August 7, 2016
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 18:6-9
If we accept Christ’s call, we accept both blessings and dangers. The same Jesus who told us “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” also told us “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Luke 17:11 RSV). As much as we might like to have all flowers all the time, the Christian life is no primrose path. Our Lord himself suffered and we too expect to suffer. In fact, suffering for Christ’s sake is considered a privilege in our faith (see Acts 5:41; Phil 1:29). When we sign on to be a Christian, receive our baptism and join the “Church militant,” we are on the path to eternal glory, yes, but that path is laden with thorns, which we embrace as a participation in the suffering of Christ.
This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom comes from a long meditation on the significance of the Exodus (Wisdom 11–19), which is phrased as a direct prayer to God. The reading starts with “that night,” an oblique reference to the first Passover in Exodus 12. “That night” (Wisd 18:6) was a terrifying night indeed, when the angel of death swooped in and struck down the Egyptian first born. This reading is a little meditation on the power of that night and the spirituality of God’s chosen people who endured the storm of his wrath behind their blood-soaked doorways. Their acceptance of God’s call that night, their endurance through the terror and their trust in God show them to be powerful models for us in our own journey of faith. They were willing to receive both blessing and danger from God. Are we?
Wisdom makes clear that the people “knew beforehand” what was going to happen since Moses told them (Exod 12:22-23). They trusted in the “oaths” of the Lord—that he would deliver them from Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land (Exod 3:8, 17; 12:25). This was their great hope, the consummation of their desires—to be free from oppression and in a sacred land, set apart for them by God’s ancient promises to Abraham. By celebrating the Passover, the people acted on God’s promise without proof. Thus their celebration was an act of faith in God as well as an act of defiance against Pharaoh. While they prayed in the night, they were not in the dark: “The deliverance of the righteous and the destruction of their enemies were expected by thy people” (Wisd 18:7). They were confident that God’s mercy and God’s justice would show forth. The oppressed Israelites would go free and their Egyptian slave-masters would be punished.
The Same Means
The Book of Wisdom voices the exodus generation’s reflection: “For by the same means by which thou didst punish our enemies thou didst call us to thyself and glorify us” (Wisd 18:8). The “same means” here is the miracle at the Red Sea. The Israelites were saved by God as they walked over the dry ground he had prepared for them by pulling back the waters of the sea, yet the Egyptians drowned when the water flowed back. God punished the oppressors, but he “called” and “glorified” the oppressed. He called them into the desert, to Sinai to encounter him and receive his law. He glorified them insofar as they were vindicated before their foes, made triumphant over their enemies. “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30 RSV). St. Paul expands the perspective of being “called” and “glorified” by God. For him, we are no longer looking at the kind of temporal success the ancient Israelites enjoyed, but an eternal reward, a happiness and glory beyond compare—sharing in fact in God’s own glory.
The last verse of our reading mentions the sacrifices the Israelites performed in secret since the first Passover ceremony took place at night (Exod 12:6,8) and the angel of death struck at midnight (Exod 12:29). They also “agreed to the divine law” by performing these ceremonies in obedience and later on, by receiving the Ten Commandments. All of these things they did so “that the saints would share alike the same things, both blessings and dangers” (Wisd 18:9). By agreeing to make a covenant with the Lord, celebrate the Passover and submit to his law, the Israelites subjected themselves to both the blessings and the hazards of relationship with God. Yes, they would be delivered from Egypt, but they would now be subject to the Lord of all, including his discipline.
The ancient Israelites found a way to be obedient to God in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. Their obedience manifested in secret sacrifices at night, in new and unusual religious ceremonies and in enduring the dark night of the angel of death. Our path might not have the same supernatural, universal, ground-breaking hue to it, but many modern saints have been called to endure their own great dangers for the sake of the gospel. We too might share in the dark times or need to serve God in secret or experience loss for his sake. Yet the sufferings of this life are “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 RSV). The blessings far outweigh the dangers. In that lies our hope.