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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Miracle of Wholesomeness and Human Connection

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June 27, 2021: The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13
2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15
Mark 5:21-43

A Reflection by L.F. Ranner

Although their numbers are dwindling, it seems everybody knows at least one - those “Baltimore Catechism Catholics,” who insist that there is no possible human quandary unaddressed by that little book’s neat Q and A format. They inevitably have a habit of quoting answers learned in second grade as proof that all matters of spiritual curiosity had been comprehensively addressed by Sr. Mary Whatever  -  and her explanations of the Catechism have never ceased to  prove satisfactory, from that day to this.

As a child of Vatican II, my only direct interaction with the Baltimore Catechism was a copy that lingered in my parents’ library, a souvenir of an earlier, more clearly delineated time. My chief memories were not of the answers, but the illustrations - sober greyscale highlighted in red - of devils tempting befuddled young people with Bad Companions (indicated by their wicked smirks) or racks of unsuitable magazines; a picture of a family at dinner labeled THIS IS GOOD beside a picture of monks labeled THIS IS BETTER.

Without a doubt, there is plenty to criticize in the Catechism, in its narrow, oversimplified, and in many ways impoverished version of the cosmos and our place in it. One particular answer, however - one of the most frequently quoted by its fans - has always struck me as hitting on one of the most profound and powerful truths of our faith.

“Why did God make me?

To know, love, and serve Him in this life, and be happy with Him in the next.”

Leaving aside the gendered language and the vast space contained within those words for interpretation (What does it mean to know, love, and serve God? What does happiness in the next life look like?), the value of this answer lies in its dual structure. It tells us that we are created not only for the next world, but for this one.  This life is not just a leg-up to heaven; being our incarnate selves, living our incarnate truths most fully is just as much what humanity is meant for as eternal bliss.

The book of Wisdom states, “The creatures of the world are wholesome.” It’s a word that doesn’t see much usage anymore apart from cereal boxes touting the nutritive value of their contents. Perhaps that should change: because wholesome is a quality that goes far beyond the properties of bran flakes or its other common application, entertainment completely devoid of erotic content. It means integral, lifegiving, beneficial, noble, pure. Wisdom places this inherent wholesomeness of God’s creation at the center of our purpose: made in God’s image, not only good but imperishable. Moreover (and this is the part that perhaps we don’t contemplate enough), even if we lose sight of the wholesomeness of each other, God never does. Few things are as satisfying to a parent as the stray moments when we remark in our child some trait - either innate or learned - and recognize it as something from the best part of ourselves. It is difficult to imagine that God doesn’t take a similar pleasure in recognizing godliness in creation. Each one of us, simply by virtue of being ourselves and flourishing on this earth, brings pleasure to God.

If our goodness is grounded in our incarnate nature, it follows that conditions in the here-and-now matter just as much as those in eternity. It’s no accident that Psalm 30 uses intensely physical metaphors to vocalize a plea for rescue: how shall we express our joy at deliverance from evil, but by tears transformed into dancing? Our bodies are the lens through which we not only understand ourselves, our world, and God’s love for us, but they are the only means at our disposal by which salvation can be accomplished. Unlike the metamorphosis of pagan gods who take on human form to disguise and temper their true nature for human consumption, the Incarnation of Jesus has the exact opposite effect: taking on a human body makes Jesus not less, but more authentic, and clarifies, rather than obscures, divinity. If we can see the divine in a human body, it follows that we can see our humanity in God’s face.

In the second reading, Paul prods the Corinthians to take the next logical step, insisting that recognizing one’s divine nature is not enough. To be true, it has to be lived. Not just seeing God in ourselves and each other: but being God to one another in the same practical way that Jesus modeled. We, like Jesus, are called to transfiguration: when the beauty and repletion of each one’s own true nature shines forth, the world around us rejoices and is in turn transformed. This way, the impulse of the apostles to build booths and savor the moment up on the mountain with a transfigured Jesus makes perfect sense. “How good it is!” Peter says, and we can relate to that rare delight of an encounter with someone who is completely, unapologetically themselves.

