Sunday, February 14, 2016

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 14, 2016
Deut 26: 4-10
Rom 10: 8-13
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

There’s something discordant about pairing the story of Jesus’ temptations with Valentine’s Day.  But, as you know, Sunday’s never a day of penance; so if some sweetheart—a nephew, a former student, your superior—has given you a box of Cadbury, enjoy!  And in the spirit of yesterday’s reading from Isaiah (58:9-14), share.

I suppose you’ve heard many homilies about Jesus’ temptations; probably not so many on the 1st and 2d readings or the collect.

In the collect we prayed that “by worthy conduct” we might “pursue” the “effects of the riches hidden in Christ” after “growing” in our “understanding” of those riches.  That’s an allusion to Eph 3:8-9, and why the collect for this Sunday is so framed I can’t tell you because that Scripture passage comes up in the lectionary only on the feast of the Sacred Heart and during Week 29 of Ordinary Time.  I thought maybe it was used in Year A, but no.

Our understanding of the mystery of Christ can never be full or complete, of course.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that “the riches hidden in Christ” include access to God’s mercy, an invitation to a new relationship with God—by which we may rightly address him as Abba—and Christ’s effectively establishing such a relationship between us and his Abba.

So we’re praying for a fuller understanding of such riches and for their effectiveness in our lives—an effectiveness that we actively “pursue by worthy conduct.”  Daniel Merz and Abbot Marcel Rooney point out in their study book on the presidential prayers:  “Our ‘worthy conduct’ (conversatio [the Latin text]—which means a conversion of morals) is not of our doing, but the result of what Christ has done in us.”[1]

St. Paul addresses the 1st steps of our “conversion,” our response to the grace that Christ offers us.  Those 1st steps are “confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom 10:9).  Paul says that if we do those 2 things, we “will be saved”; or in terms of the collect, the riches of Christ will have their effect in us.
Matthias Grunewald, Isenheimer Altar

Publicly professing our faith in Christ—in Baptism, in the Creed, by our presence at the community’s worship—is the beginning of our being saved.  I use the passive voice there—“our being saved”—because salvation comes from God thru Jesus Christ and isn’t our own doing, as Merz and Rooney note.  We can only acknowledge and be grateful for Jesus’ work.

Then Paul says we must believe in our hearts.  You’d think we’d believe in our heads, no?  Paul doesn’t make that kind of a distinction.  In any case, what we profess to believe with our lips has to go deeper—no mere lip service!  It has to penetrate to our minds, as we’d say, and to our hearts, as Paul says explicitly.  Think of what it means when we begin the proclamation of the gospel by signing our foreheads, lips, and hearts.  We have to love what we profess, love the one we confess as our Lord and Savior, risen from the dead, fully alive and offering life to all who are united to him by grace.

Which brings us further along toward what we prayed for:  conversatio, conduct worthy of the Lord whom we confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts.

In the 1st reading, Moses sets before the Israelites a profession of faith, the people’s history of salvation that starts with “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5)—that’s the pastoral nomad Jacob—and concludes with the people’s being led (passive voice again) into their place of salvation, the “land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9).

But the profession of faith leads to action.  The people are to respond to God’s acts of salvation with worship, bringing to God the 1st fruits of their harvests in that rich land that he’s giving them, and then “bowing down in his presence” (26:10).  Those acts of worship, like our own celebration of the Eucharist, are a reaffirmation of the covenant that God has made with his people—a covenant that includes the whole range of the Law, of worthy conduct toward the Lord God, toward their fellow Israelites, and toward the aliens dwelling in the land.
The Devil Tempting Christ
(Taken from The Pilot)
By resisting the temptations of the devil in the Gospel, Jesus is reaffirming his allegiance to the covenant.  In fact, each time Jesus parries the devil’s offerings, he quotes from Deuteronomy, the book of the Law.  In his syndicated column last week, Russell Shaw wrote about the temptations.[2]  He began by remarking that telling the story of the gospels without the presence of the devil in them would be like telling the story of WWII without Hitler.  The devil’s the opponent of all the good that Jesus comes to do, the one who obstructs, or tries to, Jesus’ actions that re-establish our relationship with God as his daughters and sons.  The temptations are blatant invitations to selfishness, which disrupts the covenant relationship between us and God; temptations to think of what Jesus wants rather than what Abba wants.  Our worthy conduct, our conversatio, rejects selfishness by turning us Godward, focusing us on God, who hears our cries, sees our afflictions, saves us with his outstretched arm (Deut 26:7-8), and calls for our grateful response; and, further, worthy conduct directs our selflessness toward others in the same kind of selflessness that Jesus shows.

During this Lenten season, may the words on our lips match what’s in our hearts.  May what’s in our hearts lead us to genuine acts of worship, of giving God our allegiance, gratitude, and selfless conduct worthy of the riches hidden in Christ.

         [1] Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: LTP, 2011), p. 42.
         [2] “The redeemer will redeem by sacrificing his life,” in The Pilot online, Feb. 4, 2016.

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