Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Time to be Silent, and a Time to Speak

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 16, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50: 5-9; Psalm 116: 1-9; James 2: 14-18; Mark 8: 27-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2018]

The rock group, the Byrds, recorded a song many years ago entitled “Turn, Turn, Turn”.  Some of you may remember it.  By the way, if you do remember it, that means you’re really old—like me (because it was released way back in 1965)!  It went to #1 on the Billboard chart that year—which was somewhat of a surprise, given the fact that the song is based on a passage from the Bible: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8.  The passage reads as follows:
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

Now I wanted to use the Byrds’ musical rendition of that passage to begin my homily today, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t do it because the line from Ecclesiastes 3 that I wanted to focus on in my homily was left out of the song.  The song begins (don’t worry I won’t sing it; I’ll spare you the penance and just read the words!):

To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time for every purpose under heaven:A time to be born, a time to die; A time to plant, a time to reap; A time to kill, a time to heal; A time to laugh, a time to weep …
And on and on it goes through all the different “times” Ecclesiastes mentions in the Bible passage, except these two: “A time to be silent, and a time to speak.”  That line was left out of the song’s lyrics. 

Why?  I don’t know.  I wish I could tell you.  Maybe it was left out for the very practical reason that it would have disrupted the rhythm of the song.  One line had to be left out for the song to flow properly, and perhaps they chose that one at random.  But regardless of what the reason was, I find meaning in the fact that it was eliminated.  To me it’s a sign of a big spiritual problem we have in our modern world (a problem that we’ve had at least since 1965 when this song came out):

We’ve forgotten the value, and the importance, and the necessity—of silence!

(I think that’s one of the reasons why Eucharistic adoration has become so popular.  People find refuge there from the insanity of their daily lives.)

Let’s face it, we live in a world of constant noise and almost endless chatter.  For many people, the time to talk is “almost all the time”—which leaves very little left for silence.  And social media has only aggravated the problem.  If certain people are not texting, or emailing, or tweeting, or talking on the phone, or surfing the internet, or listening to their radio or iPod, or watching TV or a movie—then they’re probably sleeping!  Perhaps the best modern examples of how little we value silence today are the 24-hour cable news channels.  All talk; all the time—and usually very loud!  Consequently very little dialogue and listening actually takes place on these networks, because the hosts and guests are usually too busy screaming at each other—and saying things that they will later regret (or at least should regret!).

Talk is sometimes necessary, of course—but at other times silence is just as necessary.  One person who learned this lesson—unfortunately in a very painful way—was Simon Peter.  And we see evidence of that in today’s gospel story from Mark 8.  As we heard a few moments ago,  as Jesus and his apostles were travelling one day to the city of Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel, our Lord decided to ask his 12 close friends what you might call the “bottom line question”—the question from Jesus that every human person eventually must answer: “Who do you say that I am?”—“You’ve just told me who everybody else says that I am; you’ve just told me what the current ‘polling data’ is concerning me and my identity.  But what about you?  Where do you gentlemen stand on the issue?  If someone said to you, ‘Who is Jesus of Nazareth?’ how would you respond?”

Peter immediately gives the answer that every Christian echoes in his or her heart: “You are the Christ.”  In other words, “You are the Messiah—the Anointed one of God—the one our people have been awaiting for centuries!”

There is a time to speak Ecclesiastes 3 tells us, and for Peter this was one of those times.

He couldn’t have done it any better; he couldn’t have stated it any more clearly than he did.

If only he had left it there.

Jesus then begins to tell Peter and the other apostles what kind of Messiah he will be—which was definitely NOT the kind of Messiah they were expecting!  The Jews thought that their Messiah would be a great earthly king like King David, who would bring back the glory days of Israel by restoring the nation to its former greatness.

They thought the Messiah was coming to establish an earthly kingdom for one small country.

But Jesus indicates to them that he’s come not just to save Israel; he’s come to save the whole world, by offering his life as a sacrifice for sin—all sin.

Peter didn’t understand that—which is completely understandable, given the common Jewish expectation of the time.  But instead of remaining silent and reflecting on it for a while, or taking Jesus aside and saying to him, “Lord, I don’t understand.  Please help me.”, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him: “No way, Jesus, this can’t happen to you!  You’re the Messiah; you’re the Son of David who’s going to rise to power, and assume your throne, and get rid of the Romans, and make us the number one nation in the world again!”

Jesus then turns on Peter—the man he would soon make the leader of his Church—and says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why Satan?

Because at that moment, without realizing it, Peter was saying to Jesus exactly what Satan would have wanted him to say!

Satan knew that without the cross there would be no resurrection—and consequently no salvation for the human race!

He knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be forgiven for our sins; he knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be reconciled to God the Father. So he used the words of Peter at Caesarea Philippi to try to tempt Jesus to give up his mission of dying on the cross to save the world—which, by the way, is also what he had tried to do at the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry, with the 3 temptations he threw at Jesus in the desert.  Those 3 temptations were all attempts to get Jesus to avoid the cross.

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us there is a time to be silent—and for Peter this was definitely one of those times.  But he wasn’t silent.  I can imagine Peter walking away from Jesus that day and saying to himself, “Peter, why oh why didn’t you keep your mouth shut?  Why did you feel like you had to say that stuff to Jesus?”

Well the good news is that by the time the Gospel of Mark was written, Peter had learned the lesson about the importance of silence—and he was putting that lesson into practice.  This is something we also see in this story.

Did you notice that something was missing from Mark’s account?  In Mark we have Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah followed immediately by our Lord’s prediction of his passion.  In Matthew’s version of this same story, after Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, our Lord says to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.   Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It’s very interesting—the part of the story in which Peter is extolled for his God-inspired insight; and given universal authority in the Church; and made, in effect, the very first pope—that section of the story which makes Peter look really good—is completely eliminated from Mark’s account!

Mark is totally silent about it, which probably means that Peter himself was silent about it. As those of you who took our Bible study class last year will remember, many Scripture scholars are convinced that St. Mark was actually St. Peter’s scribe—which means that the Gospel that bears Mark’s name is actually the Gospel that St. Peter preached in Rome.  He either dictated it directly to Mark, or he had Mark follow him around and take notes while he preached.

So apparently this is the way Peter told the story—or at least it’s the way he wanted the story to be told.

Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, that makes no sense.  Why would St. Peter be silent about that part—the part of the story that makes him look really, really good?”

To which I would respond, “That’s precisely the reason he left it out!”  At that later point in his life, Peter was a man of deep and profound humility, who wanted the focus to be always on Jesus Christ and his saving work, and not on himself.  So, in all likelihood, he either didn’t mention that part of the story when he preached about the event—consequently Mark never wrote it down in the first place; or Mark did write it down initially when he took notes, but Peter had him remove it from the final version of the text.  It was an event that God wanted Peter to be silent about—and he knew it.  No tweets; no emails; no Facebook posts!  It was Matthew’s call to share that other part of the story with the rest of the world.  And he did.

Today we pray to be like Peter in his later years: the Peter who had learned (sometimes painfully) the lesson of Ecclesiastes 3 about speaking at the right time and being silent at the right time.  In fact, I’ll give you a short prayer that you can say every day for that intention—and I’ll end my homily with this prayer:

“Lord, give me the grace to speak when you want me to speak, and the grace to be silent when you want me to be silent.  And give me the wisdom to know the difference.”