Homily for Mass for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, “Word of Life Sunday”

05 Feb 2024

Dominican Laity Conference, Varroville, 4 February 2024

In 1809 Governor Macquarie granted a thousand acres fifty kilometres south-west of Sydneytown to Robert Townson, Esq.[1] Townson was proficient in all branches of natural science, and also in Latin, Greek, French and German, and by far the most eminent scholar in the young colony of New South Wales.[2] He was a foundation member of both the Royal Agricultural Society and the Philosophical Society of Australasia, a magistrate, a much-published author and an experimental farmer. His hero was Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC), a polymath and author like himself, whom Petrarch considered ancient Rome’s “third great light” after Virgil and Cicero.[3] Yet almost all that has survived from Varro is his trilogy on agriculture, a veritable how-to on all things farming.[4] Townson decided to name his new farming estate ‘Varro Ville’—which is where we are gathered now. When he died, the estate was advertised on the market as home to one of the first vineyards and choicest grapes in the colony.[5]

Bld Humbert of Romans OP once remarked that “there are wines so weak that they cannot intoxicate. But the Word of God is a strong wine that intoxicates.”[6] He took his analogy from the prophet Jeremiah, who likened God’s Word to alcohol in its capacity to overcome us (Jer 23:9). So, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit were poured out upon the apostles at Pentecost, causing them to speak every language, Peter had first to assure the bemused onlookers that they weren’t drunk (Acts 2:15). This recalled the incident when Hannah was observed in the Temple praying silently but moving her lips; she had to explain to the priest that she was not making a drunken spectacle of herself, but pouring out her troubles to the Lord (1Sam 1:12-18). For while the Scriptures approve of alcohol, overindulgence is criticized; the only good kind of intoxication is being intoxicated by the Word of God.[7]

In his delightful book, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness, Paul Murray OP recalls a long Dominican tradition of using drinking, even intoxication, to speak of the joy of the Gospel.[8] In a letter to his troubled protégé, Diana degli Andalò, Bld Jordan of Saxony implored the nun to drown her sorrows in the promise of that time when her faithfulness would be rewarded with the “pure and unmixed chalice of everlasting joy.”[9] Our brother Thomas Aquinas, whose 750th anniversary of entering eternal life we will celebrate next month, likewise thought the inebriating effects of wine is a good analogy for God’s power to console us, but also an apt way to think of the transformative power of divine love, justice, wisdom and joy.[10]

Today the Church in Australia celebrates Word of God Sunday, a day inaugurated by Pope Francis for better appreciating the riches of Sacred Scripture.[11] Just as wines offer various flavours and aromas capable of satiating and even intoxicating drinkers, God’s Word is able to command our hearts and minds, drawing us ever closer to Himself. What particular spiritual flavours does He offer us today?

Well, in our first reading, Job laments that life can be “pressed service”, “drudgery”, “sighing for shade”, “months of delusion” (Job 7:1-7). At night we yearn for morning and in the daytime we crave night. It can all seem fleeting and futile. Job had good reason to feel this way: he’d lost pretty much all he held dear; he was a broken man, at wits’ end. Yet his cries are those of every soul at one time or another, a reminder of the latent restlessness of life, no matter how we fill it with activities or accomplishments.

Our Gospel takes up this existential affliction (Mk 1:29-39). It begins in the synagogue, the Church, where Jesus is with the apostles, His first priests. It’s the place of hearing, explicating and praying the Word of God. But true wisdom and healing come from the encounter with that Word made flesh. It’s to Jesus they bring the sick and possessed for healing. But early in the morning, He escapes to Varroville to pray. Jesus prayed often, unceasingly, modelling the life of prayer for us all.[12] When Simon and the lads set out in search for Him, they were praying also.

So must we, not just on Sundays, or when we aren’t busy, but in everything we do and at every moment. At the times when we are struggling like Job, and at the times when we are thriving. Friendship with God cultivated through prayer is a fulltime job.

