Homilies For Sunday Liturgies and Holy Days, September 2014
St. Gregory the Great, the Prophet Ezekiel, and St. Augustine of Hippo
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 7, 2014
Being responsible for others in charity
Purpose: We bear a responsibility toward others. We must help them to avoid wrong, and encourage them in choosing the good. All of this we must do in love. St Gregory the Great provides an example of this.
Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Earlier this week, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Gregory the Great, who has some interesting and insightful words on our first reading today.
In the first reading, the Lord speaks of the role of a prophet as a watchman. A watchman is, as the name suggests, a lookout, someone who keeps watch for approaching danger. He warns people of impending danger so that they can take appropriate action.
Like a watchman, the prophet Ezekiel must also warn people of approaching dangers—spiritual dangers. He is given the responsibility of warning people about what is right and wrong, about what brings them closer to God, and what leads rhem away from God. If they heed his words, they will be safe. If they ignore his words, they are held responsible for their actions. But if Ezekiel fails to warn the people, and neglects his responsibility, then he is held responsible for their fate.
This passage has often been applied to the responsibility that bishops, priests, and deacons—preachers of the Gospel—have. Not only St. Gregory the Great, but St Augustine, as well as other great saints, and fathers of the Church, wrote at length on these and subsequent verses from Ezekiel.
This awesome responsibility, however, is not only for the shepherds of the Church. In the Gospel today, Jesus talks about the responsibility that each one of us has toward our brothers and sisters. And, fortunately, Jesus gives us an appropriate and tactful way of offering correction: if we notice a person’s fault, we don’t go around telling everyone else about it. Rather, we go to them privately and say something.
Isn’t this so often the opposite of what we do? If we feel wronged by someone, don’t we usually tell everyone except that person? But, Jesus tells us to go to them, one-on-one, privately. This way we allow the opportunity for the person to offer an explanation for what they did; maybe they had no idea that what they were doing was wrong. This allows for the opportunity for a genuine and sincere reconciliation, without unnecessary humiliation.
This is often called “fraternal correction,” which is very different from judging. Judging comes out a sense of self-righteousness, thinking that I am better than another, or holier than another, and for that reason I have the right to point out another’s faults. Judging can also come out of a certain insecurity that seeks to point out another’s faults in order to make my own faults not look so bad. I am sure we have all come across people like that in our lives, and all of us have probably acted that way once or twice.
Fraternal correction is different; it has another motivation. Its goal is, as Jesus says, “to win over your brother.” The goal is not to beat him or her down, nor is it to humiliate them. Fraternal correction comes out of genuine concern for another; it is out of a desire to see a friend or loved one become even better than they already are. The motivation is love, and nothing else. “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,”as St Paul said today. Its goal is to bring about deeper bonds of communion between the other person and Christ, and between you and the other person.
As I mentioned earlier, St. Gregory the Great commented on those previous verses from Ezekiel. In his commentary, Gregory shows us the right attitude that should go along with fraternal correction. When he speaks of his own responsibility as a watchman, St. Gregory says, “how hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself … I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.” He then goes on to say how, when he lived in a monastery, before becoming Pope, it was so much easier for him to be attentive to prayer, to control his tongue in conversation with others, but that all this is more difficult now that he has been given the responsibility of the papacy. He is well aware of his own shortcomings, and asks: who is he to serve as a watchman, what gives him the right to speak? And he answers himself saying: “Because I love him (Jesus), I do not spare myself in speaking of him.”
Now, I know I havesaid a lot about correcting others, but let’s remember something that we should do even more often than we correct: that is, we should encourage others. St. Paul says, “Encourage one another and build one another up”(1 Thes 5:11). However much we might be called upon to offer some gentle correction to another person, we should make sure that even more often we find ourselves encouraging and commending another’s good deeds. Because our faith is not, first and foremost, about what we’re doing wrong. But it is a “yes”—a “yes” to Christ, and a “yes”to the life, the mercy, the joy he offers us. Through both encouragement and correction, we are freed up in order to offer a more generous “yes”to Jesus.
Suggested Readings: Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Gregory the Great;“A Big Heart Open to God”, interview with Pope Francis (especially the part under the heading “The Church as Field Hospital”).
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—September 14, 2014
The Cross stands at the center of everything
Purpose: The Cross stands as the “center”of the life of Jesus, who is the center of the universe, and of history. He came to remedy the Fall of Adam and Eve; he came to give proof of the Father’s love. The Cross is that proof.
Readings: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
This Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross provides us with the opportunity to remember, in a special way, Jesus’ passion, and the significance of his death on the Cross. It is mid-September, and we are about as far away from Good Friday as we can get. So, it is good that we get a refresher into the meaning of this thing that is not only central to our lives, but to the whole history of the world.
In the first line of the first encyclical that Pope John Paul II wrote, he said that: “Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history”(RH 1). This does not mean that he is the chronological center; he is the logical center. This means that all creation receives its meaning in light of Jesus. St. Paul, in the letter to the Colossians, sums this up when he says that: “All things were made through him, all things were made for him”(1:16). Creation comes from him, and is in movement back to him.
