Homilies for March 2018

Christ at Calvary by Bartolome Estaban Murillo (1617-1682)


Third Sunday of Lent (Year B)—March 4, 2018
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030418-year-b.cfm
Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11.; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Has the love of God moved you to be a saint?
Saints and martyrs embody the message of the Gospels. In their witness, they provide us a key to living out our Lord’s demanding injunction that we take up our cross and follow him. Christ calls us to have faith in Him and give our lives to others. As such, the goal of discipleship is to be part of the communion of saints—that wondrous mystery of loving union between God and fellow human beings, wherein self-giving love has attained its perfection. In these next five homilies, I refer to the writings and contemplations of two martyrs, Father Alfred Delp, SJ, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), to help us understand and live the mysteries of Lent. I draw from my work on Delp and I rely on the elegant scholarship on Edith Stein from Donald Wallenfang1 and María Ruiz Scaperlanda.2 May Delp and Stein help us to reject sin and become saints.

In July 1941, in the initial years of the Second World War, a young Jesuit priest, Father Alfred Delp, S.J.3, offered a Triduum to his brother Jesuits in Munich. During the three-day retreat, which was titled “The Image of the Human Person in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus,” he reflected on what it means to be a “great” or “heroic” person.4 The key for the courageous life, as Delp begins, is St. Ignatius of Loyola’s vision that behind everything stands the logic of God’s self-emptying love, which can disrupt and transform our lives.

In today’s readings, we witness that disruptive love in action, reminding us of the seriousness of sin and the need for wholeness. The Decalogue contains simple, blunt statements that prohibit sin. In particular, commandments six, seven, eight, and nine, which deal with the proper conduct toward one’s neighbor and community, are short and direct forbidding acts of violence in the order of their gravity: “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20: 13-16).

That said, the tenth and final commandment, however, is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its concern: instead of forbidding an act it prohibits a “desire.”5 The Hebrew term translated as “covet” simply means “desire,” which is the word that designates the desire of Adam and Eve for the prohibited fruit. The final commandment addresses our heart’s perverse want to possess and exploit everything under our ego. This distortion, if not interrupted and challenged by divine love, could threaten the relationship with God and our community.

God’s love responds that way. He disrupts and challenges us to become the men and women we are meant to be – saints. As such, I fall into dismay when I hear Jesuit educated students claim, “God wants us to be nice to one another.” I wonder if these young men and women recognize that the etymology of the word “nice” comes from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant” or “silly.” Do they think that the Second Person of the Trinity went to the Cross because the authorities and the mob deemed him a polite fellow or a court jester? Tragically, I believe that we have marginalized the real power of divine love by attributing a “politeness” to God that does not exist in the Bible. A nice God does not move us to be heroes. The God of the Bible, however, is not afraid to disrupt the seemingly tiniest aspects of our lives for the sake of reorienting our desires for greatness.

Such it was in Christ Crucified. In John’s Gospel, we see and hear Jesus’ anger, his cleansing of the temple from merchants and money changers. Buying and selling, even in a house of worship, may seem to be trivial acts. However, similar to the final commandment, small things can lead to estranged relationships and death. The Temple worldview imagines a covenant of wholeness that encompassed the entire world. This covenant bounds all parts of visible creation to one another and the whole of creation to God who is its source.6 Anything that ruptured these relationships was, by definition, sin.

When Jesus spoke of destroying and raising up the temple, his disciples remembered afterward that “he was talking about the temple of his body.” In other words, we understand that in the Risen and Crucified Christ we encounter the One who is the source of salvation and “holds all things together” (Col 1:17).

To bring this back to the beginning, in that 1941 retreat, Delp remarks that God’s love provides an “abundance of life.” Such abundance brings one to an awareness of something for which one desires to give oneself over to and risk one’s life for. Encountering divine self-emptying love does not permit persons to remain content with a false humility containing constricted and fearful hearts. Instead, it elevates us to “make something out of ourselves” and be heroes. Here, the Decalogue, Jesus’ burning, zealous love, and the Church as the Body of Christ come together. As Christians, all of us are one in Jesus, one in His self-giving love. Therefore, by bearing the weight of another, including the other’s brokenness, by our desire for God, by our rejection of the desire for evil, only thus will the temple of the Body of Christ be cleansed, the temple which is all of us (2 Cor 5:21).

