Saturday, March 28, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday

Homily for
Palm Sunday
March 29, 2015
John 12: 12-16
Iona College, New Rochelle

“When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:  ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel’” (John 12: 12-13).

(source unknown)
Did you know that John’s Gospel is the only one that specifies that the crowd waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem?  I didn’t, until I read a commentary earlier this week.  Matthew and Mark speak of “leafy branches,” probably from olive or fig trees, which are found near Jerusalem, whereas palm trees aren’t; and Luke doesn’t mention branches at all.

The palm is rich in symbolism.  The Jews regarded it as sacred, using it in temple and synagog ornamentation.  It was, as well, a sign of victory, and in Christian art it came to symbolize martyrdom.  The psalms speak of the just man who flourishes like a palm tree.

No doubt St. John means to capture some or all of these allusions by speaking of palms waved in Jesus’ honor:  Jesus is the most sacred Word of God, entering the holy city to win victory for God over Satan’s powers.  The most just of men, he’ll shed his blood in martyrdom to lead all of humanity back to God.  A few verses earlier, John quoted Caiaphas the high priest prophesying that “one man should die instead of the people” (11:50), and that why Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord” (12:13).  He will conquer Satan by shedding not the blood of his enemies but his own.

The crowd cries out, “Hosanna!” which means “Grant salvation!” or “Save us!”  To that they add a verse quoted from Ps 118 (v. 26), “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  They welcome Jesus as the one who will save them in God’s name.  To the verse from Ps 118 they add, “the king of Israel.”  You may remember that in John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the crowd “were going to come and carry him off to make him king” (6:15), causing Jesus to flee, alone.  Now, in Jerusalem, they acclaim him as king, the Anointed One of God (Messiah).  This time he doesn’t flee.  His hour has come, the hour when he will indeed assume his rightful throne—the cross; and will be crowned—with thorns; and will claim the sovereignty of truth (John 18:37).

He does counter the crowd’s expectations, however.  “Jesus found an ass and sat upon it” (12:14).  Kings don’t ride donkeys.  They ride powerful horses or roll in on chariots as a sign of their authority and military might, perhaps of their having won some great battle.  When Queen Elizabeth goes to address Parliament, she doesn’t ride a donkey, does she?  She takes a majestic coach drawn by magnificent horses—a vehicle of state.  But Jesus takes a lowly beast of burden, slow and peaceful.  Yet even this speaks of the true sort of kingship that Jesus exercises.  The prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion…!  See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass” (9:9), which John cites (12:15) both to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy and to indicate the nature of his royal rule.  He rules with love and mercy, for he is the Good Shepherd who has come to save God’s flock.

“His disciples did not understand this at first” (12:16).  This isn’t the 1st time that John refers to the disciples’ later understanding of what Jesus had said or done.  It’s only when he’s “been glorified” (12:16), i.e., has risen and ascended to heaven, that they make the connections of what he said and did with the word of God expressed in the Jewish Scriptures.  After events have completely unfolded they can put them all together into a complete picture and see what God has designed for the salvation of the world.

This short gospel passage—5 verses—is an invitation for us to reflect upon Jesus’ victory and upon his rule over our lives; on what makes him the model of the just man, on how he defeated sin and how he wishes us, his disciples, to follow his example of self-giving and mercy.  It’s an invitation for us to reflect upon the events of our own lives in the light of God’s word and try to discern how God has acted for us in the past, what he’s doing now, what plan is unfolding, so that he might take us forward to a share in the salvation that Jesus, the king of Israel, has won for us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Homily for 5th Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Lent
March 20, 1994
Jer 31: 31-34
St. Vincent, Hunters, Grand Bahama Island
St. Agnes, Eight Mile Rock, GBI

This year on the 5th Sunday of Lent (March 22), I was with Boy Scouts and preached on the gospel (John 12:20-33) without a written text.  Here's an oldie--one of the longest homilies in my collection.

“I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts….  I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33-34).

For 4 weeks of Lent we have followed the theme of covenant.  God covenanted with Noah to preserve the earth and all creation, and we too are obliged to care for God’s creation.  God covenanted with Abraham and his family, and family is part of our covenant with God.  God covenanted with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, and it is thru a people, a community, that he continues to save us.  The people broke the covenant, and their infidelity, their sin, had terrible consequences.

Now we come to God’s promise of a new covenant to be written in our hearts, to wipe away our sins.  This covenant ultimately is the new covenant in the blood of Jesus.

