Earthquakes, tsunamis, meltdowns and wars: does any of it really require our attention?

Mark 2:1-12.

The Second sunday of the Great Fast.

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12:59 PM 3/20/2011 — You may have noticed that, since the beginning of the Triodion, I’ve been beginning each homily by recounting what I said on the same day last year and, sometimes, the year before. That’s because I’m making a conscious effort not to repeat myself, and to try and offer you a homily that you can’t recite yourself from memory.
     The palsied man, who is presented to us on this Second Sunday of the Great Fast, we’ve looked at from a number of different angles. The first time we looked at this gospel we focused on the conduct of the palsied man’s friends: how, when they couldn’t get into the house where Jesus was, instead of blaming our Lord for not being accessible enough, they looked into themselves and found a way to reach our Lord, performing the gymnastic feat described in the passage. The lesson then was that the grace we need from our Lord to better ourselves and free ourselves from sin may not come easily or without effort on our part, but is there for the taking nonetheless; that sufficient grace to do the right thing is always there: maybe not without pain, maybe not without some sacrifice, maybe not in the manner in which we may prefer; but it is always there.
     Last year, we isolated the last two sentences of this gospel, where our Lord commands the palsied man to “Stand up...and go home,” which we recognized as being something more than just a command to get off the floor. We spoke about confession, and how one of the things that prevents us from confessing our sins as frequently as we should is that we get too emotional about it, second guessing ourselves, sniveling and whining about our problems. Perhaps our Lord perceived that the palsied man, after he was no longer palsied, was on the verge of breaking down in some sort of emotional episode regarding the tremendous change that had just occurred in his life; and our Lord didn’t think that was helpful; so our Lord basically kicks him in the rear and tells him to get up and get out; the reflection for us being that, sometimes, we work ourselves up into such an emotional frenzy about our personal problems that we become paralyzed or palsied in the living of our daily lives, when the best thing to do is to simply get over it and get on with it.*
     That could, I suppose, relate somewhat to what I want to address today regarding all the distressing things going on around the world that we see in the news, from earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and radioactive plumes headed our way, to wars and threats of wars going on in places we’ve never been and never will go, and how all of this can disrupt our interior life.
     It is a fact that we live in a society that is saturated with information. I remember reading a book about the American Revolution which pointed out that, during the Revolutionary War, close to 60% of the people who lived here had no idea there was a war on, nor knew, when it was over, that they were now living in another country. News was something local: what was going on in your town, on your street—that was all people knew about the world around them. In fact, the historian Shelby Foote says that it really wasn’t until after the Civil War that most Americans had a concept of themselves as Americans, because, before they left home to fight that war, most of them had never been outside the town in which they were born. They knew they had a country, certainly; but, before then, they had never seen it.
     Today, of course, we know every little thing going on in every nook and cranny of the world. We turn on the television and are bombarded with all sorts of information, most of which we don’t need and some of which we don’t want: earthquakes in Japan, road side bombs in Afghanistan, a revolution in Libya; and it can make one feel very small. When our knowledge of the world was limited to our own home town, then everything that happened was important to us because we were potentially a part of it; but when the 24 hour news channel is going bananas over a chicken with the flu in Indonesia, it can make us feel very insignificant. And so we compensate by becoming news junkies: we park ourselves in front of the TV for hours on end because we want to know everything that’s happening to everyone or else we’ll feel left out, that the world is somehow passing us by, completely oblivious to the fact that the network purposely makes the news as sensational as possible in order to trick us into doing exactly what we’re doing: gluing our eyeballs onto that screen. And because we are individuals, we have to have an opinion about everything we see and hear; and when we hear things we don’t like, then we become emotionally involved. And all of a sudden things which don’t concern us—things about which we’ve never thought before, things which may not even effect us in the least—are making us agitated and upset. Of course, we could simply turn off the TV and not bother with knowing what’s going on half a world away, and then it wouldn’t bother us; but we’re afraid that, if we do that, that means we don’t care, and no one wants to think of himself as uncaring. So we force ourselves to watch the news out of a sense of obligation; and if what we see disturbs us—which it does more often than not—then it must be because something is fundamentally wrong with the world, and something must be done! And suddenly we’ve become all hot under the collar about things that really are none of our business and about which we can do nothing. Then we run to the therapist and say, “Dr. why am I so depressed?”
     For the Christian, maintaining a healthy balance in one’s spiritual life can be a challenge in and of itself, as we struggle to contain our passions, maintain our relationship to Christ through prayer, and do our best to live moral and holy lives. In the context of this media saturated society in which we live, it can seem almost impossible. The Great Fast calls us to improvement in this regard, which means, among other things, keeping ourselves focused on what our Lord called “the one thing necessary.” And just as the person who’s trying to lose weight has to learn to eat certain things and not eat other things, so the person who’s trying to grow closer to Christ must learn to concern himself not with the state of the world but with the state of his own soul. And we can do this by doing exactly those things that the Great Fast presents to us: by fasting, by prayer, by confession, and maybe even by turning off the television.

Father Michael Venditti

* The fresco shown here depicts the scene described in today's Gospal, and was found in 1921 on the left-hand wall of the baptismal chamber of the house-church at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River in modern Syria. It is now part of the Dura Europos collection at the Yale University Gallery of Fine Arts.
     On the right, the paralytic is on his bed. At the center on the top, Christ points in a commanding way to the paralytic, saying, "That you may know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins: rise up, take up your bed and walk." On the left, the man takes his bed and walks away. The right-to-left scheme is typical of icons written in cultures where the language is read from that direction. To the right of this scene, out of view of this picture, Christ is stretching his arm out to Peter, saving him from the waves of the sea. These Gospel accounts are appropriate for a baptismal chamber, in that they represent the forgiveness of sins.
     The figure of Jesus in this fresco, the oldest picture of our Lord ever discovered, sharply contrasts with more modern images of our Lord in that it shows him as a young, manly intellectual, with close-cropped hair and clean shaven face. Images of the Savior with a beard do not occur until the 4th Century, and then only occasionally. It would not be until the middle ages when pictures of Christ with long flowing hair and beard—not to mention a more "womanly" appearance—would become typical.