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Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B)—March 11, 2018
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/031118-year-b.cfm
2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Eph 2:4-10; jn 3:14-21

“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”

Have you taken up and fought for the side of Christ today?
In 1950, a Dutch newspaper published the names of all Jews who had been deported from Holland on August 7, 1942, the following entry was found:

Number 44074: Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, Echt.

Born—October 12, 1891, Breslau

Died—August 9, 19427

On the one hand, in the eyes of the guards and attendants at Auschwitz, Edith Stein, denuded of her humanity, was barely a number within a factory of death. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is a witness to the healing and transformative love of Christ, a member of the Communion of Saints, a work of love.

Edith Stein was aware that to follow Christ calls for a heroic task. In one of the most poignant and challenging of her letters, she wrote, “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.”8

In his breathtaking book on the theology of Edith Stein, Donald Wallenfang remarks that it is the grace of the Cross that yokes us to Christ for the sake of the redemption of the world. Consequently, Stein’s inspirational life comes to light from the self-sacrificial love of Christ’s Cross. A disciple who patterns her life after that of the Crucified Lord overcomes fear by love, supplants doubt with faith, and engages a lost and forsaken world with hope.9

Such desire to seek the lost and the forsaken is at the heart of the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent. Indeed, God does not tolerate sin; he becomes angry when it is committed. However, God does not also tolerate our turning away from others during troublesome times. Discipleship insists not just rejecting malice but also apathy – a small-heartedness toward one’s world. That said, the Lord does not abandon those whose hearts have grown cold. He takes the initiative to send saints and martyrs to awaken our need for conversion, opening our hearts to His mercy.

In John’s Gospel, the lifting up of the Son of Man refers to the exaltation of Jesus on the Cross. Because it marks the hour of divine victory over sin and death, the Cross is the definitive manifestation of Christ’s identity and glory. Thus, one could not say more emphatically that at the heart of God is the desire to save all, and that condemnation does not proceed from his initiative to become one of us. That said, how then are we to make of judgment in John’s Gospel?

According to the Gospel, Christ came to enlighten and bring everyone back to the Father. However, it is up to each person to recognize and accept that call and to choose to make that return journey. No one can escape this personal choice. The coming of the Son of God into the world brings forth the decisive battle between light and darkness, requiring us to take sides and make heroic choices.

In fact, John’s Gospel has the form of a lawsuit against Jesus.10 Love in truth is on trial, and we must pick our side; it is impossible to remain neutral. Either we recognize Jesus is the truth and life, and we welcome love, or we condemn Christ to the Cross, either like the mob or Pilate, preferring hatred or indifference. In this case, we have voluntarily sentenced ourselves.

To possess eternal life does not mean endless duration of biological existence because such a reality would be a condemnation. Eternal life, however, involves living in the presence of God as a child of the Father. As such, eternal life in God is not something that we wait to receive after we die, but can begin in our life right now. We are followers of Jesus because we have been born above (John 3:3) through the lifting up of Jesus on the Cross. Our discipleship arises from God’s self-sacrificial love in His Son for the world.

The cruciform life is at its heart other-centered. The shape of the Cross manifests two lines, one vertical and the other horizontal, intersecting in the heart of Christ. The vertical line represents the life lived in obedience to the Father; the horizontal line represents a life lived on behalf of one’s world. The cross represents Jesus’ twofold commandment to love both God and neighbor. To give oneself in complete abandonment in the love of God for the sake of another is the expression of eternal life lived in the present. In a 1928 letter, Stein wrote, “even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must ‘go out of oneself’; that is, one must go to the world to carry the divine life into it.”11 To be a disciple of Christ is to participate in God’s life – to partake in a magnanimous life that shapes one into the likeness of Christ for others. The gift of divine life fittingly is reciprocated with a response of human love.