If Jesus is the center of history, then the center of Jesus’ life, here on earth, is the center of that center. And the center of Jesus’ life was his death on the Cross; that was the purpose for his coming. Our readings today help bring this to light.
In the first reading, Moses puts a bronze serpent on a pole, and raises it up. All who look upon it are healed; they are saved from death. This story only comes to its full significance when we see it in light of Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus says that he, too, like the bronze serpent, must be raised up, and in this sense, he was speaking of his death on the Cross. And he must be raised up so that people might have eternal life.
Later in the Gospel of John, there is a verse that sheds some more light on this. Jesus says: “…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”(12:32). What is it about Christ’s crucifixion, this exaltation of Christ on the Cross, that is supposed to draw us to him?
Let’s rewind now for a second. Remember the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve; remember how things transpired: Adam and Eve had been given everything, but then came along a serpent, the most cunning of all creatures, and he put a doubt into their mind: “Did God really tell you not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil? Surely, you know that when you eat of it you will be like God.” The evil one puts doubt into the minds of Adam and Eve; he gets them to doubt God’s love for them.
Is it not doubt in God’s love and concern for us that is at the root of every sin? Think about it. What keeps us from surrendering ourselves wholly over to God? Maybe there are only small ways that we still keep God at an arm’s length, or maybe there are big ways. Maybe we have kept God at arm’s length for a long time. Maybe there are areas where we pick and choose what we want to believe, or maybe there are areas where we put brackets around a certain moral teaching of the faith. Does all this not boil down to a deep-seated doubt that God really doesn’t know what is best for us, that he doesn’t truly love us?
Immediately after this fundamental doubt in God was introduced into the human race, God did not abandon us. And the reason he didn’t is because of the very reason he created us: to be loved by him and to participate in his love. To have abandoned us would have only confirmed that doubt that Adam and Eve, and humankind, bought into.
Instead, God gave us a sign, a sign that would call for a choice, a decision. You can imagine him saying to himself, “What can I do that will give them no doubt of my love for them, that they can trust me, and that by trusting me and following me, they will live fully?” And so what did he do? He came among us, as one of us. St. Paul said in the second reading, “… he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.”
If that was not enough, he even allowed himself to be put to death, as the ultimate proof of his love for us. I think we all know that verse from the Gospel of John, “Greater love has no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The Cross is the foil to the Fall of Adam and Eve; it reveals the lie that they bought into. The Cross reveals that God has no other motive in his relations with us than love. And for this reason, we ought to trust him, we ought to follow him—and not just partially, but completely.
“When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.” Today, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, let us be drawn by the love God has for us; let us be drawn and transformed by the mystery of his love, which gives joy and peace and meaning to our lives.
Suggested readings: Redemptor hominis by Pope John Paul II, Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar also has some wonderful things to say about the Cross in its opening pages.
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 21, 2014
The gift is being with the landowner
Purpose: People experience conversion at different points in life. A conversion late in life is a tremendous gift, but one that is often preceded by the anguish of not knowing the Lord. For those who experience conversion earlier in life, it is a gift to be with the “landowner” throughout one’s life, something to be grateful for.
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
Jesus presents us with two different groups of people in today’s Gospel: workers who were hired early in the day, and workers who were hired at the eleventh hour. Let’s look first at those hired at the eleventh hour.
The people hired at the end of the day seem to have been longing for work all day. It is not because they were lazy that they were not hired, but because, as they explained, “no one has hired us.” They did not go to work because they could not find it.
In this parable, the image of work is an image for faith in Christ. And the image of the being hired at the end of the day corresponds to coming to faith late in life. As we can imagine the joy and relief of a person who is hired and receives a whole day’s wage at the very end of the day, so, too, we can imagine the joy of a person who experiences a conversion late in life. Similarly, as we can imagine the anguish of a person who cannot find work, we can imagine the anguish of a person who does not yet know the Lord, but longs to known him—whether they are aware of it or not—because it is a desire and a need written on every human heart.
A great example of a person who experienced a conversion later in life, even if it was not at the very end of his life, was St. Augustine of Hippo. In his spiritual autobiography, TheConfessions, he speaks passionately about the torment he went through, not knowing the Lord, and longing to be set free from the sins that held him bound. He speaks beautifully about his conversion, and the joy that came with it.
As he longed for conversion, he would say within himself, “Let it be now, let it be now,”but, as he says, “I still shrank from dying unto death, and living unto life.” Although he could desire to be converted, although he could want to leave a sinful life behind, he lacked the strength to do it. Something held him back. Nevertheless, Augustine persevered. Like the workers in the Gospel, who kept looking for work and did not give up, Augustine did not give up, eventually being given the grace of conversion.
The moment of Augustine’s conversion is actually quite beautiful. I encourage anyone who has never read The Confession, to read it. At the moment of Augustine’s conversion, he was in a garden. Once again, he was confused and distraught over what was keeping him from embracing the freedom that Christ gives. Then he heard what he thought was a child’s voice saying: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately, Augustine stopped crying, and picked up a copy of the letter to the Romans that he had sitting with him. He opened it and read: “let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Augustine says that, “in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.
St. Augustine is a good example of the worker who is hired at the eleventh hour and, yet, who still receives an entire day’s pay. He is no less of a saint because of his late conversion. In fact, in spite of his late start in the Christian life, he ended up becoming one of the most influential saints in all of Christianity.
So, we might be led to think that those who have always had the faith in their lives would feel themselves to be even more blessed, never having to go through the sometimes anguishing process of leaving behind one way of life in order to embrace one founded on Christ. But, as the Gospel shows us, sometimes those who have been at work from the beginning of the day, those who have always lived the faith, do not always fully appreciate the gift they have been given.
You can imagine those workers in the Gospel thinking to themselves, at the end of the day: “How unfair! If I had known that I could have gotten the same pay by only getting hired at the end of the day, I would have.” However, these workers do not realize the pain and anxiety that those people went through, not knowing if a job would even come
We can also draw a parallel here to the life of faith. Don’t we sometimes fail to appreciate the life of faith that has been given us? Do we not sometimes think:“If I wasn’t Catholic, then I could do X, Y and Z, like the rest of society?” And maybe sometimes we even go beyond thinking those thoughts, and give into things that we know we should not do, but do anyway.
But living our faith, working in the Lord’s vineyard, is not something that takes away our fun; it is not something that restricts us. Rather, it means knowing peace and security; it means being set free from anxiety about the ultimate questions in life. Most importantly, working in the vineyard means knowing the landowner, the Lord. And it means knowing him now, and not only at some later time. Because the wage we will receive at the end of the day is nothing other than intimate communion with the Lord. Our reward will not be something apart from God, but will be God himself. So let us be thankful and grateful for the gift of knowing him now, and let us strive to grow ever deeper in appreciation of that knowledge.
Suggested Readings: The Confessions by St. Augustine, especially book VIII.
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 28, 2014
Not in word only, but also in deed
Purpose: Good thoughts benefit us when they are carried out in action. Bad thoughts do us no harm if we dismiss them, and do not will them. It is never too late to begin following the Lord, carrying out the good inspirations he gives us.
Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
“Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.” That is a quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola, and it summarizes well the gist of today’s readings, specifically the Gospel. Our love for God, our faith, must be more than just words. Our love for God must permeate, and manifest itself in, every aspect of our lives. It must affect our every thought, our every word, and most of all, our every action. Often enough, it can be easy to say holy things, and think holy thoughts. These are good; we definitely need to do them. They can lead us to action. But these words and thoughts are not enough. They must be carried through into action. Our words and our actions—or better, the faith we profess and the lives we live—must be in harmony with one another, they ought to reflect one another, and not be in contradiction to one another.
So, in the Gospel, Jesus gives a parable about two sons, two brothers. Both are told to work in the vineyard. One of them, at first, says “no,” but then has a change of heart, and goes to work. The second son, at first, says “yes,” but then also has a change of heart, and does not work. The first is praised for doing the Father’s will, while the second is not, regardless of his words.
There are a few good lessons to take from this parable. The first, as I already said, is that we cannot be Christians in word only. It is not enough to have good thoughts, to have good inspirations, to have plans for doing good, or amending our lives for the better. It is necessary to put these into action. Maybe I have been feeling pulled to pray more, to read some spiritual reading, go to confession more regularly, to be more generous with the poor, or more patient with the people in my life. These thoughts are great, but they only do us real good when we carry them through. It is when we put these things into action that we do the will of the Father.
There is a flip-side to this, as well, and this is the second point. Often enough, we are tempted to do things that are wrong. Just as we are sometimes inspired to good things, we are sometimes tempted to sin. And just as good thoughts do us no good if we don’t act on them, temptations do us no harm if we do not act on them. Temptations come, that is a part of life. But as long as we don’t invite them in, as long as we dismiss them, we have done nothing wrong.
Again, St. Ignatius has something to say about this. In a letter of his, he says, “(pay) no heed at all to any evil … thoughts … when they are against your will. … For just as I am not going to be saved through the good angels’good works,” (that is, good inspirations) “so I am not going to be condemned through evil thoughts … that are brought before me.”
The third thing we see in these readings is that it is never too late to respond to the will of God. Even after a first, or a second, or a third “no”—whether we are like the son in the Gospel, or the person who turns from iniquity in the first reading—it is never too late to say “yes”to the Lord, to turn back to him. Not only is it never too late to begin to follow him, there is nothing in our past that renders us unfit to turn to him. “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God.” If they can turn away from their former way of life—no matter how long they have been entrenched in that life—then, I can turn to the Lord as well, and he will receive me with joy.
Suggested reading: Spiritual Exercises, 230, by St Ignatius of Loyola; Letter to Teresa Rejadell, September 11, 1536, by St Ignatius of Loyola.