Homily for January 29, 2012: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Two years ago, a study at Columbia University found some alarming information that people should hear – if, in fact, they can hear.  It’s about noise.

The study found that just walking the streets of New York, or even working in some offices in this city, can put you at risk of going deaf.

That may not be surprising to anyone who lives here and deals, every day, with subways and traffic and construction and airplanes.  We live in a city saturated with sound, in neighborhoods overcrowded with noise.

But the problem is:  most of us aren’t aware of it.  It’s subtle, and it’s insidious.  We’re used to it.  And increasingly, we block it with earphones connected to iPods, or cell phones – which, of course, can only make matters worse, and also affect our hearing.

Hearing loss is only one problem.  The study’s authors found that noise can also cause stress, raise the risk of heart disease, disrupt sleep and impact other aspects of life.  Marriages can be strained, relationships can be broken, nerves can be frayed.

Against this backdrop, Pope Benedict last week released his annual message for World Communications Day – and he chose for his theme an aspect of communications that many of us overlook:

Silence.

As the Holy Father wrote:

In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas.”

“Remaining silent.” In our noisy age, what a daring idea!

And it is one, I think, that has bearing on this Sunday’s scripture readings.

God’s word this week asks us not only to hear…but to listen.  To pay attention.  “To hear his voice” and “harden not our hearts.”

To do that, we need to set aside what we want to say, and listen to what God wants us to hear.

In the first reading, Moses addressed the people of Israel and promised them a prophet – “To him shall you listen,” he said.

And then, in Mark’s gospel, that prophet finally appeared.  Jesus spoke in the synagogue, and people listened.

But what was the first word he said?  The first message Mark quoted?

To a man tormented by “an unclean spirit,” Jesus said simply:

“Quiet.”

For Jesus to do his work — for God to intervene, for a life to be healed, for a man to be freed from that “unclean spirit”– he needed first and foremost something that we all find increasingly elusive.

Quiet.  Stillness.  Calm.

The fact is: to let God in, we need silence.  And I think that means more than just the absence of sound.

It’s also the absence of noise.   The noise we make, and the noise that invades our lives.

I’m not just talking about the sounds of the city, or cell phones and iPods.

I’m talking about all those things that add unwanted noise to our lives.

There’s the roar of anger.  The hiss of gossip.  The clattering of fear.

It may be the insistent drumbeat of impatience, or pride, or greed.

It may be the seductive music of sin.

We need to turn all that off — lower the volume of our all-too-human hungers and failings.

Doing that, we can at last be able to listen to God.

That is the “quiet” the troubled man in the gospel needed to embrace.  And it’s one we need to seek, as well.

As we prepare to receive Christ in the Eucharist today, try this inventory:

What is the noise in life that keeps us from hearing God – and listening to what He has to say to us?

What are the distractions that drown out His call?

What is the static that interferes with His message?

What is blocking God?

A decade ago, in 2002, Verizon launched an ad campaign that’s considered one of the most successful of its kind, ever.  It introduced a nerdy guy with glasses who asked a simple question: “Can you hear me now?“

Again and again, my friends, God asks us that same question.

Day after day, He speaks to us.  He teaches us.  He prods us. He inspires us.  He challenges us.

He loves us.

But He has to wonder: can we hear Him?  So often, we miss it.   Life intrudes.  Noise interferes — deafening, deadening noise.

So: amid all the noise of living…amid all the fear and uncertainty, the  hostilities and anxieties, amid all our frustrations and failings…Listen.

Listen.

God has something to say. And he doesn’t need Verizon to get His message across.  In fact, God uses the original wireless carrier: prayer.  No contract required.  All that is needed is an open heart – and quiet.

It is the quiet found in complete love, and surrender, and trust.

It is the quiet of God’s love for us.

Listen for it.

And listen, as well, for His voice – the same one that called out to Moses, and to the author of the psalms, a voice that asks us again and again, with patience and tenderness and hope:

“Can you hear me now?”

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