[Homily: Mass at Joint Convocation of Faculties, ADDU, 6.1.12]
It is certainly a blessing that as we prepare for the new academic year and open ourselves to its challenges, we can come together like this in worship. When we reflect on the manner in which we relate to our educational resources, our organizational skills, our pedagogical strengths, our institutional advantages, and acknowledge our blessings, it is good that we can also come together to worship – to acknowledge our God, – who is called Love, Creator, Spirit, Power – to acknowledge him as the ultimate source of our life and insights, the inner substance of our consolations and joy, the final goal of our labors and deepest desires. In worship, we bow before this God in awe, ever surprised that he keeps us in mind (Cf. Ps 8:4), ever humbled that he turns to us in compassion, ever consoled that he holds us in love, ever grateful that he has sent us his Son “that we may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). We are ever indebted that even in our desire to offer the Father gifts of our worship – the fruits of our labors, our sacrifices, our anguish, our joys – it is in his Spirit gathering us in worship, that we offer the one acceptable sacrifice, the Body and Blood of our Lord. We bow down in worship, and are raised up in God’s redeeming love.
Before God in worship, we are not empty handed. Ours is not the proud sacrifice of bulls and sheep, nor even the humble sacrifice of turtle doves. Ours is the sublime sacrifice of Jesus, in which through baptism we are united, and through which we are saved.
Our Gospel reading from Chapter 11 of Mark, if taken in context, reminds us of that Sacrifice, for Chapter 11 begins with the account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the city of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, and and continues to recount the three days prior to his sacrificial suffering and death. The entry into Jerusalem is filled with the irony and tragedy of our human condition. People – like ourselves – are waving palm leaves, singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mk. 11:9). It is the same people who – like ourselves! – almost simultaneously cry, “Crucify Him, crucify him!” (Mk. 15:13). It is ultimately in fully embracing this ambivalent human condition, that the Sacrifice was offered, and that the humanity offered might be raised to the divine, so that his joy might be in us, and our joy might be full.
With a fig tree and a whip, Jesus begins this final journey to his Calvary.
The lowly fig tree becomes an astonishing manifestation of the power of God – perhaps also of Jesus’ humanity. He was hungry. He saw the leafy fig tree, approached it, thinking he could find on it figs to eat. He didn’t. Figs were out of season. In his frustration and disappointment, he said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” Jesus cursed the tree, even though in that season it really ought not to have had any fruit! The next morning, passing by he tree, the disciples see it. It is now withered to the root. Dead. Peter exclaims, “Teacher, look! The fig tree that you cursed is withered!” Jesus now uses this sheer display of almost capricious divine power to drive home for his disciples and for us a central message of his teaching, the message that ultimately leads him to his death. “Have faith in God,” he says. It is as if he says: “If in my little disappointment with the fig tree, my faith in God is such that I can ask that it no longer bear fruit, and by the power of God it indeed happens, have faith in God!” This is the injunction which allows Jesus’ further teachings: “I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mk 11:22-24). Jesus is teaching us to recognize the power of God, to believe in that power and to trust in that power. Note: he is teaching us to believe in the power of God, not giving us a formula of power over God. It is belief in the power of God and his goodness turned toward us, and not a formula of how to manipulate God’s power for our puny ends. It is belief in God’s power that brings us to prayer and petition, but it is an encounter with God’s power that brings us to worship. It is what we mentioned earlier. When we bow down in worship, God raises us up in his power.
There is a second message that comes with the story of the fig tree. When you pray, forgive. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father may also forgive you your trespasses” Jesus says (Mk 11:25). When you pray and encounter the awesome power of God that raises you up, forgives you your sin, and convinces you you are loved despite your shortcomings and your sins, forgive others their trespasses against you. I think most of us understand ourselves to be sinners; in life, there are things that we have done – or that we do – of which we are deeply ashamed. Many of these things lie deep in the secret chambers of our souls, often far too delicate for even ourselves to dare to articulate. But they are there. And every now and then we are given the grace to look at this rot in our life and ask for forgiveness. Jesus today is telling us: to be forgiven, forgive. Forgive, even if that person is your spouse. Forgive, even if that person has deprived you of your reputation. Forgive, even if that person has nailed you to a Cross.
Sandwiched between the story of the fig tree and the remarkable way Jesus uses it to teach us to pray and to teach us to forgive one another, there is the Marcan account of the cleansing in the temple. It is a manifestation of the power of God in the anger of Jesus against those who had defiled the house of his Father, against those who have made sacred space profane, and have reduced a house of worship into a house of mammon. He uses a whip “to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves… ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of thieves,’” he scolded (Mk 11:15-16). It is a macho image of an angry Jesus “concerned with the business of his Father” (Cf Lk 2:49). The reaction is immediate: the chief priests and the scribes want to kill him. Jesus had moved closer to his Calvary.
We have come together in worship around the table of the Lord. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and in his suffering, death and resurrection, made it the Bread of life. Jesus took wine, gave thanks, and in his paschal mystery, made it our Cup of Salvation. We worship the Father in uniting ourselves with the sublime Sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, drawing nourishment for our life and strength for our struggles in the Body and Blood he gives us to eat and drink “that we may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10, 10). It is of this full life that we wish to partake in this new academic year; it is of this full life that we wish to teach, and before the world, it is on this full life that we insist – that his joy may be in us, that our joy may be complete (cf: Jn 15:11).