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Nothingness is destructive. Emptiness is creative.

AU FIL DU TEMPS (Articles publiés)

 Obole de la veuve“I have nothing…” “The jar…shall not go empty.” Nothingness and emptiness – is there a difference? To speak of nothing brings to mind a sense of desolation and darkness. Emptiness on the other hand, isn’t so desperate; something empty can be filled: my car’s on “E”, but I fill up at the gas station! Although we may describe times of our life interchangeably using nothingness or emptiness, they have different meanings for Christians.
Our first reading recounts the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The context is this: the Jewish people stopped worshipping the true God to follow false gods, along with the high-ups of society exploiting the poor. So, the Prophet Elijah informs the king that there will be a drought until they repent. And Elijah flees the kingdom to hide. From hiding in pagan territory he meets a woman. We find she’s both a widow and a single mother. (Widows in the ancient world were the poorest of the poor.) It is to this sort of woman that Elijah does what? He asks for water in a drought! He asks for food from a woman scraping by! He wants to take the last bit of food from a starving child!
Despite the widow’s heartbreaking situation and Elijah’s boorish tackiness, their conversation is eerily sedate. The widow responds with a matter-of-fact answer characteristic of someone at the survival line, too used to pain to get mad anymore: “I have nothing baked…. Just now I was [going] to prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.” Elijah counters: “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose…. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty nor the jug of oil run dry.” The widow does not have nothing, rather she has an emptiness the Lord will fill.
The example of the Zarephath widow and the one in our gospel, are examples of self-emptying. Christ points out this model for His disciples as a lead-up to his crucifixion; the parallel is obvious: you reap what you sow, sparingly or generously! Thus, we as Christians are to pour ourselves out in time, treasure, and talent – not from our leftovers, but from what costs us. And yet, we are all quite busy, quite drained! Pouring yourself out in Christian virtue when so much is demanded of you as a parent, employee, and just a human being who needs a break, can be a lot to ask. It’s the law of conservation: You can’t give what you don’t have.
This past week at daily Mass we proclaimed the Parable of the Lost Sheep: the good shepherd leaves the 99 that didn’t stray to seek out the lost one; the point being that welcoming sinners is more joyful in heaven than righteous people who had no need of repentance. Now, we’ve all heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a dangerous person disguised as innocent –, but I pointed out to the congregation that we now have the phenomenon of sheep in wolf’s clothing. What do I mean? Well, being a lost sheep means being neurotic and scared, but a sheep in wolf’s clothing, is the self-sufficient person – feeling tough and secure – when they are really in peril by their distance from God’s Church. And we who are the flock of 99, we have actually become the minority! Those of us who haven’t strayed – though safe and know divine love – we feel insecure because we are threatened on every side. And just going to Mass now seems exceptional work. There are also those in between the stray and the 99. I don’t have every Mass here each Sunday; I rotate. But I don’t have to be at every Mass every week to know how parishioners attend: there are some who fulfill the Sabbath commandment and come each Sunday; others come every other week; others are here, at best, once a month. (Modern Mass attendance is like experiencing broods of cicadas – some hatch every year, some every thirteenth or seventeenth! So on the Sundays when everyone decides to show up – it’s like Cicada Apocalypse!) But whether we are a lost sheep in wolf’s clothing, a minority churchgoer, or 17-year cicada, it is hard to curry the trust to empty oneself of time, treasure, or talent according to what Christ calls us.
Maybe you have the same experience that I do, paraphrasing St. Paul: Why do I do what I don’t want to do, and don’t do what I want to do? We don’t have time to pray, but we plop down in front of the TV for hours of nothing. We don’t have time to volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul, but we swallow our soul with the nothing of internet porn. We don’t have time to spend with our spouse or kids, but we can gossip on the phone about nothing…. Sins of omission (of what we fail to do) and actual sin make nothing. St. Augustine said that evil is always nothing, because God who is good, created everything as good. Evil, therefore, is the annihilation of good – it’s destruction!
Nothingness is destructive. Emptiness is creative. The hymn of Christ’s Incarnation in Philippians (2:5ff) says: “Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God [as] something to be grasped [at], Rather he emptied himself…coming in human likeness.” And the hymn goes on to say, that because Jesus poured himself out without reservation, He killed death with His death. And because of this, the Father exalted Him in the Resurrection and made Him Lord of all. St. Peter in his first letter writes: “Christ…suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow…. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness” (2:21, 24). In other words, Christ emptied Himself so that God would fill Him; we must do likewise to be filled.
But is this masochism? Do we sacrifice because God deserves a pound of flesh? No, because the example we have from Christ is the height of love – not the remnants of love, not the spare change of love! And we trust that we will be taken care of by God for our generosity to God and neighbor because God is good. What does Elijah say to the widow of Zarephath? The jar of flour shall not go empty nor the jug of oil run dry BECAUSE the Lord, the God of Israel says so! When God speaks, His Word is creative – it is the opposite of nothingness and sin! In the beginning there was nothing – and God said, “Let there be” and everything was created. The widow empties herself, God fills, and jar and jug are never exhausted. Self-emptying is creative.
One of the greatest things about Our Lady of Lourdes parish is its diversity – diversity of demographics, ethnicity, and yes, growth in holiness. How does each of us empty ourselves so as to be filled by God? Am I an occasional Mass-goer? I need to start fulfilling my Sunday obligation; even though it’s the minimum, I need to get my priorities straight. Do I pay lip service to the Church’s moral teaching? I need to empty myself of the world’s ways and convert to God’s. Am I good at prayer and knowing my faith? Okay, how do I give myself away in charity outside of my comfort zone? Am I skimming off my surplus wealth rather than tithing from my sustenance? “Nothing less than the whole is good enough for God” (In This House of Brede 365). Each of us must decide to go deeper – to self-empty – for God will not be outdone in generosity!
Fr. Pachomius, OSB, Our Lady of Lourdes, Columbia (MO)

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