A few weeks ago I came across a very interesting fellow while I was making my weekly patient visits at the local hospital. I introduced myself upon entering his room, and we chatted for a while. He asked what I thought of the candidates for the Presidential election. Both of us agreed that this election cycle had become a travesty because of the rancor and back-biting among the candidates. He wondered aloud what it would take to get the Presidential candidates to focus on issues of national concern rather than their issues of personal concern. I told him I didn’t know. Today’s first reading, however, gave me an idea.
The first reading, from the book of Nehemiah, recounts an event that happened when the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem after nearly two generations of exile in the Babylonian empire. They found a wasteland where previously there had been a thriving Israelite nation. Jerusalem was destroyed; the Temple was destroyed. There was little left of their grandparents’ way of life.
At the beginning of the process of rebuilding they found a copy of the Torah, the books of Moses. Today’s first reading records a public worship service in which the Law (Torah), was read to the people. When they heard their Scriptures read, they were so ashamed of their lack of knowledge of their religion that “all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.” (Nehemiah 8:9) Ezra the priest told them not to weep, “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10) Their repentance was to be considered a blessing because it brought them back to the faith of their ancestors.
As I said, this passage of Scripture gave me an idea about how to address the fragmentation of politics in our country today. What would happen if we brought all of the candidates running for office together in one place, and made them listen to a public proclamation of some of the basic principles on which our nation was founded? Let’s try this experiment ourselves. Here are two excerpts from the Declaration of Independence: the beginning of the Declaration’s second paragraph and the Declaration’s concluding phrase. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Our nation was founded on the conviction that all people (regardless of national origin, ethnicity, accomplishments or social status) have equal rights under the law, and that all citizens should defend the rights of even one citizen who is deprived of equality. These are virtuous ideals that make the pettiness of contemporary politics look shameful. If these words were proclaimed in an assembly of our candidates and elected leaders, perhaps those leaders and candidates would repent, and put aside their pettiness in order to serve the common good. Would you agree with me that this, at least, might be worth trying?
If you agreed with the proposition above: I’m sorry and Thank You. I’m sorry, because it was a crass attempt on my part to be shamelessly manipulative. Thank You, because now you can see what today’s Scripture readings are saying to us. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
The Corinthian Christians were not living up to their Baptismal vows. Their community had fragmented into groups; some thought they were superior to other Christians, and some were living grossly immoral lives. Paul reminded them that they were bound together as one people: their Baptism made them one with Jesus and one with each other. Paul was hoping that they would repent, and return to the faith they had previously embraced.
Today, here, in our parish, we might be tempted to say we’ve never repeated the words of the Corinthians, “I do not need you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21) But would this be entirely honest? Do our lives reflect a conviction that we need one another as sisters and brothers in the Lord? Did we arrive at Mass this morning eager to meet our fellow believers? Do we act always as if we need the struggling members of our parish? Do we live as if we need the homebound, sick and weak members of our parish? Do we really believe that we need the other Catholics in our Diocese? Perhaps, like the newly returned exiles in ancient Jerusalem, we ought to weep when we hear the words, we “though many, are one body” in Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
If there is even slightest twinge of guilt affecting your conscience now, there is hope. If you are willing to acknowledge that your motivation for being here this morning had more to do with your personal wants than your love of your fellow parishioners, “Do not be saddened this day.” (Nehemiah 8:10) In a few minutes all of us will be invited to partake in the banquet that makes us one with Christ and one with each other. There is still time for us to make this Eucharistic celebration “holy to the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10), by receiving it according to the Lord’s command: as a Sacrament of our unity. (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
A parish is not a pragmatic solution to the need for a distribution mechanism to dispense Sacraments or graces or religious experiences. A parish is the living embodiment of the vows of Baptism. We are obliged to live as if we are truly “one body” in Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12) Individual persons exist only because human society exists, and vice versa. In exactly the same way, we have a personal faith only to the extent that we have a communal faith. If we do not realize and cherish our need for one another, we have not yet heard and understood what has been handed down to us by previous generations of believers. If, on the other hand, we are attentive to God’s Word today, we will participate faithfully in this Eucharistic celebration because we know ourselves to be members of the Body of Christ.