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Fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday (Year B)—March 18, 2018
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/021818.cfm
Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

“Create a clean heart in me, O God.”

Have you allowed God’s Heart to speak to your heart?

Toward the end of his life, as he sat hands bound in chains, Father Alfred Delp, SJ, wrote on the mysteries of the Christian faith. His first two meditations were on the devotion to the Sacred Heart.12 Writing from prison in late Fall 1944, Delp acknowledges that the devotion communicates the “offer of friendship with the Lord.” In particular, he describes this friendship as “an offer of mercy from God to save” us in our brokenness and sins.13 This gift of love brings new life, transforming us into the likeness of our Lord and giving us the desire and ability to become fruitful instruments of His redemption.

The readings from the Fifth Sunday of Lent spells out this gift of redemption in which we are invited to participate. A new covenant rooted in a heart to heart relationship with God’s merciful love (Jer. 31: 33-34), fortified by the desire and capacity to give ourselves without remainder, (Jn. 12:24), and shaped by obedience (Heb. 5:8) sum up the message of salvation.

Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant is not something different from the covenant formed at Sinai; that covenant is not rejected: God will still be Israel’s God and Israel would still be God’s people (Jer. 33). However, in the new covenant, God will write the Torah in their hearts so that people will possess the interior freedom to follow and obey God. Here, the term obedience needs further explanation. Obedience pertains to the journey of interior transformation, because of the painful effort sinners must take to follow God. If sin is indeed an attempt to grasp autonomy apart from God, then obedience effectively counters sin. Thus, if we are to understand obedience correctly, we must see that it is rooted in an interior transformation of our hearts. It is dependent upon a deep prayer life, where we come to know God intimately and are inspired by God’s love, experiencing a heart to heart dialogue of love between God and us. As Delp notes:

Everything is based on God’s grace and mercy. You will lead me, I must listen to You. He will lead me, I must trust in Him. Life ceases being a lonesome and laborious monologue; it becomes a dialogue; it becomes more like: Cor ad Cor loquitor.14

Such heartfelt obedience was achieved on our behalf by the one heart that knows God completely – Jesus Christ – who obeyed to the point of dying out of love for us.

In its opening chapters, the Letter to the Hebrews identifies Jesus as the Son of God and the high priest who shares in our destitution. As mentioned in my homily from the Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus is the high priest of the new Temple, who can sympathize with human weakness and estrangement from God and neighbor. Thus, Delp writes from his prison cell:

We, the people, with an eternal longing in our hearts and a burning desire for an encounter with genuine joy and freedom. We run around as the pressured, the hunted, and the threatened. We sit in the shadows as the shackled and the imprisoned. As the alienated, the lost, and the wretched, we call upon Him. Here the message of the Heart of Jesus meets us in our misery.15

According to Delp, when we pray to the Heart of Jesus – we “call upon the saving love of God. This Heart is the innermost point of God and represents His essential relationship to us.”16

Christ willingly puts himself in the midst of human misery and wretchedness, not just to be in solidarity with us, but to transform us within the selfless love of God. The theme of the seed in John’s Gospel that is buried in the ground and then bears fruit refers to Jesus himself, who by his dying give new life to us. Delp writes,

Whenever the Lord touches a creature, He leads it to its own perfection and fulfillment and, at the same time, beyond itself. He does not destroy the addressed “you” but instead makes it a more complete “I” than it could have become on its own.17

Hence, as mentioned in last Sunday’s homily, we, who are remade in Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross, are expected to follow Christ into the world. Our discipleship flows from Christ – from the Seed that sacrifices itself. We will be mistaken if we think that participating in the Lord’s plan of redemption for the world does not cost us anything. Christ challenges us: “Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me” (Jn. 12: 25-26a) into the breach that separates people from God and neighbor from neighbor.

