18 February 2020

Homily - 16 February 2020 - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, the Lord Jesus gives us a stern warning: “I tell you,” he says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). When we hear these words in the presence of Saints Damien and Marianne, we might begin to feel as if there is no hope for us; is it possible for us to do what they did, to love as they loved? The answer, of course, is yes; it is possible for us to do what they did and to love as they loved, although in different ways. Indeed, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall life” (Sirach 15:15).

We know that “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.”[1] This is why the manner in which we live this life is so important, for by it we make our decision for “life or death, good or evil,” which is to say either for or against Christ Jesus (Sirach 15:17). “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive – our life stands before the judge.”[2] This choice can have a multiplicity of forms because each of our lives is different, but the fundamental choice before us remains the same.

There are some people whose lives are so filled with wickedness that any desire for truth and love has been completely snuffed out within them. This is what is meant by the word, “hell,” “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”[3] But there are also people whose lives are so imbued with love and purity – those like Father Damien and Mother Marianne - that their love for God flows readily to their neighbor. Such holiness of life clearly marks one for heaven, “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings.”[4] But such people are not common, are they? What, then, of the rest of us, who want to live holy lives, who want to keep the commandments, but who fail so often?

We can presume that in the majority of people 
there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil – much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains, and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.[5] 
What, then, becomes of these souls who are open to, and are desirous of, truth and love, but whose lives are also marked with sin? “Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?”[6]

It would go against God’s mercy to cast them into hell, but it would go against his justice for them to enter heaven straight away with such stains covering their souls. The answer is clear: they must first be purified. Thus, we hear the Savior’s warning that “you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:26). This process of purification is called purgatory for it is a purgation, a cleansing, of the soul.

We speak of the pain of the fire of Purgatory because Saint Paul tells us we will be saved, “but only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:15). What is this fire, if not the fire of divine love? The Lord’s “burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body.”[7] This fire is the encounter with Christ Jesus himself, who is both Judge and Savior, and this encounter with him is the moment of judgment.

Many today are afraid of the notion of judgment “because they confuse judgment with petty calculation and give more room to fear than to a loving trust.”[8] They do not realize that

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms us and frees us, allowing us to become fully ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses.  Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is also a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally of ourselves and totally of God. In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[9]

In all of this, we see that “before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sirach 15:17). If we want our righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and the pharisees, if we want to enter heaven, then we must do better than them. They kept the commandments on the outside, but not in their hearts; we must do both.

We cannot forget that, in Jesus, every commandment “becomes true as a requirement of love, and all join in a single commandment: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. “Love is the fulfilling of the Law”, St Paul writes (Romans 13:10).[10] Dear brothers and sisters, if we keep the commandments out of love for God and neighbor, then one day we, too, like Saints Damien and Marianne, will be plunged into the ocean of infinite love and be “simply overwhelmed with joy.”[11] Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 45.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033.
[4] Ibid., 1024.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 46.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 229.
[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through the Year, Second Edition. Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2007), 77.
[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[10] Ibid., Angelus Address, 13 February 2011
[11] Ibid., Spe Salvi, 12.

09 February 2020

Homily - 9 February 2020 - The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In our own day, nearly obsessed with comfort, pleasure, and ease, Saint Paul seems very much out of place. He went to the Greek city of Corinth, a place so notorious for the sinful pleasures then easily available in that port city that calling someone a Corinthian was a great insult; he went “proclaiming the mystery of God” (I Corinthians 2:1). As he went about his divine mission, “my message and my proclamation,” he says, “were not with persuasive words of wisdom” (I Corinthians 2:4). Why did he not use persuasive words? Is this not counterproductive? Any advertiser or politician today would tell us that Saint Paul’s approach is foolish, but perhaps that is precisely the point.

Saint Paul went to Corinth to instill the faith of Jesus Christ in the hearts of a people whose lives were caught in the muck and mire of sin. He did not use the philosophical jargon or the language of the mystery cults so common in his day so that the Christian faith would not be said “to depend on the art of words and on human wisdom rather than on the power of God.”[1]

If we are honest, there is no shortage of preachers today who claim to proclaim the Gospel using the language of our day in an attempt to persuade and in doing so they empty the Cross of its meaning. They do not follow the example of Saint Paul who wanted to know nothing other than Christ crucified and who simply preached the power of the Cross and left people to accept his message or to reject it. He did not sugar coat it or water it down; he did not make it sound trendy or modern; he proclaimed the Cross.

He sought to unleash the Gospel, the testimony of the Christ crucified, and to let it speak for itself. He knew that “the Corinthians did not need more rhetorical bells and whistles, and [he] would not entertain them with such” so that his words “pointed to the message rather than the messenger.”[2] His message and his proclamation were not about entertainment and showmanship, but about salvation in Christ Jesus, the true Light who illumines the darkness of sin and death (cf. John 8:12). He knew, with Saint John Chrysostom, that

human wisdom denied the cross, but faith proclaimed the power of God. Wisdom not only failed to reveal the things which people sought after, but also it encouraged them to boast of their own achievements. But faith not only gave them the truth, it also encouraged them to glorify God.[3]

This is a message we need to learn today. When proclaiming the message of the Gospel to others, we cannot pander to them; we should not seek to persuade them as if the Gospel itself were not already attractive and powerfully convincing, but to show them what it means to encounter Christ Jesus. The art of human words will always fail; the power of God – even if it seems as foolishness to men – will not fail.

Today, it is lamentably rare for the average Christian to attempt to the share the power of the Cross with an unbeliever or even with one whose faith is weak. This is a clear indication that many of us have not recognized an encounter with Christ, perhaps because we have not freely recognized his presence in the stranger and in the neighbor. We do not freely follow the command of the Lord to “share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own” (Isaiah 58:7). We want to make sure those we help are worthy of our help, but God makes no mention of ascertaining worthiness. More than that, we often want some other organization to do the works of charity for us, but God does not tell us to form an organizer; rather, he tells us – each one of us – to bring his merciful love to others through acts of charity. We want to avoid the Cross and not be overwhelmed by its power, but God tells us to approach the Cross.

Saint Paul admits that he went to the Corinthians “in weakness and fear and much trembling” (I Corinthians 2:3). He knew what his proclamation of the Gospel would bring him. He knew he would be mocked and rejected by others; he knew he would be beaten and suffer greatly; but still he preached the Gospel because he knew the power of the Cross. He knew the promise of God: “then light shall arise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (Isaiah 58:10). Do we know this, as well?

If we keep our distance from the Cross, we cannot have a life-changing encounter with Christ. If we only want to know him Risen from the dead and glorious in majesty, we will not know him; if we are to know him, we must know him crucified.

We have just over two weeks now before the holy season of Lent begins, a time in which Mother Church urges us to renounce the pleasures of this world and to draw near to the Cross. At his Cross, we learn with great clarity that “light shines through the darkness for the upright” (Psalm 112:4). The Lord Jesus will shine his light upon us to illumine the darkness of our sins, not to embarrass us, but to invite us a greater conversion of heart and mind. He will invite us to be like him so that we might truly be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Let us, then, not shy away from his light, but let us step into it – even with fear and trembling – so that the gloom shall become for us like midday. Amen.

[1] Origen, On First Principles, 4.1.7. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol. VIII: 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1999), 20.
[2] George T. Montague, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 57, 58.
[3] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 6.3. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol. VIII: 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1999), 20.