04 September 2022

Homily - 4 September 2022 - The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

 The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Do you ever feel distracted in prayer? Do you ever find yourself not praying as well as you like? If we are honest with ourselves, I am confident that each of us can answer both of these questions affirmatively. We are, after all, not angels, but humans, and fallen humans at that. Without a doubt, we are loved by God – who created us in, by, and for love – but we still suffer the effect of the Original Sin and are prone to sin ourselves.

Unfortunately, some people do not always accept the reality of their fallen humanity. They become strongly discouraged by distractions in prayer, thinking they should never become distracted in prayer. They become disheartened by an imperfect time spent in prayer, thinking it should be otherwise. And the more dismayed they become, the less time they spend in prayer until they spend no time in prayer at all.

Saint Augustine recognized the reality of our human condition in this life, perhaps better than anyone else; he was not afraid of it, but looked at it squarely and accepted it for what it is. Why? Augustine knew that if he was a faithful disciple of the Christ Jesus the Lord would make his face to shine upon him and fill him with joy and gladness (cf. Psalm 119:135; cf. Psalm 90:14).

We can see an example of his outlook when he read in the Psalms the verse that sings, “Praise the Lord, my soul” (Psalm 146:1). This was our heavenly patron’s response to this verse:

Your soul will answer you, I will praise him as best as I can, poorly, feebly, weakly. Why? Because as long as we are united to the body we are in exile, far from the Lord. Why do you praise the Lord in this manner, not giving him a perfect and continuous praise? Ask the Scriptures. It is because “the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns” (Wisdom 9:15).[1]

Saint Augustine recognized that he could not perfectly praise the Lord this side of eternity; he knew he could not be fully united with Christ Jesus until his poor, feeble, and weak body perished. But this reality did not elicit in him a fear of death, nor did it keep him from prayer or from seeking to praise the Lord more perfectly.

Instead, Saint Augustine found hope in the Resurrection of Jesus. He said,

Yes, we should lift up our hearts, but to the Lord. As you know, not lifting up hearts to the Lord is due to pride; lifting up hearts to the Lord is called ‘taking refuge’… He rose again, you see, to give us hope, because what rises again is what dies first. So [Christ’s Resurrection] was to save us from despair at dying and from thinking that our whole life ends with death.[2]

He realized that the reason we are so often distracted in prayer, the reason we infrequently offer perfect praise to God, is because we are too focused on ourselves.

This inordinate focus on the self, this lack of focus on God, is a consequence of our fallen human condition, but if we take up our crosses and follow after the Lord Jesus we can overcome it, with the help and power of his grace. This is why Augustine said,

You will fall if you have lifted yourself up; you remain standing if you have been lifted up by him. So, lift up your hearts, but to the Lord – that is taking refuge. Lifting up your heart, but not to the Lord, that is pride… How, I mean, can we possibly be proud, if we lift up our hearts to him, seeing that he humbled himself for our sakes, so that we should not remain proud?[3]

The simplest way for us to lift our hearts up to the Lord, to be humble and not proud, is to keep before our minds this reality of human life: “You make an end of them in their sleep; the next morning they are like the changing grass, which at dawn springs up anew, but by evening wilts and fades” (Psalm 90:5).

Some will say this remembrance of the reality of death is morbid and unhealthy. To such a claim I would counter that the desperate avoidance of death, the overwhelming fear of death that guides so much of modern life, is itself unhealthy and dishonest; none of us can escape physical death and it is best to see it for what it is.

We live daily under “the shadow of death.” This is evident all around us in these days when pumpkin spice is seemingly ubiquitous and as the daylight lessens, the temperatures decrease, and the cloud cover thickens. But even as we live in the shadow of death, we must remember that “above all shadows rides the sun.”[4] We know that, as Pope Saint John Paul I said, “we are the objects of undying love on the part of God.”[5]

An undying love: it never sinks beneath the horizon of our lives; it shines upon us and illumines even our darkest nights. When we gaze upon the Crucified Lord, we are called to the heights of that love, to be purified of our distorted ideas of God and of our self-absorption, and to love God and others, in Church and society, including those who do not see things as we do, to love even our enemies.

To love even at the cost of sacrifice, silence, misunderstanding, solitude, resistance and persecution.[6]

This undying love for us shines through the darkness of the shadow of death and strengthens our hope; it takes our focus away from ourselves and keeps it on God. “That is why Christ, that is the why the consolation of immortality has been promised us and in the flesh of the Lord has already been given us.”[7]

If we wish to pray well in this life, if we wish to praise the Lord more perfectly while still in our poor, feeble, and weak bodies in order to praise him perfectly in the life to come, we must remember that “Christ is the center of the Christian life” and that “the bond with him takes precedence over all bonds, familial or social.”[8] Let us not be overcome by the shadow of death, but place our hope in his wondrous love, so that with our focus on Christ and can take up our crosses and be his disciples, placing him above all else in this life (cf. Luke 14:26-27). If we live in this way, may we close our eyes in this life and open them again to look upon the light of the Face of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Expositions of the Psalms, 145.6.

[2] Ibid., Sermon 261.1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 888.

[5] Pope Saint John Paul I, Angelus Address, 10 September 1978.

[6] Pope Francis, Homily, 4 September 2022.

[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 359.9.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1618.

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