Claiming the altars to unknown gods
HOMILY – Wednesday of the Sith Week of Easter
Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church, Newburgh – May 24, 2017
The passage about St. Paul from Acts 17:15, 22 to 18:1 contains a valuable lesson for us today about introducing someone to Christ.
Here's how we hear the story from the Acts of the Apostles:
Saint Paul travels to Athens, where he walks into the public square and begins his sermon. Many people are in awe; many convert, and St. Paul will then march on to another place. We picture it all happening within the context of an afternoon, right? Then he will go either give the same homily to an open/accepting group of people or, by God's intermediate inspiration, stir within Paul a new homily that works perfectly for the next town.
That might be how we hear or imagine it, but what may have actually happened?
Saint Paul had recently been released from prison, and he went to the home of the jailer (Acts 16:30-34). I wonder how many days he spent there and at Lydia's hosue (Acts 16:40) before deciding Athens was the next stop. Then, he probably had to find transportation. As he did, he might have spent some time researching or conversing about (or with) the Athenian people, and therein learn about his audience. Maybe he asked about a few Greek sites or events to visit while staying there. He probably checked into lodging and put down his likely limited luggage, possibly spent a few days looking around to find the best place to begin sharing, maybe even shared the Gospel in conversation unsuccessfully. Let's suppose on an afternoon out, he stumbled into the Areopagus and saw the altar to 'an unknown god'. "Bingo!" he could have thought. He might have even gone back and prepared his thoughts for the coming weekend or a day of celebration when crowds would be bigger. After all, how difficult it would be to convince by preaching the most faithful, devout crowd who comes on weekdays to worship. 'A plethora of people might hold more potential conversions' he could have thought, and then he preaches, and many accept Christ.
Now what I just hypothesized is not historical fact, but I don't think it's impossible as a whole. The point I am trying to make is that so often we look at Scripture or the lives of famous or successful persons and forget that it takes wisdom, failure, relationships – Providence – to get it right. Things don't always work out the way we hope, and often the greatest things don't come easy.
For instance, we get frustrated when our children or spouses won't come to Mass or refuse the Faith, but have we thought about how we might make it more enjoyable for them by teaching them about the liturgy beforehand? Have we learned more about the Mass so that we can answer their questions intelligently, convincingly? Have we thought about sending links of great, Catholic YouTube videos to our friends or co-workers? Have we 'washed their feet' with our kind letters, public posts of affirmation on social media, or just sat with them in their misery until they ask in pure, vulnerable curiosity, "What makes you so kind and caring?" to which we can finally and powerfully say, "God's grace does"?
Like the Apostle, we too can look around for the things in our world that are shallow, or that others like to receive or do, or that are – without faith – inexplicable, and say, "I know the God that's behind your that thing in your life."
St. Paul sees 'the altar to an unknown god' and therein finds a key to reaching his audience for the sake of the Gospel.
Look around. Where are the altars in the lives of your family members, your community, your world? What sits empty or without its fullest meaning in the life of someone you know or have seen? Today, St. Paul doesn't teach us to walk into crowds without planning or knowledge but to use our gifts to claim the unknown altars of the world for Christ.
Image: Saint Paul Preaching in front of the Areopagus by Marià (Mariano) Fortuny, 19th century, watercolor and gouache on colored paper, Casellas collection