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The 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 16, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily! (mp3 file)

     Today’s readings bring to mind for me the time, nearly twenty-five years ago, when we were planning the renovation of the cathedral.  We were at the point where we needed to make decisions about the altar, the baptistery, the bishop’s chair, the ambo, or pulpit – their design and their placement.  For the design of the ambo – this ambo - we commissioned a young Jewish artist by the name of Randall Rosenthal, whose extraordinary carvings and sculptures in wood had gotten our attention.

     But choosing an artist is one thing; settling on a design, quite another. Mr. Rosenthal sent us some preliminary sketches from his studio in New York. To be honest, we weren’t all that thrilled.  I remember one drawing in particular. It had three crosses on it with a tendril of ivy twisted around one of them.  I don’t mean to be irreverent or to offend against ecumenism, but it reminded me a little of a Protestant Easter Card!

     When I called Mr. Rosenthal to give him the reaction of our design committee, I told him that there were already a lot of crosses in the Cathedral (more than I could count) and that something else might work better.  When he asked if I had something in mind, I told him about a favorite passage in the 55th chapter of the Prophet Isaiah. I’m sure he couldn’t have missed the irony of a Catholic priest steering him away from the cross in favor of a passage from the Jewish scriptures. In any case, he liked the idea and went with it!

     The passage from Isaiah was today’s first reading. It’s about the power of God’s word: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…It shall not return to me void but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”  The power of God’s Word! It’s that very Word that God spoke through Isaiah that stirred the creative imagination of a gifted artist to speak a word of his own – this word, this remarkable work of art – which is today’s first reading in delicate and dazzling detail. If you’ve never looked at it closely, you should.  Not only is it strikingly beautiful, it almost shouts ‘Pacific Northwest!’ because it has our clouds, our rain, our trees, our foliage.  Whenever I give a tour of the Cathedral I tell people that this ambo is about the only thing in this Italian Renaissance cathedral that speaks boldly and unmistakably of the Pacific Northwest!

     More importantly, it speaks boldly about the Word - the human word and the divine Word. It speaks about a word I spoke in a conversation with a remarkably gifted artist; it speaks about the word the artist spoke through his art; and it speaks about the Word God spoke long ago through Isaiah: the Word God never stops speaking, the Word that, like rain and snow that water the earth and bring forth living things and growing things, always achieves the purpose for which God speaks it.

     The Word of God. So important is it that we devote the whole first-half of the Mass to reading from it. For some of the readings – the lessons, the letters - we sit in a receptive posture like students or disciples. Then, for the gospel, we stand out of respect for Jesus who speaks to us directly through the words of the evangelist. Standing for the gospel also speaks of our eagerness to go forth from this place to preach that gospel by living it.

     It’s unfortunate that, for a long time, the Church gave little prominence to the proclamation of the Word. The polemics of the Reformation are to blame for that. The Word was treated almost as an optional warm-up for the really important part of the Mass, the Eucharist.  In fact, every Catholic school child of my generation was taught that the Mass had three “principal parts”:  the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion. The Word of God wasn’t even mentioned and we were told we fulfilled the obligation to attend Mass as long as we arrived in time for the Offertory (well, maybe in time for the collection which came just before it it!).  Happily, the Second Vatican Council put that impoverished theology to rest, making it clear that the Mass has two parts, not three: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Both are vitally important.

     Parenthetically, and I say this not to embarrass anyone or to put anyone on the spot, but this should give strong motivation to arrive for Mass on time!  We should be no more willing to forego the nourishment of God’s Word than we are the nourishment of the Eucharist!

     Today, very fittingly, the Church reinforced the reading from Isaiah about the power of God’s word with the familiar parable of the sower and the seed. In the parable, the seed that is sown is the Word of God.  God sows this seed - this Word – in us.  We are the soil.  But the question arises: what sort of soil are we?  Rich and receptive? Or rocky and thorn-infested?  There is really only one way to tell, as the reading from Isaiah makes clear. It’s this: does the Word that God speaks achieve the end for which God speaks it?  Does it water the dry ground of our hearts, making them fertile and fruitful?  In the imagery of the parable, does the gospel take root in us, grow in us, change us, and bear fruit in us: thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one hundred-fold. In other words, are we any different because we’ve heard the Gospel? Are we any different?

     That’s the question, my friends. For the answer, we really need to search our souls!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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