Wednesday of the 5th Week in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17; Mark 7:14-23
Throughout the bible, certain phrases appear in pairs, one at the beginning and the other at the end of a section. Think of these phrases as bookends, and what appears in-between as an explanation of their meaning. Sometimes, the bookends appear close together, for example in the same biblical story, other times further apart, like the beginning and end of a book.
Today we hear the first of two bookends that are separated by virtually the entire bible. We heard it when the author of the second Creation story spoke of the tree of life in the middle of the garden. The other bookend will not appear until the very last book of the bible, Revelation, whose author says, To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God (Revelation 2:7).
Seeing these two instances as bookends allows us to see the story of the bible in terms of the tree of life. It’s ironic that the other tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, gets so much attention; then again, we humans often focus on where we’ve gone wrong, and how we got where we are. While there’s good reason for that, today is a day to focus on what has gone right, and how to get where we’re going.
The reason for that positive outlook lies in today’s saint. She was a very positive person; her joy was infectious, and her perspective inspires people like me to this day. I’d like to call her by name, but we don’t know it. As a child in Sudan, she once did, but that was before slavery, which was so physically traumatic that she forgot her own name. In time, one of her masters nicknamed her “Bakhita,” Arabic for lucky.
Bakhita was not raised a Christian, but the Spirit was quietly active in her life. While still a young woman and serving as nanny to a little girl, she was sent to a convent with the child. There, the sisters introduced her to Christ, and she fell so completely in love with him that she vowed never to love another. Once freed from slavery, she kept that vow; she became a Catholic, took the name Josephine, and served our Lord faithfully and joyfully as a Canossian sister until her death 42 years later.
What should draw us to St. Josephine Bakhita isn’t the sympathy she so deserves; it is her unshakable, unwavering refusal to take her eyes off Jesus Christ, whom she rightly recognized as the Tree of Life. The superabundant graces he poured upon her were more transforming than any of the harsh treatment she endured; so powerful were they that she went to her grave thanking those who treated her so badly. As she said, she never would have met the true love of her life had she not trod the road, and endured the cross, that she did.
The truth of Scripture from the perspective of this great saint is inescapable. All the evils Christ spoke of: theft, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, arrogance, folly – the ones suffered by Bakhita – spring not only from the hearts of slave traders and masters, but from our own hearts as well. And, although the bible wisely spends a lot of time on the lessons we can learn from our fascination with the wrong tree, the most powerful truth of all is found in the lesson of the right tree – the bookend from Revelation: To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God. Who is the victor? We are; all of those who, like St. Josephine Bakhita, understand that Jesus Christ, the Tree of Life from whom we are invited to eat, is not only the center of the bible, but the center of our lives as well.
St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.
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