Christ in his mercy extended his forgiving presence thru the Church.  His whole purpose is to reconcile the world to God (2 Cor 5:19), and he has given the Church that same ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).  The Church exercises Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, pardon, renewal, and healing 1st of all in Baptism.

Lent always points us toward Baptism, to celebrate it for the 1st time or to renew its life within us.  When we are baptized, the blood of Jesus washes over us as we die with him in the saving waters and rise to new life as God’ children.

But there is only one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, as we profess in our Creed.  What do we do about sins we commit after Baptism?  We can’t be baptized again.  How does God’s covenant continue to reach us?  How does he, or will he, rewrite it in our hearts and wipe away our new sins?

The Church had to face that issue early in its history.  Its 1st 3 centuries were an age of persecution.  Many baptized persons, under the threat of torture and death, renounced Christ and offered incense to the pagan gods.  After persecution abated, some of them repented.  But could they be reconciled to God thru the Church, and if so, how?  A similar question came up for those who committed the other 2 gravest sins recognized by the early Church, viz., murder and adultery.

Eventually the Church decided that God’s mercy could indeed extend to these sinners—but just once in their lifetimes, and only after severe public penance, exclusion from the Eucharist, etc.  Needless to say, that was a difficult path to reconciliation, to restoration of the heart-to-heart covenant with God.  It was, however, the beginning of the sacrament of Penance.

Then around the 6th or 7th century, a practice developed in the monastic communities of Ireland, and with the Irish missionaries it spread to France, Germany, and Italy.  The Irish monks would periodically go to their abbot and tell him about their temptations, external failings, interior attitudes, etc., and receive from him admonitions, encouragement, and penances.  This was spiritual direction.  Before long it also involved a form of absolution from sins.  It was private, and compared to the once-in-a-lifetime, severe public penances, it was relatively painless.  No wonder it spread so far so fast.  What we’re talking about here is another development in the sacrament of Penance:  private confession.  By the 13th century private confession had become the norm for celebrating one’s return to God and God’s people.  The Church accepted it as a way of extending God’s mercy to post-Baptism sins, a way of renewing the covenant in our hearts.

Not so many years ago, Catholics went to confession by the scores on Saturday afternoon; devout Catholics confessed their sins every month or 2.  You don’t see that anymore.  Let’s look at some of the objections that Protestants and others bring forth against this sacrament of Christ’s pardon, and some excuses that Catholics make for not taking advantage of it.

1.  I confess directly to God.  Why do I need a priest?  God chooses to use human instruments to help him in his work.  He could directly create human beings, but he chooses to use the physical love of men and women to create new persons.  He could have pardoned the human race outright or found some means to save us other than having his Son take human flesh and die on the cross.  But he chose that means.  And Christ chooses to continue his work of redemption thru human instruments, as we read in John 20:21-23:  “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”

2.  How can any man forgive sins?  That was the question of the Pharisees about Jesus when he forgave the paralytic (Mark 2:7).  The man, the priest, doesn’t forgive sins, has no power to forgive sins, except in God’s name and as the minister of the Church, which is Christ’s body.  If the Church cannot forgive sins in God’s name, then Baptism too is useless, for it is the Church that baptizes for the forgiveness of sins thru her minister.  But it is the same Holy Spirit at work in the sacrament of Reconciliation as in Baptism.  Listen to the formula of absolution that the Church uses in the sacrament:

God, the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and send the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

3.  The priest is no better than I am.  Why should I tell him my sins?  Yes, the priest is a sinful human being like everyone else.  But for whatever mysterious reason, God chose him to be an instrument of grace.  Most priests are quite aware of their own weaknesses and sins.  They have to go to confession too.  Even the Pope confesses his sins to another priest on a regular basis.

Pope Francis confessing (CNS)
4.  Father won’t understand.  This is sort of the reverse of the previous objection.  Recently I was reading a magazine article which made reference to a novel about Christ.  In this novel, St. Peter asks Jesus why he chose him to be the leader of the apostles; why not John, who was evidently so much holier?  And Jesus’ answer to Peter was that Peter would understand the weaknesses of others.  Since the priest in the confessional is himself a sinner, he can be very understanding of those who come to him.  Most priests truly do see themselves as instruments of Christ the Good Shepherd, the compassionate Savior.

