holy cross sermon for the eighth sunday after pentecost

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are preparing for some much needed rest, when on the way, Jesus sees the crowds who have come seeking him, and he has “compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

I have spoken before about how poignantly this passage might resonate with anyone engaged seriously in working for the Kingdom – how it is that when you feel worn out after some big enterprise, almost inevitably some new, urgent task will leap into your horizon.

And so it is in today’s Gospel reading:

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When we read the Gospels, we probably tend to identify most with Jesus’ disciples, with Peter, James, and John and the rest – with the ones who hang out with Jesus, as it were, who listen to his teachings, and who have privileged access to the Lord – the true believers, and the ones who cooperate with him in doing good.

Often that’s as it should be. But maybe just as often we should find ourselves in the crowds – in this case among “the great throng,” that comes to see Jesus and the apostles, not even having a clear idea of what they want or what they need, but knowing that they want and need SOMETHING – that there is a deep though indefinable emptiness in them.

Isn’t that often the way? I don’t know what I want – but I know that I’m unsatisfied. And so I roam around, impelled by some deep, unsettled desire. And that, in a sense, is the starting place of Christian spirituality: an encounter with this deep, unsettled desire, which sits at the bottom of every person. And many people bring themselves to destruction in their efforts to fill it with the wrong things.

 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our unsettled desire can be the fabric of an impulsion leading us to Jesus – if we are brave enough to acknowledge that unsettled desire to begin with, and to allow it to remain unsettled, and so to become the impulsion that carries us toward Jesus and his kingdom.

 

One of the great apostles of desire, the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, is said once to have gone for a walk on a starry night, when he came across to lovers in a passionate embrace. They looked up at the venerable priest, startled and a little embarrassed, and Father Giussani asked them “What does what you are doing have to do with all these stars in the sky?” (Che c’entra questo con le stelle?) Giussani saw in the mutual longing of these lovers for one another, an echo of the even deeper longing inside each of us for what is transcendent and eternal.

 

In today’s Gospel reading, an eager crowd throngs around Jesus when he comes ashore. And it says that when Jesus saw them, he “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” St. Matthew’s Gospel says that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were HARASSED AND HELPLESS, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9.36).

 

The whole life of the Spirit can be understood as learning to channel our harassed, directionless desire toward what is transcendent and eternal – toward God – to see in the vast, dark emptiness at the center of our being, a pathway that can lead us to God, by allowing God to shepherd and direct us through it. But seeing it as such requires that we have the courage first to acknowledge that such a vast, dark emptiness does in fact exist inside of us; and also the courage to enter into it and map its contours, to allow God to order and to illuminate it by his Spirit, the way that he ordered and illuminated the watery darkness at the beginning of creation.

 

And this is indeed how it is that we become what Scripture calls “a new creation.” God does not leave us to take this frightening interior journey without help. After noting our Lord’s “compassion” for the crowds, the Gospel says that Jesus “began to teach them many things,” (Mark 6.34). This TEACHING, which was such an integral part of our Lord’s own ministry on earth, and which he commanded his apostles to continue, and which their successors in their turn continue to this day – this teaching of Christ and his Bride, the Church, is the light that illuminates our interior journey; the light of Christ’s teaching enables us to venture into our vast inner emptiness, and to journey through it without stumbling, to what lies beyond it: the transcendent and eternal Kingdom of God, the home we longed for, often without realizing it.

 

Perhaps I make too much of it sometimes, but people often resist the very idea of dogma or “doctrine” (which just means teaching). But here we can see that the whole doctrinal complex that comes to us from God himself is there because of God’s compassion, it is there to illuminate an otherwise dark journey which we all must make; the dogmas of the Church “are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure,” (CCC89).

 

The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.” (CCC 79, quoting Dei Verbum)

 

We must keep in view the object of the journey that the Church’s teachings illuminate: the Kingdom itself. The whole doctrinal package of the Catholic Church is there to convey God’s very self to us – or, better, to carry us to God, to assist and speed our journey to him, the fulfillment of our deepest desire. It is a dimension of God’s tremendous mercy, and it is a manifestation of his own infinite desire to be with each of us.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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