14 Feb 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 14 February 2021

When I was quite young,

and quite small for my size,

I met an old man in the Desert of Drize.

and he sang me a song, I will never forget.

At least, well, I haven’t forgotten it yet.[1]

So began Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, the 39th book by Theodor Seuss Geisel – ‘Ted’ to his friends or ‘Dr. Seuss’ to those of us who grew up on his stories. The Cat in the Hat was still relatively new when it was read to me around age six: Geisel wrote it with Year 1 students in mind, using only 236 different words which he was assured every six-year-old knew.

Geisel tried his hand as a political cartoonist, animator, screen-writer, filmmaker, poet, even army captain. But he is famous for books that inspired a love of reading in millions of kids and so influenced the adults who read to them. In recognition of that contribution he was granted an honorary Oxford doctorate – so Seuss was at last Dr Seuss!

The Dr Seuss books are accessible, funny, clever – and often serious. Geisel once admitted, “I get away with preaching by disguising the message” in the books.[2] Like so many of his works, the one I quoted at the start is fictively told to a pilgrim by a sort of desert father figure, and it parallels the teaching in our epistle (1 Cor 10:31-11:1)…

 “Take me for your model, as I take Christ for mine,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians and us. But Paul and Jesus were such different personalities: how can he represent Christ to us? : Well, most immediately, he models being “all things to all people” as he put it, “a fool for Christ”, even “a slave for Christ” as he said last Sunday (1Cor 4:10; 9:19-23). So, in the face of the controversy in the early Church about whether they were bound by the kosher laws,[3] Paul recommends that they eat whatever is put before them so as to respect their host’s conscience and not embarrass them. He hoped thereby not to win some popularity contest but to ensure that all might hear the message of Christ and be saved (1Cor 10:23-33). The universality of Paul’s arms-wide-open approach very well mirrors that of the Saviour.

Paul models Christ for us in other ways too. In the same epistle he insists that he tries to think as Christ thought, only preaches what Christ preached, and lays a foundation for faith on Christ alone (1Cor 1:17-2:16; 3:10-14). Paul recapitulates Christ’s high teaching about sex, marriage, worship, peaceableness, and resurrection; he imitates Jesus even in his celibacy.[4] Bottom line: in everything, we must do as Christ would do and for His glory, not our own (1Cor 10:31; chs 12-14 etc.).

Making such teaching the key to understanding Christian martyrs and disciples, St. Basil the Great said:

When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, thank [God] for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who gave it to you for pleasure and relief. When you dress, thank Him for kindly ensuring you have clothes. When you look at the beauty of the sky and stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom arranged things this way. When the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and ordered all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator.[5]

So, we have a programme and an example of imitating Christ in everything. But it’s not always easy. As Paul observes earlier in the same epistle, it may mean suffering hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, exhaustion, slander, persecution and beatings, as Christ did (1Cor 4:11-13). And yet, he insists, we are fortunate, each of us graced with particular personalities, opportunities and spiritual gifts, as well as the support of Christ’s body the Church, more than enough compensations for the hard bits (1Cor 10:31; chs 12-14). We are truly blessed!

Two millennia later, Dr Seuss echoed that thought, starting with the call to imitate him:

When you think things are bad,

when you feel sour and blue

when you start to get mad…
you should do what I do!

Just tell yourself, Duckie,

you’re really quite lucky!

Some people are much more –

oh, ever so much more –
oh, muchly much-much more
unlucky than you!

The desert father figure in the story then goes on to list crucifixions suffered by first worlders today – being stuck in endless traffic, not having an en suite bathroom, having to mow grass that grows back – before reminding his young friend once again that, on the whole, he really is quite fortunate. The call to endless gratitude is the same as in Sts Paul and Basil.

Which is all very well, you might say, but what if you are one of the unlucky ones, like the leper in today’s Gospel pleading on his knees for healing (Mk 1:40-45)? Is he supposed to give thanks for his leprosy and the bacterium that causes it? Having been seriously sick I acknowledge there can be unexpected graces even then. But nothing better confirms the rightness of our aspiration to be healed than Jesus’ words today “Of course I want to heal you! Be cured!”

Our Gospel makes clear that the suffering man is not alone. We are there with him, for our leper represents each of us at our lowest, aware of our sins and sicknesses, our needs and desperation, prostrate before God. Christ doesn’t join the modern fashion for saying ‘Don’t kneel, don’t plead with God.’ No, He respects the reality of human need and honest petition. Unlike many who hide their frailty and failings, our leper kneels and opens his heart. When we have the humility and courage to kneel in supplication, as we will do in a short while for the Eucharistic Prayer, Jesus comes to lift us up and heal us.

How lucky is that – or better: how blessed! No wonder Paul dedicated his life to praising Christ, for he, like the leper, had experienced the healing power of God. So too do we – in Baptism, Penance, the Eucharist, Anointing, and in other graces, especially when we’ve been at a low ebb.

In six words Paul sums up the Christian vocation: ‘Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.’ In gratitude we in turn become models for our children and others. Imitate me, as I imitate the saints, who imitate Christ.

[1] Dr Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, (New York: Penguin Random House, 1973) < https://archive.org/details/didievertellyouh00seus>

[2] Quoted in Diane Roback, “Coming Attractions”, Publishers Weekly, February 23, 1990, p. 126

[3] 1Cor ch. 8; Mk 7:17-23; Acts ch. 10; 11:1-18; 15:1-35; Rom 14:14-17; Gal 2:7-14; Col 2:16; 1Tim 4:4…

[4] 1Cor chs 5-7; 9:5; 11:17-34; 14:26-40; ch. 15

[5] St. Basil, Hom. In martyrem Julittam (c.375AD)

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Were it not trumped by the Sunday, today would be St Valentine’s Day and so we pray for friends, fiancés, spouses and those searching for love. Due to the very low rates of COVID transmission, restrictions on places of worship have at last been eased and so now most Catholics will have the opportunity to attend Mass, not just in megachurches like this basilica, but also in our parishes and shrines under the 2m2 rule. We are, of course, especially conscious of the lockdown in Victoria and of the much graver situation in many places overseas, and so we pray for our brothers and sisters in those places. To those still joining us by live-streaming, and the lucky ones who are present, a very warm welcome!