One of the fascinating moments in the take-off of the space shuttle from its launch pad is the explosive release of energy powering the huge craft upward at an incredible speed, breaking the prodigious pull of gravity as it spurts forth into freedom high above the earth. We never tire of our fascination with this triumph over the powers of nature.
Today, our bible readings address something comparable, but on a different level of human achievement. There is no issue here of coping with nature’s inanimate force, but there is an equally familiar encounter with the pull of the human factor upon the freedom of our movement toward God.
In the reading from Exodus we hear again of the remarkable flight for freedom achieved by the Israelites against the overwhelming force of the Egyptian army. This escape has become the classical example in world history of incredibly unequal forces pitted against one another, but with the outcome favoring the weaker. There were many factors militating against Israel’s success in this venture, mostly of a military nature; but not entirely. There were other stresses at work too. Their flight into the unknown, away from the secure (even though under conditions of slavery), their relative unfamiliarity with their new leader, Moses. In years to come, as they wandered through the tortuous byways of Sinai, they would have occasion to yearn for the leaks and garlic they enjoyed on their table, in a timely and predictable fashion. These bonds of the familiar and the secure continued to exert their influence on the Jews. Despite their escape from bondage, there was still a tugging sensation of the secure in their hearts.
And in the gospel story, another kind of bonding confronts Jesus, as bystanders bring to His attention that His mother and brothers were close by, wishing to speak to Him. This gave Him occasion to assess the matter of personal relationships in His life-and in the lives of us all-by establishing a new norm of bonding among those making their way, in His company, to God. The familiar and comfortable links of blood had to give way to a new surge of energy powering a person toward God, by dint of establishing contact with the will of God. Jesus assure us listeners that this power-source could effect an overcoming of the pull of human affection and catapult a person upward and outward toward a totally new experience of bonding.
These readings give us food for thought, springing us free from the familiar table set before us in familial settings, and urging us to step into another kind of atmosphere that is less clinging and cloying than what we are used to, but one that is charged with an energy freeing us for great things ahead.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois.