23 March 2023

Homily on the Stench of Lazarus

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, by now there will be a stench” (John 11:39). Her words sound more than a bit blunt to our sensitive ears in an age that attempts to disguise and hide the stark reality of death. Most of the Fathers of the Church read her words in the literal sense of Scripture and noted that they simply confirmed the fact that Lazarus was, indeed, dead - should anyone have any doubt. Saint Augustine of Hippo, however, heard these words in a different sense.  

Detail, Duccio, The Raising of Lazarus

Rather than recognizing in Martha’s words the certainty of a physical death, the Doctor of Grace recognized instead the certainty of a sinful man. “But whoever has become habituated to sin,” he said, “is buried and has it properly said of him, ‘he stinks.’ For his character, like some horrible smell, begins to be of the worst repute.”[1] So it is that we have before us today two stenches, and one is surely worse than the other.

In contrast to the stench of sin, we know that many of the saints had a certain odor of sanctity about them. This was first noticed - so far as we know - with Saint Polycarp, who smelled like frankincense as he was burned alive in the year 155.[2] To be sure, this odor of sanctity can be either physical or symbolic, as when we say of someone, “She had the odor of sanctity about her.” Ideally, though, both the physical and the symbolic would be true or any one of us who claim the name of Christian.

We can be certain that both the stench of sin and the scent of sanctity will be revealed when the voice of the Lord at last resounds, not simply outside of Bethany but throughout the entire cosmos, when he commands: “…come out” (John 11:43)! Yes, we, too, will come out of our tombs and stand before the Lord, or, more properly, fall down before him and worship him (cf. Matthew 2:11, Revelation 19:10).

When he calls us forth, will someone say of me, “By now there will be a stench”? Will someone say of you, “She stinks”? When the Lord Christ summons us from our graves, will we be marked with the stench of sin or with the scent of sanctity? We must ask ourselves, “Of what do I smell today?,” because today may be our last. We cannot know, but that is no reason to remain with a stench.

If we notice someone keeping his or her distance from us, do we not often ask in jest, “What? Do I smell?” If we inquire about our physical odor in these earthly and passing occasions (even as a joke), how much more should we inquire as to the scent of our souls!

It is against the backdrop of this very question that today we pray to the Father, asking that “we [may] walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death.”[3] When it comes down to it, sin is nothing more than a failure to love authentically and fully, to love God in and through all things and to love our neighbor in and through all things; sin is a lack of charity and those who are without love, those whose souls are stained with sin, stink.

Following this insight of Saint Augustine, it seems the scent of sanctity did not permeate Lazarus’ life, but rather the stench of sin. Perhaps, though, this is putting things too strongly. At the very least, it seems his own sister did not think the scent of sanctity issued forth from him. Yet Jesus nonetheless counted Lazarus among his friends and wept out of love for him (cf. John 11:35). In this, there is hope for us, too, for if Lazarus remained a friend of Jesus despite his sin, we, too, can also remain friends of Jesus!

If we are honest, I daresay we all have about us the stench of sin more often than the scent of sanctity, yet the Lord loves us nonetheless and weeps for us when our sins bury us and we begin to stink. For this reason, we must return frequently to the bath of confession to wash away our stench. Here we arrive at the intersection of these two senses of Martha’s words, because “nothing moves a sinner to amend one’s defects and correct one’s sins as much as the knowledge and memory of death.”[4]

You and I will each die; there is no sense denying it or attempting to hide from it. For the Christian, for the one who has already died with Christ Jesus in the waters of Baptism; for the one who has eaten and drunk the Body and Blood of the Lord; for the one who humbly confesses his sins and receives absolution, there is nothing at all to fear in death. In death, we may close our eyes to this world, but we will open them again to look upon the Face of God who says to us, “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them” (Ezekiel 37:12).

Duccio, The Raising of Lazarus

Even today, the Lord Jesus calls to us, “Come out! Come out of your selfishness! Come out of your self-absorption! Come out of your sin! Come out of your death and enter into my life!” But, you ask, “Why do I not hear Him calling me?” The answer is simple: You have not quieted yourself or allowed yourself to be still. The Lord calls us in the silence of our hearts, but if we are not still and quiet, so many distractions drown out His voice.

Yes, “The teacher is here and is asking for you” (John 11:28). Will you rise quickly in your heart and go to him (cf. John 11:29)? Will you speak plainly and honestly to him? Will you humble yourself in love before him and allow him to wash away the stench of your sin?

If you do, you will learn that he is indeed the Resurrection and the Life (cf. John 11:25). Today, let us return to the Lord so the stench of our sin be removed from us and changed into the scent of his holiness. Thus, we shall know his “mercy and the fullness of redemption” and our hearts will be finally at rest (Psalm 130:7)! Amen.



[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 49.3. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol. IVb: John 11-21. Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2007), 26.

[2] The Martyrdom of Polycarp,15.

[3] Roman Missal, Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

[4] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon 38: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 12. In Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. XII: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure, Timothy J. Johnson, ed. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 416.

19 March 2023

Homily - The Fourth Sunday of Lent - 19 March 2023

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

There is much that might be said about the Gospel passage Mother Church presents to us today; indeed, it could take hours to mine the depths of its riches. However, let us content ourselves this morning with focusing on the action of Christ Jesus in relation to that man born blind.

Saint John tells us the Lord “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes” (John 9:6). This seems a bizarre gesture to us, perhaps even one that is more than a little rude, even an invasion of personal space. Something more is happening here, though, as both the Evangelist and the Lord draw us back by it to the Book of Genesis, which “recounts using the symbol of dust from the ground, fashioned and enlivened by God’s breath,” to create man (cf. Genesis 2:7). In fact, ‘Adam’ means ‘ground’ and the human body was in effect formed of particles in the soil. By healing the blind man Jesus worked a new creation.”[1]

Duccio (d. 1311), Healing of the Man Born Blind

Here we see that “in his preaching the Lord Jesus often makes use of the signs of creation to make known the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.”[2] He does so because, as creatures made of both body and soul, we need physical reminders of the presence of God; intellectual understanding alone is not enough for us. This is why small children seemingly have to touch everything as they learn about the world around them; it is the same with us as we seek to learn about the Kingdom of God

At any rate, although in a dissimilar way, Jesus wishes to work a new creation in us, as well; he wishes to remove our spiritual blindness brought about by sin – both the original sin and our own personal sin – so we might look upon the beautiful radiance of his Face.

 

He began this work of his in us in Baptism, when he washed each of us in the waters of rebirth and enlightened the eyes of our minds and hearts. This is why, when we emerged from those waters, we were given the baptismal candle, “a sign that helps us to understand what happens in the Sacrament. When our lives are enlightened by the mystery of Christ, we experience the joy of being liberated from all that threatens the full realization” of dwelling forever in the house of the Lord (cf. Psalm 23:6).[3]

 

When Saint Augustine reflected on the healing of the blind man in so visceral a way, he saw clear allusions to the Sacrament of Baptism.[4] Here is something we cannot forget: “in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us.”[5] He does so through the physical things of this world and through the power of his words because he knows what it is to be human.

 

In that encounter with the blind man, we see that “Jesus’ use of materials – spit, mud, water – underscores the materiality of this healing sign and subtly connects it with the incarnation. Just as Jesus’ flesh embodies and reveals his divinity, so also his perceptible signs disclose his divine identity and work.”[6] So it is also with the Sacraments.

 

When receiving the Sacraments, some are surprised or frustrated that they are not instantly made perfect in holiness, that they do not immediately “produce every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9). We ought not grow impatient with Jesus or with ourselves.

 

Just as Jesus healed the man of his blindness in several steps – spitting, touching, and washing – so also do the Sacraments work gradually in us. Sometimes it seems they even work imperceptibly in us until, looking back after many years, we can notice a closer conformity to the heart of Christ Jesus. Most people awake gradually from the darkness of night and need some time before they become fully awake; in a similar way, we often wake only gradually from the darkness of sin and only open our eyes slowly to the light of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:14).

 

As we journey with the Lord toward his Passion in these remaining days of Lent, let us not be afraid to allow him touch us, to take us by the hand, and lead us to “restful waters” where he can make us a new creation and enlighten us to look with wondrous love upon his luminous Face. Amen.



[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 2 March 2008.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1151.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 3 April 2011.

[4] Cf. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 44.2.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1504.

[6] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015), 173.

12 March 2023

Homily - The Third Sunday of Lent - 12 March 2023

The Third Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The more I consider the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well the more I wonder how such an encounter with Jesus might take place in the context of our present culture. It seems as if many Americans – if not most – are actively searching for something by which to be offended presuming the worst of intentions in each other and reading more into the words and actions of others than may be warranted.

As but one simple illustration of what I mean, consider what would happen today if the Lord Jesus correctly said to an American woman, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). Would she recognize the truth of his words and answer, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet,” or would she instead yell back demanding he not judge her (John 4:19)? And lest I be accused of sexism, the situation would be much the same if Jesus said to an American man, “you have had five wives, and the one you have now is not your wife.” In either case, would there be an acceptance of the truth of his words, or would there instead be shouts of protest and a string of excuses and justifications for violations of the moral law?

Why did Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman unfold so differently than would likely be the case in our today? The difference lies in the woman’s honesty; it can be found in her confession of her sinful situation. Whereas most Americans today feign contentment by saying such things as “I’m okay, you’re okay” and “God loves me the way I am,” the Samaritan woman recognized the restlessness in her heart and knew something must change if she was to find the happiness she desired.[1] What does this mean?


She knew the Lord called her to something greater, to something that would satisfy the deepest desires of her heart. She knew she could not satisfy these desires on her own; she had tried, and failed, five times over. She did not push away this necessary conversion, nor did she grumble against it (cf. Exodus 17:3); rather, she recognized the love of God that had been poured into her heart at that moment and she accepted his love (cf. Romans 5:5). This is why she could say of Jesus, “He told me everything I have done,” and could say so without taking offense at him (John 4:39; cf. Matthew 13:57). Can we say the same? Would we take offense at Jesus if he spoke so honestly about the sinful situations in our lives?

Building on an insight of Saint Augustine, Saint Bonaventure saw in the woman’s five husbands “the five heavy cravings of the senses,” “the five carnal senses, who ruled over her like a husband.”[2] The first husband, he said, represented taste or gluttony; the second, touch or lust; the third, smell, by which he meant a life of ease and comfort which leads to sloth; the fourth, sight or greed because of envy; and the fifth, lying and gossiping.

But what of that sixth man, the man with whom she lived who was not her husband? In this man Saint Bonaventure saw “error, which seduces and leads the soul astray.”[3] We might not all live in adulterous relationships, but we surely have all been seduced by error and our senses by giving way to the sins of gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, lying, and gossiping.

When the Lord Jesus approaches us in the silence of our hearts, in the Sacred Scriptures, or even in the words of another to reveal the secret of our sin, what is our response to him? Do we reject him? Do close our ears and our hearts to him? Do we honestly confess our sinfulness and reject the error of our ways so that his love might well up within our hearts through his forgiveness?

When the Samaritan woman heard the voice of Jesus, she did not harden her heart, but allowed it to be softened by his words of truth, painful though they surely were (cf. Psalm 95:8). She was not so proud as to presume he spoke to offend her; she was not so proud as to take offense at him. Instead, she perceived in his words a summons to happiness and healing.

In the example of this woman, we see that “preaching does not bring about faith without the consent of the will and the will does not give its consent unless God kindles a spark in it.”[4] As it was with the woman at the well, so it is with us: in the waters of baptism, each of us has received, as it were, that spark of God’s love; his love and the gift of faith were kindled in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Now it remains for us to fan it into flame as we call upon his gifts.

Jesus first “enkindles a spark in [the Samaritan woman] by asking her to serve him by giving him a drink of water. This is something that the woman could minister to him since she had come to draw water.”[5] What is it that the Lord Jesus asks of us that we are capable of doing? In his last moments upon the Cross, Jesus said, “I thirst” (John 19:28). He made this cry to each one of us, but he does not ask us for physical water; rather, he asks for the water of our faith, for the water of our love, so that we might quench his thirst.

Jesus then “continues to kindle a spark in the woman by promising or offering her a gift:” “living water” which will become in those who drink of it “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). [6] The water he desired to give to her – the water he desires to give to each of us – is the water of his love which poured forth from his pierced heart into the Sacraments (cf. John 19:34). Since he so opened his heart to us, let us not be afraid to open our hearts to him in the Sacraments so that his love might be poured into our hearts. We cannot forget that what was visible in the life of the Savior has passed over into his Sacraments; the Sacraments are for us a true encounter with Christ.[7]

Then, having drunk deeply from his love and having sought to quench his thirst with our faith and love, we, like that woman, can share our life’s story, the story of an encounter with the Lord. Indeed, we must share with others the story of our encounter with Jesus because, as Saint Augustine says, “Christ is made known … by Christian friends.”[8] Amen.



[1] Cf. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1.

[2] Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 4.33. Robert J. Karris, trans. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2007), 237.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 4.14.

[5] Ibid., 4.15.

[6] Ibid., 4.17.

[7] Cf. Pope Saint Leo the Great, Sermon, 74.2.

[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 15.33.