5.  I’m ashamed.  They used to tell us there was nothing you could confess that the priest hadn’t heard before, and that’s pretty much true.  In fact, some wise guy once said there’s nothing you could confess that the priest hadn’t done himself.  That’s stretching the truth, but every priest, as we said, is himself a sinner.  Before he gets ordained, moreover, he studies a great deal of moral theology, human psychology, etc., to be prepared for whatever the pastoral ministry will bring him.  And before he has been a priest for very long, he will have plenty of experience in the confessional.  It’s nearly impossible to surprise or shock him.  While shame is a natural and healthy result of sin if we have a conscience, it is also a tool that the devil can use to keep us in our sins.  The only lasting shame is being too hard-hearted to turn away from our sins.  That may in fact be the “sin against the Holy Spirit” of which Jesus speaks (Mark 3:28-29).

6.  I don’t remember how.  If we haven’t gone to confession for a while, that could indeed be a problem.  But Father will be happy to guide you along and help you.  That’s why he’s there to begin with.  Just tell him you need some help with the steps or with your prayers.  More frequent confession will cure this problem in no time.

7.  I have nothing to confess.  This is a serious problem because it probably means we haven’t examined ourselves very carefully.  St. John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8).  The saints, e.g., St. John Bosco, used to go to confession every week; that’s what Church law used to recommend for priests and religious.  And they must have found something to confess or some spiritual problem to discuss with their confessors.  Unless our consciences are insensitive, we can find some external fault, some harm we’ve done to someone, or some interior attitude that bears correction.  And reasonably enuf, the longer it’s been since our last confession, the easier it should be to find our sinfulness.  Frequent confession, paradoxically, is a means of grace, a means of strength against temptation and sin, as well as a means of sharpening our consciences.

8.  The priest may tell someone what I said.  That’s a natural enuf fear, especially given the experience most of us have with keeping secrets and trusting people.  But I ask you:  Have you ever heard of a priest violating what is called “the seal of confession”?  I never have.  In fact, the priest is most strictly forbidden under any circumstances whatever to repeat or to use in any way anything that he hears in confession.  Doctors and lawyers have a privilege of confidentiality with their patients and clients.  But for them that privilege has certain exceptions.  There are no exceptions for the sacrament of Penance.  Every priest I know takes that obligation absolutely seriously.  This obligation of secrecy, by the way, holds also for someone who might possibly overhear someone else’s confession, e.g., because a door was left open.  There are, after all, few things in life more sacred than a person’s conscience.  The Church’s whole ministry is reconciliation, and nothing can be allowed to intimidate people away from seeking forgiveness.

Are there any positive reasons why we should seek reconciliation with God and Christ’s Church thru the sacrament of Reconciliation?  I’ll list 5 positive reasons.

The 1st and most important reason is that the confession of sins and the power of the Church to forgive sins is biblical.  I’ve already cited John 20;21-23.  Jesus also says to all the apostles in Matt 18:18:  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  That passage is distinct from the same words spoken to St. Peter personally in 16:19; here they come specifically in the context of a brother who sins.  St. James advises us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that we may be healed.  “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful,” he says (5:16).  St. John tells us, “If we acknowledge our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9).

Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven,
with the power to bind and to loose (from sin)
In the OT, too, we find passages advising or commanding public confession of wrongdoing, e.g., in Leviticus and Numbers.  There is the well-known example of David, who committed adultery and murder, was publicly accused by the prophet Nathan, and publicly confessed his guilt.  To David is attributed the great psalm of repentance, Ps 51.

So our Protestant friends who tell us that confession is not scriptural are either ignorant of the Scriptures or highly selective in quoting them.

The 2d positive reason to confess our sins is that confession is good for the soul.  It’s therapeutic, healing.  We’ve all had the experience of apologizing to someone we’ve hurt, and when we’ve received forgiveness the healing of both persons has begun.  We don’t doubt that God will forgive us; so all we need to start the healing is our confession.  But it’s also reassuring to hear God’s minister speak the words of forgiveness and healing.  As human beings, we need sacramental signs.

Note how society does its confessions.  People pay psychiatrists thousands of dollars to listen to their problems and sins.  People go on Donohue and reveal their most disgusting habits and addictions to the whole world.  Is it only for money and notoriety—or is it also a cry for help?  And millions of people belong to AA or NA, where the healing begins with confession.  Every meeting these men and women introduce themselves publicly by saying something like this:  “Hello.  May name is John, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Then many of them proceed to tell what their addiction has done to them, what they have done to their families and friends, etc.  They find support, and the healing begins.

We have all that for our moral failures, our sins, in the privacy of the sacrament of Reconciliation.