But once we’ve experienced that friendship, once we know the healing graces, the deeper meaning, the newfound purpose, we have to share it with others. Like a lovestruck teenager or a happy drunk: we have to sing from the rooftops. “Everyone is looking for you Jesus,” Peter says. He’s right. But Jesus’ answer isn’t “Then let’s go to them”: it’s “Let’s go to those who haven’t heard me yet.” He doesn’t say “Let’s go heal them”: He says, “Let’s go preach to them, because that’s why I came.” So He went through the Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils. As if a gift to Dominican tertiaries on retreat, our Gospel emphasises that it’s preaching that brings the meaning, healing, purpose we crave.

In his epistle today (1Cor 9:16-23), Paul also celebrates preaching. Like a good Dominican, he regards it as a duty but a rewarding one, as he has the consolation of seeing the power of God’s Word to save. He makes himself “all things to all men” in the hope of saving some. If he fails to appreciate this gift, he says, he deserves punishment. But if he embraces this responsibility “for the sake of the Gospel”, he will have “a share in its blessings”. In him, as in every joyful Christian, we see the response of one who has heard the Risen and Ascending Lord’s Great Commission to go out and preach to all nations (Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:14-18).

Paul knew that to spread the Gospel is to share in its blessings. It is the consolation of bringing humanity at its most Job-like the meaning, purpose, healing it craves. It’s not just Good News, it’s the Best News, the most intoxicating thing in the cosmos: we are heralds of encounter with the living God. So: Cheers!

[1] https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/About-Campbelltown/History/History-of-Our-Suburbs/History-of-Varroville

[2] V.W.E. Goodwin, “Robert Townson (1962-1827),” Australian Dictionary of Biography vol. 2 (1967) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townson-robert-2743

[3] https://petrarch.petersadlon.com/read_trionfi.html?page=IV-III.en

[4] Cato and Varro, On Agriculture, trans. W.D Hooper and H.B. Ash, from the LOEB  Classical Library Series (Heinemann: London

[5] https://campbelltown-library.blogspot.com/2015/10/fruit-of-vine.html

[6] Humbert of Romans, ‘Treatise on the Formation of Preachers’ in Simon Tugwell OP Early Dominicans: Selected Writings (Paulist, 1982), 202.

[7] The Scriptures approve of drinking alcohol: Gen 27:28; 29:22ff; Ex 24:9ff; 29:40; Lev 23:13; Num 15:5ff; Dt 7:13; 11:14; 14:22ff; 28:15; 32:14,38; Num 13:23; Josh 9:13; 1Chr 12:38-40; Judg 9:27; 19:6,19; 1Sam 16:20; 1Kgs 4:25; Ps 104:15; Prov 9:2,5; Eccl 9:7; Sir 31:27; Song 2:4; Job 1:13; Isa 25:6; 55:1-2; Hos 9:2; Amos 9:13; Mic 4:4; Neh 8:9-12; Jn 2:1-11; Mt 26:27-29 et par.; 27:48 et par.; 1Cor 6:12; 1Tim 5:23. The Scriptures criticize overindulgence in alcohol: Gen 9:21ff; 21:14; 29:23ff; Dt 21:18-21; 1Sam 25:36ff; 2Sam 13:28; 1Kgs 16:9-10; Prov 20:1; 23:20-35; Isa 5:11f; 28:7f; 29:9; Hab 2:15-16; Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34; Gal 5:21; Rom 13:13; 1Cor 6:10; Eph 5:18; 1Tim 3:2-3; Tit 1:7; 1Pet 4:3f.

[8] Paul Murray OP, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A drink called happiness  (Burns & Oates, 2006).

[9] Murray, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality, 130-131, quoting Bld Jordan of Saxony, Epistola XXVI.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John (trans. J.A Weisheip, CUA Press).

[11] Pope Francis, Aperuit Illis, Motu Proprio instituting The Sunday of the Word of God, 30 September 2019, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190930_aperuit-illis.html

[12] Prayer before His Baptism, choosing the Twelve, commissioning Peter, and miracles : Mt 14:23; Mk 6:41,46; 8:7; 14:22; Lk 3:21; 6:12; 9:18; 22:31-2; Jn 6:15; Prayer  at the Transfiguration, Last Supper, Gethsemane and the Cross: Mt 8:6; 14:19; 15:34-6; 26:26, 36-44; 27:46; Mk 6:41; 14:22, 32-9; Lk 9:16, 28-9; 22:19, 40-46; 23:34,46; Jn 6:11; 17:1; 24:30