The Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Lessons from the tertiary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Exodus 17: 8-13.
• Psalm 121: 1-8.
• II Timothy 3: 14—4: 2.
• Luke 18: 1-8.
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Lessons from the dominica, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Ephesians 4: 23-28.
• Psalm 140: 2.
• Matthew 22: 1-14.
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The sun’s rays by day, the moon’s by night, shall have no power to hurt thee. The Lord will guard thee from all evil; the Lord will protect thee in danger; the Lord will protect thy journeying and thy home-coming, henceforth and for ever (Psalm 121: 6-8 Knox).
That’s Msgr. Knox’s flowery, Victorian translation of the last strophe of today’s Psalm. It’s pleasant to hear, but I’m thinking it doesn’t exactly convince a lot of us.
We don’t reject the consolation offered by the Psalmist; we just don’t feel it. I’m sure we all agree that faith can’t be reduced to an emotional response: everyone agrees when I tell them that God is there and hears our prayers even when we don’t feel His presence, everyone agrees when I quote to them Saint John of the Cross of Saint Teresa of Avila about navigating the Dark Night of the Soul; but then, they leave the confessional and return to the morose and depression that comes from the constant confrontation of “what is” verses “what should be.”
The Scripture lessons of today’s Mass focus our attention on the power of trusting and persevering in prayer: Saint Luke, in the reporting of a parable told by our Blessed Lord, begins his account with an editorial prologue, which we’ve not seen him ever do before: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (18: 1 RM3). Why does he do this? The parable itself is pretty straight forward; it doesn’t require a secret decoder ring to decipher. The officious judge who cares not a lick for genuine justice grants a just judgment to the poor widow simply because she nags him so incessantly that he gives her what she wants just to get her off his back; the lesson being that, if the judge, who cares nothing for a poor widow, gives her what she wants simply because she’s a pain in the you-know-what, then what about God who loves us beyond measure?
Saint Augustine was one of the first to recognize the “Catch-22” in between the lines of this passage: we pray to God in desperation because our faith is in turmoil, but prayer is fueled by the measure of the faith from which it springs; so, if our faith has been weakened by temptations to despair, then the prayer arising from it is weak and has no effect. The source of all good prayer is faith; but, as Augustine said in the fourth century, “If one’s faith weakens, prayer withers…. Faith is the fountain of prayer…. A river cannot flow if its source is dried up” (Sermon 115, 1). In other words, we run to God with desperate prayers, but it’s that very desperation that renders our prayers weak. “…[I]f you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” said our Lord, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17: 20 NABRE); the irony being that, if we did have enough faith to move mountains, we probably wouldn’t pray all that much, since most of us only pray when we need something.
So, if the efficaciousness of our prayer is determined by the strength of our faith—which is clearly what our Lord is saying—but we are driven mostly to prayer when our faith is faltering, then what do we do? How do we escape this “Catch-22”?
The answer might lie in our first Scripture lesson from Exodus: “Pick out certain men,” Moses says to Joshua in today’s first lesson, “and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand” (Exodus 17: 9 RM3). He’s commanding Joshua to take Israel’s army into battle against an enemy of vastly superior strength. It defies all military logic. Joshua does what Moses says, of course, because—well, come on—he’s Moses; and, what follows would have been the best movie scene from the best Hollywood Biblical epic ever made, had anyone ever made it: Moses stands on top of the hill with his arms raised up, holding the staff, and Joshua charges head-on into the enemy. As long as Moses had his arms up, his army would advance, but if he got tired and let his arms drop, then his army would be pushed back; so, they give Moses a rock to sit on, and Aaron and Hur hold up his arms all day until the sun goes down, and Joshua and the army plow right through the Amalekites and kill them all, including Amalek himself.
The point of this bizarre story is that the success of the battle wasn’t determined by the skill or bravery of the soldiers, nor the confident leadership of Joshua, nor the superior strategic planning of Moses, nor anything else that would make logical sense to us; it was determined by something as extraneous and meaningless as Moses having his hands in the air. God had told Moses that that’s how it could be done, and instead of deciding that he knew better, he did what God said.
We are suffering—many of us—because we have been brainwashed by this therapeutic mentality in which our society has maneuvered us, thinking that the whole point of prayer—of religion itself—is to bring us peace of mind and heal our emotions, because we have allowed Dr. Phil to become our pope. Faith has nothing to do with emotion, and prayer has nothing to do with feeling better about ourselves. We believe because what we believe is true, and we pray because the God who made us deserves our prayer and worship. How it makes us feel is irrelevant.
And if you doubt that you’ve been poisoned by this therapeutic mentality, look at how most Catholics in this country view the sacraments of the Church: not as sources of Grace but of rites of passage. A prominent Catholic politician is told by her bishop that she may no longer receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church because of her stand on abortion, so what does she do? She and her family take her grandchildren to an Episcopalian church to be baptized because, for her, baptism isn’t the cleansing of original sin and the restoration of Sanctifying Grace, it’s just a social event for the benefit of family and friends, and has nothing to do with eternal salvation. Marriage isn’t a covenant between two people and their God authorizing them to cooperate in the miracle of creation; it’s just a celebration of love. Confession isn’t the acknowledgment of and absolution from our sins; it’s just a form of free counseling. A funeral isn’t an appeal to God to speed the soul on its journey and keep it safe until the final resurrection; it’s just a form of theatrical grief counseling for the bereaved. And the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass isn’t the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, offered for our sins on the altar of the Cross; it’s just a gathering of togetherness around the table of fellowship. When even the sacraments of the Church become therapeutic rather than salvific, that’s when we know our brainwashing in the vapid spirit of this age is complete, and that’s when we begin to think that prayer has something to do with how we feel.
Let’s go back to the officious judge and the poor widow. The judge is in the wrong job: he doesn’t care about justice, and the widow’s case doesn’t interest him because she’s got nothing that he needs or wants. We are just like him whenever we say, “I pray and pray and pray and don’t get anything out of it.” Who says we’re supposed to get something out of it? Our Lord never told us that. None of the saints ever told us that. The only thing we’re supposed to get out of it—if that’s how you want to put it—is that, when this life is over, we go to heaven. Our one reason for being on this earth is to work out our salvation; everything else is just window dressing.