11 February 2017

Homily - 12 February 2017 - On hearts chilled by sin and the warmth of spring

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The return of warmer temperatures this weekend after the recent snowfall has stoked my hopes that the season of spring may soon be upon us. The ancient Anglo-Saxons would not have disagreed with this hope. In fact, they would argue that spring has already come, for they held the season we associate with sunlight and joy actually began five nights after Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, meaning that spring really began on February 7th.

Now, we might rightly contest that it is still cold outside – or normally is, at least – and that spring will not really come for another month or so, arriving on or about March 21st (may God forbid it to wait so long!). To this argument, the Anglo-Saxons would respond with this maxim:

Fate is most powerful, winter is coldest,
spring is frostiest, it is the longest cold.[1]

Which of us is right, we moderns, or the ancients? I generally side with the ancients, and I hope you will soon see why.

The coming of spring as held by the Anglo-Saxons seems questionable to us because we like to divide the seasons evenly throughout the year (or at least pretend we can do so), but Aelfric of Eynsham, known as the Grammarian, provides this explanation as to why spring is the longest cold: “the lengthening day is cold because the earth is permeated with the winter chill, and it takes a long time before it is warmed again.”[2] As it is with the earth, is it not also the same with our hearts? Once our hearts are permeated with the chill of the sins of anger, of lust, of falsehood, and of any failure to love both God and neighbor, does it not take a long time for them to be warmed again by the fire of the Lord’s love? Do we not grow comfortable in our cold-heartedness and resist anything that would warm them and require of us a change?

The word Aelfric used for spring is somewhat familiar to us. He spoke of the season of lencten and, after dropping a few letters over the course of time, lencten became lent, the season we are soon to enter, the season of spring, both of the natural world and of our hearts. We know the season of Lent will soon be upon us because, as I drove by a fast food hamburger restaurant a few days ago in Quincy, I saw another sign that Lent will soon be here: the marquee in the restaurant’s parking lot proclaimed, “Beer battered fish is back.”

If we return for a moment to the natural season of spring, we know that, as the Anglo-Saxons knew before us,

Frost must freeze, fire burn up wood,
the earth grow cold; ice form bridges,
water wear a covering, wondrously locking up
shoots in the earth. One alone shall unbind
the frost’s fetters: God most mighty.
Winter shall turn, good weather come again,
summer bright and hot. The never-resting sea,
the deep way of the dead, will be the longest hidden.[3]

In the same way that none of us can awaken the spring or unbind the fetters of the frost, neither can we – without the aid of divine grace – unbind the fetters of sin that freeze our hearts. Only God most mighty can do so. Only he can warm our hearts to make them bright and hot so that when we enter the deep way of the dead we might not be lost and cast out of his presence because our failures to keep his commandments of love.

It may seem strange for me to be talking about Lent so early, with the actual season still some two weeks away, but we spend a lot of time preparing for Super Bowl parties, birthday celebrations, Valentine’s Day dinners, and even events of lesser importance. Should we not also prepare ourselves to enter into the season of Lent when we will ask the Lord to thaw our hearts? We cannot ask him to bring about the powers of his spring within us unless we know what needs to be thawed, what needs to be warmed, and what needs to be unbound.

Today the Lord Jesus warns us rather sternly of what needs to be thawed, warmed, and unbound within our hearts if we are to enter into his Kingdom: anger, lust, and falsehood (cf. Matthew 5:22, 28, and 37). He acknowledges the goodness of the law given through Moses and, seeing how the people were not conforming their hearts to the full righteousness desired by the law, he expands it and fulfills it in his own person “by showing the kind of life to which the law ultimately pointed.”[4] It is to this life that you and I are called and so we must ask ourselves if our hearts are conformed to the heart of Christ.

It is not enough that we not murder someone; rather, we must not even allow murderous thoughts – which come from anger - to enter our minds. It is not enough that we not commit adultery; rather, we must not even allow lustful desires to form in our hearts. It is not enough that we not tell falsehoods; rather, we must say what we mean. In all of this, Jesus demands of his disciples a “wholehearted trust and obedience toward the heavenly Father that radiates God’s love to the world.”[5] Do we trust that what he commands is for our own good? Do others recognize the love of God radiating out of our lives?

We know that love is always seen in the details. Grand gestures of love are sometimes important and necessary, but, in the end, our love – or lack thereof – is shown more clearly in the ordinary occurrences of life. If we tell ourselves, “It is just a little white lie,” that does not change the fact that it is still a lie. If we do not place our shopping carts within the corrals in the parking lot, but instead leave them scattered about, we demonstrate a lack of love for others. If a spouse looks at someone with lustful thoughts, he or she is not honoring the marriage covenant between husband and wife. We cannot forget that God “understands man’s every deed” (Sirach 15:19).

The Lord says to us today, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand” (Sirach 15:15-16). The keeping of the commandments, then, requires that we trust in God; if we do not trust in him, we cannot keep his commandments. This is the wisdom of God, hidden from and mysterious to those who see Jesus only as a good teacher and do not recognize him as God most mighty (cf. I Corinthians 2:7).

If we who know his divinity, if we who have seen his power, open our hearts to him and ask him to bring about a new springtime within us, if we cooperate with his grace and strive to root out sin from our lives, if we reach out towards the fire of his love, then the waters of death, the deep way of the dead, will not forever hide us. If we allow the fire of his love to permeate our hearts and melt away the chill of sin, then we will be conformed to him and, on the last day, be ushered into his kingdom of joy and peace.

The Holy Father Pope Francis reminds us that “Lent is the favourable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbour.”[6] Let each of us, then, take serious stock of our lives in these coming days. Let us make a thorough and honest examination of our consciences, asking the Lord to shine the clarity of his light upon our many sins, upon our many failures to love both God and neighbor, so that when we enter the season of Lent our hearts might not be bound up forever in the chill of winter but might be set free by the springtime of God’s love. Amen.

[1] “Maxims II.” In Eleanor Parker, “‘Unwinding the Winter’s Chains’: Spring, Thaw, and Some Anglo-Saxon Poems," A Clerk of Oxford, 7 February 2015.
[2] Aelfric, De Temporibus Anni. In ibid.
[3] Maxims I. In ibid.
[4] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 94.
[5] Ibid., 95.
[6] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2017, 3.

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