Homily: “Catholic Imagination”

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 6, Year C)

A week ago, after Mass, a group of us from Saint Paul’s accepted the invitation from the Rector of All Riverside to accompany him to travel to Hyde Park to hear an address given at Catholic Theological Union. The speaker was Father Richard Fragomeni, who happened to have been one of my professors when I studied theology at CTU. And the topic of the talk was “the Catholic imagination.”

That is, as you well know, a principle that has become increasingly explored here at Saint Paul’s. Father Fragomeni, who in addition to being seminary faculty is the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, gave a talk both entertaining and enlightening. And as his talk neared the end, he took questions, one of which came from the Rector of All Riverside, who asked Fr Fragomeni if he might say a couple words about the notion of “meditation.” Because, I think, the afternoon Mass at CTU was about to begin, Fr Fragomeni being also the celebrant, his answer was perhaps rather short because of time. He did, however, follow up in an email to me the next day.

In the email, Fr Fragomeni wrote that a metaphor to understand what Catholic imagination entails is “mediated immediacy.” He went on to write that this metaphor “points to the hope that the presence of God/Christ, while immediate, that is, present among us, is not a direct presence, but a mediated one — through signs and symbols and dreams and bread and wine and oil and people and stars and cosmos and emptiness.” He concluded by writing, “Now that takes some imagination to inhabit that place: most apophatic, and most sacramental.”

Mediated immediacy. The presence of the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob — of the God who forgives all sins. And yet a presence, mediated by the things of creation; mediated by creatures. We know God first and foremost through his creatures. We discern the will of God through our relationship with creatures. And not only creatures such as bread, wine, oil, but people, animals, soil, mountains, rivers, and the rest. All of these can mediate — can be means of conveying — God’s presence. We are to be stewards of creation not so that we can control and manipulate the creatures of this world, but so that we can hear God through them.

In our Gospel reading from Saint Luke, we have oil, and it is brought to Jesus, and it is used the anoint the feet of Our Lord. Although tradition for about 1,400 years interpreted this woman as Saint Mary Magdalene, the text does not name this woman, but to say she was a sinner. Perhaps she is not able to anoint the head of Jesus with oil because her humility keeps her low. Many of us, perhaps all of us, are similarly brought low by awareness of sins we have committed. We are brought low by the awareness of the wounds inflicted by sins — wounds upon ourselves, and wounds upon others.

And yet we are raised up by grace in our love for God. We are raised up when we give ourselves to God just as this woman gave herself to Jesus through this oil, and through her tears, through, even, the hair on her head. We are raised up by a God who wants to forgive us, wants to be immediate in our presence, mediated by the gifts we offer to him. Saint Luke is telling us that we do not have to know the right way to offer God ourselves and our gifts. There is not the sense that this woman was following a procedure, a step by step process of how to properly anoint Jesus. She just gave herself to God, thoroughly, completely, not holding anything back.

When we give to God our own best gifts, our own treasures; when we tell God we are aware of the specific sins we have committed, in that sense “give him our awareness”, our awareness becoming a gift we offer him — perhaps the most expensive, most prized, most special gift we can offer him — he responds with love. He responds with forgiveness. He responds with his presence — immediate, yet mediated by the gifts we offer to him.

Cover image “Jesus at Bethany” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.