16 Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 22, 2018
Ekapol Chanthawong isn’t a name that rolls easily off our western tongues. Fortunately, his friends just call him “Ek.” But, whether or not you even know or are able to pronounce his name doesn’t detract a bit from his global fame. I would venture to guess that he is one of the best known persons in the world today.
Ek is the 23-year-old assistant soccer coach who led 12 boys on an outing in their native Thailand. As you must have heard, because it was breaking news for days, the outing ended in the team being trapped in a cave. At first totally lost, finally discovered but trapped by rising waters, and further threatened by tropical storms, there was literally an international effort to rescue the boys and their coach.
When the whereabouts of the kids was finally established, people were surprised and even angered that Ek would have led these young boys, whose lives were entrusted to his care, into such a dangerous situation. The hostility towards him intensified when it was learned that there was a sign posted at the mouth of the cave, warning explorers against the potential dangers. The opening line from our First Reading from Jeremiah the Prophet comes to mind: Woe to the shepherds who mislead the flock…you have not cared for them…but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
We do not know as of yet why this happened in the first place. We do know that after many days of imprisonment in a cave gradually filling with water, at first in total darkness, the boys were finally liberated and have even been discharged from the hospital. We also know how Ek cared for his lambs once they were lost. He gathered them in prayer. That’s how they spent their first night in the dark cave…praying!
Ek, having once pursued the training to become a Buddhist monk, taught the boys to meditate. In that way, he was able to bring a sense of peace, calm, acceptance, and patience to his flock, so that they could endure the hardship with hope. He gave up his own share of the food they had taken into the cave so that the boys could have just a little more nourishment, while he went hungry. The youngest on the team told his parents that when he was cold, Ek wrapped him in an embrace. As a consequence of his self-sacrifice, when rescuers finally made contact, they found Ek to be the weakest of the 14. He insisted on being the last to be freed from the cave, and later, the last to regain sufficient strength to be discharged from the hospital.
It occurs to me that when he realized that they were lost, trapped, in grave danger, and he reached out in the darkness to gather those kids around himself, Ek must have been feeling the very same emotions that Jesus felt when He looked out on the crowd. In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus’s heart was moved with pity for them…and He began to teach them many things.
Since the first parents were led into a dark cave by the evil one, all humankind has been trapped…entombed, so to speak, in a sinful world; brutality, violence, and division rising faster than flood waters. But we are not alone. Jesus is with us. The Lord is here with us, in the midst of all that threatens us, teaching us how to survive while we wait to be liberated.
He has taught us to reflect and meditate on God’s Eternal Word, so that, as we wait to be freed from the prison of time and enter into Eternal Light, we can find a sense of peace, calm, acceptance, and patience. Jesus has given us the Gospel…the Good News…the perfect guide to survival, so that we can endure any hardship with hope. He has taught us how to pray…urging us to call God…Our Father…confident that He will continue to search for all who are lost and will raise up the righteous.
The Lord feeds us. Through the Eucharist, He doesn’t simply give us His share…He IS our food…He IS what nourishes us in a way that our survival is made certain. And when the desperation of our situation overwhelms us, He wraps us in the Holy Spirit.
The entire time I followed the unfolding events in Thailand, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the plight of those lost lambs…and our human condition. Just as through enormous human effort those kids were called out of darkness into light…through all powerful Divine effort, the righteous will be saved.
In the meantime, we are comforted, protected, encouraged, and fed by The Good Shepherd.