The 3d positive reason for celebrating this sacrament is that it’s a preventive.  Prevention is the best medicine not only for our bodies but also for our souls.  For some people the thought, “If I do this sinful action, I’ll have to confess it,” is powerful prevention.  But the more we expose ourselves to the grace of healing, the less inclined we are to fall again.  The deeper our friendship with our loving Savior, the less we want to hurt him by sin.

The 4th reason, indeed, is that Reconciliation aids our spiritual growth.  Coming sincerely to Christ can only strengthen us:  “When I am weak, then I am strong,” says St. Paul (2 Cor 12:10).  Christ’s minister consoles and encourages us, gives us advice for the future—and if we are wise enuf or fortunate enuf to have a regular confessor, he becomes our spiritual director, the best friend of our souls.

Finally, Reconciliation or Penance is important as an example, especially for parents to teach their children.  By going to confession, parents teach their children about sin and about God’s mercy.  There’s no better teacher than your example.  If sin is something you just shrug off, your children will have no sense of sin—and we see the effects of that in our society already.  But if you have a horror for sin and take it to the Lord Jesus for cleansing, then your children will learn that and will learn to hate sin and love Jesus.

And Jesus will place his law within their hearts.  He will be their God, and they shall be his people.  (Cf. Jer 31:33).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Homily for 4th Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Lent
March 15, 2015
2 Chr 36: 14-16, 19-23
Eph 2: 4-10
John 3: 14-21
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple” (2 Chr 36: 14).

At the end of the 2d Book of Chronicles, the unknown author, whom we may call simply the Chronicler, sums up Israel’s recent history.  It hasn’t been pretty.  Leaders and people alike have been unfaithful to God, ignoring divine law, practicing idolatry and sexual immorality, oppressing the poor and the weak, not respecting the sabbath day rest.  It’s all catalogued in the books of Kings and Chronicles and in the prophets.

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the society and culture that we live in?

The Chronicler then tells us the consequences of Israel’s infidelities.  Those aren’t pretty either:  the utter destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple; slaughter; captivity and exile.

We can look at our world and see what happens when people ignore God’s laws.  There’s plenty of bloodshed—on foreign battlefields and in our own cities.  The crushing of the poor, leaving them with little hope, leads to criminal activity like the drug cartels, and it leaves the poor vulnerable to human trafficking.  The lack of stable family relationships draws young people to gangs.  Religious and ethnic hatred drives people out of their homes and into miserable refugee camps—or into the risk of dangerous voyages to foreign countries where they hope they might do better.

The Chronicler concludes with word that God finally sent a deliverer to Israel:  Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, who released the Jewish captives and let them go home to rebuild Jerusalem and their country.

Our 2d reading, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, speaks of another deliverer whom God sent to Israel:  “God, who is rich in mercy, … when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ … raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens” (2:4-6).

The gospel reading from St. John says much the same thing in that famous verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (3:16).

In the OT Israel died a political, social, and culture death on account of their transgressions.  St. Paul and St. John speak of the eternal death that we sinners deserve, and of God’s “great love for us” (Eph 2:4), the richness of his mercy, that offers us forgiveness.  Paul emphasizes that we don’t deserve forgiveness:  “by grace you have been saved”—he says that not once but twice (2:5,8).  That is, God gives us a favor, grants us undeserved mercy; “it is the gift of God” (2:8), and for no other reason than love—which is rather beyond our understanding, because most of us are more inclined to demand justice and fairness—or getting even—than to forgive and give 2d and 3d and 4th chances to those who’ve hurt us.

One of the purposes of this Lenten season is to remind ourselves that God has this abundance of mercy to offer us.  He loves us more than we can imagine.  He wants to save us and draw us to himself.  He wants us to live with him alongside Jesus “in the heavens,” in eternal life as members of his family.  We have only to accept his forgiveness, to come out of the darkness of our sins, our evil attitudes and behaviors, and let him lead us into the light, to do the works of the light and of truth (cf. John 3:19-21).

St. Paul writes that “we are [God’s] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Eph 2:10).  God the craftsman, like a master potter or metalsmith or carpenter, has shaped us—you and me—making us for some plan of his:  to do good deeds, to speak goodness, to live goodness, “that we should live in” those good works.  He gives us his grace that we might live—live in goodness, live in the truth, live in the light, and live forever with his Son Jesus.

