Last week, we read the parable of the Good Samaritan and saw the importance that Jesus places on practical charity. We might then find his meeting with Martha and Mary somewhat surprising. Martha is busy preparing for guests and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him speak. Martha asks Jesus to have Mary help her, but he not only refuses but tells her that she, Martha, is overly concerned about the wrong things and that she should join Mary.
This is a set up. Jesus and Luke know that we are siding with Martha just as a few weeks ago we sided with the potential disciples who wished to bury a father or take leave of family before following Jesus. (Lk.9:51-61, 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time) The message is clear: when in the presence of Jesus, sit down and listen.
Luke has been very carefully preparing us for this. The parable of the Good Samaritan is introduced with the double commandment to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:25-28) He places love of God before love of neighbor. In the parable of the Sower, he told us that if we do not take the time to listen to God, his word will not mature in us, and we will be lost to him. (Lk 8:14, note 1 below) The seed takes time to grow, and we need to focus on Jesus. Finally, the Father himself told the apostles from the cloud at the Transfiguration “listen to him”. (Lk 9:35)
Mary is doing precisely that at the feet of Jesus. This was the traditional position for a disciple and Luke is emphasizing that both men and women must be disciples. Both Jews and Greeks would have understood that to be the disciple of a rabbi or philosopher required more than intellectual understanding but adopting his way of life. In our terms a disciple allowed the word of the teacher to “form” him or her.
Formation can occur in many ways both good and bad, consciously or unconsciously. Pope Francis has recently reminded us that the Mass is a privileged way of Christian formation. His Apostolic letter of last month takes its name from Jesus’ welcome to the apostles at the last supper: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you”. (Luke 22:15a) It is subtitled ‘on the liturgical formation of the people of God” (Desiderio desieravi, June 29, 2024)
The Eucharist is Jesus’ formation of us not our formulation of a way of worshipping him. By revealing this at Passover and telling us to do this “in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19) he is commanding what we are to do and why we are to do it. The Passover celebrates God freeing his people from servitude and revealing the deepest meaning of covenant. At its core covenant makes a person a part of a family. Jesus wishes the apostles and indeed ourselves to be part of his family, the Church. A covenant always requires a sacrifice and Jesus is clear that he is offering himself; (Lk 22:19-20). Thus, the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist. He must be really offering himself for there to be a real sacrifice and thus a real and everlasting relationship with God and neighbor. This sacrifice was usually celebrated in the temple, but Jesus does not command us to build a temple but to celebrate a meal with other disciples.
This is very carefully thought out. Jesus knew that his disciples would meet after he rose from the dead and that these meals would have a definite structure of prayer and actions. We will not get lost in those liturgical and historical trees but look at the forest. To have an intimate relationship with you, Jesus rose from the dead and left you the Eucharist. Passover is once a year and sacrificing in the temple even rarer for most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. Each is powerful but not repeated enough to truly form a people. The sabbath meal is every week and can form us as individuals and a community into what Jesus wants us to be. Just as the bread and wine are transformed at Mass, so are we transformed into Jesus as well.
Pope Francis is a very practical man and knows that we of the modern north have problems with ritual. Let us look at two of them.
It is hard for us to understand that the ritual forms us, we don’t form it. Jesus himself choose this format and we cannot alter the basic structure or meaning. Liturgical reform throughout history has been to return to the upper room to reduce and simplify many things which attached themselves to the basic ritual. The model is a rabbi’s meal with his disciples not a prince’s banquet with his nobles. The breathtaking reality is that Jesus wants an intimate relationship with you, me and everyone and gives us a way to obtain it.
The second is more basic. We need to get the relationship of matter and spirit right. Here Pope Francis is poetic and well worth reading in full, but I must use prose. (Desiderio desieravi, especially Paragraph 46) The Catholic church has a sacramental view of the universe. Matter reflects and puts us in contact with the spiritual. We cannot become lost in the material, but we cannot cast it aside as profane and useless. God has made everything, and it reflects his pleasure and mediates his presence. As the poet says: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. (God’s Grandeur, Gerald Manley Hopkins, note 2 below)
It should come as no surprise that Pope Francis wrote the first encyclical on ecology exhorting us to use nature above all to honor God. (Laudato Si) Nor should we be blind to his concern for the poor. When we only see the rags on the beggar, we fail to see the presence of God in the beggar and like the clerics in the parable of the Good Samaritan will walk past him and God.
Martha and Mary, Peter and Paul, you and me. We all need the Mass every week to be formed by Jesus into the Good Samaritan so that the word may be clearly heard and being heard be made flesh.
- As for the seed that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit. (Luke 8:14)
- The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.