In today’s reading, Paul urges the pursuit of another outdated virtue that no one bothers about anymore: graciousness. A gracious host puts the needs and pleasure of the guest as the highest priority, for graciousness expresses the paradox: fulfillment of one’s purpose through the enrichment of others. To be godly, to be wholesome, to be the face of Jesus is to build the society that Paul recommends: not one of glum self-abnegation, but one of joy and mutual benefit,

Not that others should have relief while you are burdened,

but that as a matter of equality

your abundance at the present time should supply their needs,

so that their abundance may also supply your needs.

We belong to each other! We find our meaning and purpose in leaving this life a little more beautiful than we found it. Life lived in this way is a conversation, not a soliloquy, where we discover more about ourselves and the divine the more we leave the comfortable hidey-hole of our habits and fears. Paul insists on equality for a reason: this too is an incarnational expression of divine truth, not within a single person, but among many.  Every Catholic schoolchild has heard about the co-equal nature of the Trinity, although I have yet to meet a theologian who can explain it to my satisfaction. Paul’s point would be: if you want to learn about the nature of the Trinity – the eternal sublime conversation of the equal parts that glory in each other by being most fully expressed as themselves – you can start by building a Christian community modeled on that conversation.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus shows us just what that looks like on the ground. We have two vignettes of Jesus not only recognizing God in other people, but being God for them. There are the miracles, of course, that are beyond our humble resources. But in these stories of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, the wonders of restored health and life are almost by-products of a much more immediate act that is one of the greatest and most essential weapons against suffering and death - the power of human touch.

How can we be what people need? How can we be God to each other? In these stories, the heroes - the agents of change - are just as much the petitioners as Jesus. I suspect that these are some of Jesus’ fondest personal memories: the day when two people showed Jesus just how bringing about the Reign of God is done. It must have been a good sleep for Jesus that night, like any teacher who’s finally gotten through to the students - closing their eyes on the thought, well, at least there’s those two.

Both Jairus and the woman are activists. They don’t stand idly by, they don’t engage in fatalism (unlike their neighbors) or wishful thinking, they speak up. They seek help. They take things ifnto their own hands. They’re not satisfied with what seems to be enough for everybody else; they’re risk-takers. They believe in themselves as much as in the power of God coursing through this rabbi before them, and they insist on making a connection.

That’s where the miracles occur. Not merely in knowing, but in openness, and courage, and trust on both sides. In believing that divinity and divine healing come about through reaching out to another person - even if, particularly if, that person’s body is the human clothing of God.

From what Mark tells us, knowing is not necessary; faith is. Until the power leaves Jesus, the need of the woman is unknown. It’s not what Jesus knows, but what Jesus is open to that matters. Do we pass through life as Jesus did, open to the touch of others? It is so much easier to be closed and fortified. But then, the power of God dams up and remains unchanneled, and what could be the divine conversation becomes a blank stare, or worse yet - a turned head.

Finally, Jesus “puts the ridiculers out,” allowing only the family and friends to remain - the people who care, not the ones who judge. Jesus tells the witnesses to keep mum about the miracle: there’s nothing to be seen here. It seems like a particularly bad PR move for a nascent religion, but of course, Jesus isn’t worried about PR. Miracles are personal. It is magic that is performative. The only witness needed is the one who is transformed. After all, Jesus is God-with-us. With you. With me. With the wounded bodies and spirits of individuals; like Paul, like the writers of Wisdom and the Psalms, Jesus understands that God works through one person at a time.

Equality, community, the inherent goodness of our whole-personhood, and the power of human connection: I can think of few better themes to mark the final Sunday in June. That these very Catholic concepts are deeply embedded in so much of LGBTQ+ heritage and culture is indeed a cause for remembrance, for celebration, and for pride.

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L.F. Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.

Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.

She is married and mother to three children. Her first novel, Sailing to Byzantium was published in May by Blue Fortune Press.

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