts God has showered upon us to share.”
Pro Choice and Pro Life must ultimately mean the same thing, as we also learn from that ancient book: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him” [Deut 30:19-20].