The raising of Lazarus
(Byzantine icon)
What happens when we live in truth and goodness, when we walk in the light?  Long before we get to heaven, our lives get better!  There’s no cheating, no infidelity, no covetousness and greed, no anger and assault.  There is forgiveness, mercy, understanding, compassion.  Don’t you love seeing those qualities in Pope Francis?  What would our lives be like if you and I practiced them?  What would our society and our culture be like if you and I had more of a positive impact on them?

And that’s the other purpose of Lent:  to induce us to change ourselves—our thoughts and behaviors—for the better, “so that [our] works may be clearly seen as done in God” (John 3:21), and so that God “might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7)—because we’ve accepted the gift of his grace and let him rule our lives.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Homily for 3d Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Lent
March 8, 2015
John 2:13-25
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle                             

“He was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2: 21).

The story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, as it’s called—driving merchants and money-changers out of the sacred precincts—is one of those stories recorded in all 4 of the gospels.  That alone is a mark of its significance.  All 4 gospels link the event to the hostility of the Jewish leaders to Jesus.

In the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—this dramatic event takes place right after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and precipitates the priests’ and Sanhedrin’s decision to arrest him later in the week.  St. John, on the other hand, puts the story at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, at the 1st of 3 Passover feasts that punctuate his ministry—3 Passovers that help John tell us who Jesus is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean.  For John this event in the temple is the 1st sign of enmity between Jesus and the leaders of his people, enmity that will increase event by event, or in John’s terminology, sign by sign.

(Aside:  It’s from St. John only that we get the idea that Jesus’ ministry covered 3 years—actually, just a little more than 2 years, the spread from this 1st Passover occurrence until his death on the eve of the 3d Passover.  The Synoptics are very vague about chronology, but their stories pretty much would fit within one year.)

St. John also gives us a hint about when this cleansing of the temple took place:  46 years after King Herod began a major reconstruction of the temple, or in 28 A.D.  That dating is consistent with the information that St. Luke gives us for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry in 3:1-2.

Chronology, however, isn’t St. John’s concern in narrating this story.  Rather, he’s presenting to us the new temple where we are to worship God.  “Destroy this temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.  He was speaking of the temple of his body” (2:19,21).

A little later in John’s narrative, Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman that the time is coming when true worship of God will no longer be offered in Jerusalem—at the magnificent temple ordained by God in the Torah, rebuilt after the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and further beautified by Herod and his successors; but God’s authentic worshipers will adore him “in Spirit and in truth” (4:23).

That true and complete worship will no longer be tied to a specific physical place.  It will no longer be limited by geography—or by nationality.  All who are gifted with God’s Holy Spirit may take part.  All who seek and adhere to the truth may take part.  This worship will be centered on the person of God’s own Son, who offers himself as the perfect, timeless sacrifice of praise and atonement to God.  “He was speaking about the temple of his body.”

By Vasili Golinsky
Christ’s enemies indeed attempted to destroy his body, and they won a brief victory on Calvary.  Their victory was literally short-lived because God raised him up to eternal life, killing their victory, crushing the destructive powers of sin and death.  “In 3 days I will raise up this temple” (2:19).

The living temple of Christ’s body is where and how we, his followers who “believe in his name” (2:23), worship God.  By God’s mysterious power, by the power of the Spirit, all of us who have been baptized into Christ are part of his living body,.  Wherever we gather as believers, Christ is with us, making us into his body:  “Where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20); no physical building is required (altho physical buildings are undoubtedly very useful for our gatherings, and physical furnishings are essential for our public worship).  Only faith is required:  we believe in his name.

Not only was Christ’s body not destroyed on Good Friday, but it has spread to the ends of the earth, taking in people of every nation and of every time—even, we believe, people whose time on earth preceded Christ’s, such is the power of God’s love.  “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God … and the weakness of God [shown in Christ’s suffering and death] is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:24-25).  The weakness of Christ’s humanity hides his divine power, the divine power that makes his body a temple; the divine power that he passes on to us who “believe in his name” so that we also are temples of his Holy Spirit.

Our participation in the body of Christ culminates in the Holy Eucharist.  The Eucharist is the body of Christ that was put to death and rose to eternal life on the 3d day.  We become the body of Christ by fulfilling his command to take and eat, take and drink—which is why we who follow him must come together to celebrate the Eucharist.  Without the Eucharist the temple of Christ’s body is diminished.  Particularly we celebrate the Eucharist on the 1st day of the week, the day when Christ was raised up, the day when God recreated the world, rather than on the sabbath day, the 7th day, the day when God rested from the 1st creation (cf. Ex 20:8-11) and the day when the crucified Lord rested in the tomb.

We become the temple of his body by partaking in his body.  As the temple of his body was raised on the 3d day, we look toward our own being raised up because we are part of his body:  “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Homily for 2d Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Lent
March 1, 2015
Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Mark 9: 2-10
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle                                         

“God put Abraham to the test” (Gen 22: 1).

On its face, this story of God’s testing of Abraham—which is much more poignant in the full version—confronts us with a cruel God; we might well call him sadistic.

We can’t know the complete story, of course.  We can’t even say with certainty when Abraham lived:  1,600 or 1,800 or 2,000 years B.C.; or precisely in what socio-cultural milieu.  We can be pretty certain, however, that human sacrifice was part of that culture.  We know that it persisted well into Israel’s period of kings and prophets, embedded in the surrounding paganism and sometimes penetrating into Israelite practice.  We know that the Law that God gave to Moses stated explicitly that every firstborn male of man or beast belonged to the Lord and had to be sacrificed to him—this was linked to the 10th plague and the Passover in Egypt—but that an ass could be redeemed by sacrificing a sheep as a substitute, and a son had to be redeemed (Ex 13:1-2,12-15).

Abraham and Isaac preparing the altar of sacrifice, with ram caught nearby
(mosaic, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington)
However it was that Abraham understood that God was commanding him to offer his 1st-born (of his wife), in the end God stops him cold and presents him with a substitute sheep.  The author of Genesis is pointing us toward the Torah, toward Israel’s higher religious and ethical practice, toward a different way of being in relationship with God.  And, as the Fathers of the Church and our liturgy teach, Abraham’s story also points toward the sacrifice of another 1st-born Son, one who would actually be slain on a wooden altar; and that Son is the Lamb who substitutes himself for every one of God’s beloved children who, unlike Isaac, are guilty and under condemnation but for grace.

At the end of Abraham’s test, the promise is renewed.  Its fulfillment is assured, after Abraham has been tested and passed the test of complete obedience to God, of utter, blind faith that God will be true to him.

Something similar takes place in the transfiguration story.  Jesus has an experience that is bodily in some form—inexplicable to us—that puts him into direct contact with the Divine, revealed in dazzling light and overshadowing cloud and conversation with 2 OT figures believed to have been assumed into heaven.  Obviously—to Mark and to us, but not to Peter, James, and John, who lack our benefit of hindsight and Christian faith—Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life are being foreshadowed.

Transfiguration, by Bellini (1487)
But on either side of that wondrous experience—the Father’s promise to Jesus, as it were—Jesus’ testing is foretold.  A few verses before in Mark’s gospel is the 1st prediction of the passion (8:31), followed by the command that every disciple should take up and carry her own cross in Jesus’ footsteps (8:34).  Immediately on descending the mountain, Jesus tells the 3 apostles “not to relate what they have seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (9:9).  For Jesus there will be no resurrection, no dazzling light, no participation in the life experienced by Moses and Elijah (and all the faithful keepers of the covenant whom they stand for) until he has gone thru his passion—until he has passed the test of complete obedience to his Father, of utter, blind faith that the Father will be true to him.

If Abraham’s faith and fidelity were tried; if Jesus’ were tried—then surely we expect that ours will be also.  “No disciple is greater than his master” (Matt 10:24).  We see the faith of hundreds, if not thousands, of our brothers and sisters tried in these days—most famously by ISIS, but also by anti-Christian street violence in Pakistan and India and Egypt, by government persecution in China, etc.  But our fidelity is tried on a smaller scale every day:  by the challenge to be kind to the people around us; to be respectful of everyone; to let ourselves sometimes be inconvenienced by the demands of community, of relatives, of alumnae, of strangers; to bear our aches and pains and sicknesses without complaining about them and turning them into a cross for everyone else to bear; at the same time, graciously and humbly to accept help that others want to give us because they love us and they love Jesus.  Sometimes we’re too darned proud to let others be kind to us!  Even Jesus accepted help from Simon of Cyrene and, if legend be true, from Veronica.

“Many are the trials of the just, but from them all the Lord will rescue him” (Ps 34:19).  When we prove our fidelity to Jesus—a fidelity that, alas, also requires us to confess our sins, and it’s a humiliation for most of us to do that, even to ourselves—then God will demonstrate his fidelity to us, as he did to Abraham, as he did to Jesus, so that our passion on earth, whatever form it takes for us individually, may lead us to the glory of resurrection (cf. Preface for 2d Sunday of Lent).