In his prison reflection The Fate of the Churches, composed towards the end of his imprisonment, Delp writes,

We must get back to the ideal of service. By that I mean meeting the man in the street on his own ground, in all circumstances, with a view to helping him master them. That means walking by his side, accompanying him even into the depths of degradation and misery. “Go forth,” our Lord said—not “sit and wait for someone to come to you.”18

The Church’s task involves forming men and women who find their fulfillment in living out the desires of God’s heart:

People who are genuinely impregnated with the spirit of their calling, people who have prayed with all sincerity: make my heart like thine. . . . Only then will their willing hearts beat with a compassion that sweeps aside as negligible the old stubborn attachment to being “right after all.” Their hearts will beat with one desire—to help and heal in God’s name.19

Thus, in harmony, with the last two homilies, discipleship calls for a giving of self for the sake of another. We can do so because Christ’s obedience heals our distorted desires and reorients them to seek God’s greater glory in the world. As such, it is a fruit of the Cross lived in the present.

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Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year B)—March 25, 2018
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/032518.cfm
Mk 11:1-10; Jn 12:12-16; Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47

“Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

How have you raised up another person?

Prior to her conversion to Catholicism, Edith Stein wrote,

The love with which I embrace a human being may be sufficient to fill him with a new life power if his own breaks down. Indeed, the mere contact with human beings of more intense aliveness may exert an enlivening effect upon those who are jaded or exhausted, who have not activeness or exhausted…”20

In this intuitive and penetrative passage, our saint recognizes that the natural state of life involves neither the survival of the fittest mentality nor the desire to extend one’s biological existence, but rather the capacity to love another to a higher state of being. This natural state of life is ever more apparent in light of biblical revelation.

As disciples, we have the capacity and the charge to channel divine love to the world. The power to love and give life to another owes itself to the fact that God has first loved us. He accepts the risk to become one of us, taking on our brokenness and burdens in our stead. Subsequently, we are liberated, experiencing a new life and interior freedom to obey God’s commandments.

On this Palm Sunday, the second reading from St. Paul draws us into a contemplation of the paschal journey that the Son of God embarks on. Paul tells of a God who emptied Himself, adopted the status of a slave, became like us, and carried His mission to the length of dying on the Cross. The phrase “He emptied Himself” expresses the uniqueness of the Christian proclamation of God. In our faith, the self-emptying of God includes Christ becoming human and His self-sacrificial death on the Cross for the love of humankind.

God’s love and life becomes a gift so others may flourish. As such, the Incarnation does not diminish God. Instead, it points to God’s glory at work in and for the world. Because the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross, the self-emptying of Jesus, including His death on the Cross, is the perfect expression of the eternal will of God to love without remainder. No other religion proclaims such a divinity!

At the heart of Christ’s redemptive act is the self-emptying he makes on our behalf. What effects our redemption is the interior disposition that his shedding of blood signifies. Namely, his unreserved gift of himself in obedience to the Father on our behalf, a desire that more than makes up for Adam’s refusal to serve. This definitive Divine self-giving reorients us for a discipleship that leads to a life of service. Accordingly, the Greek word for “slave” can be translated as “servant.”

As understood in the context of our celebration of Holy Week, God’s saving love is characterized by His self-gift in Jesus Christ, and such self-giving serves to transform us into people we are meant to be. We are men and women who have been shaped by this radical love. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that distorts love to a contractual agreement or reduces love to a physical, utilitarian experience. We exist in a culture that boasts of freedom from and use of others. Palm Sunday, however, speaks of an existence founded on love that expiates, sacrifices, and serves so others may live.

Christ’s words “Take it; this is my body” is God’s beautiful and dramatic way of saying “I love you.” Holding nothing back, He gives His life to us. The Eucharist brings the presence of Christ’s self-emptying love to us. This mystery of this costly and generous love is unrepeatable, but they are made present so that we can be empowered by them. As such, we return to Edith Stein’s conviction that we can give life to others with our love. After her conversion, this intuition became explicitly tied with Christ. She writes,

There is a vocation to suffer with Christ to suffer with Christ and thereby to cooperate with him in his work of salvation. When we are united with the Lord, we are members of the mystical body of Christ: Christ lives on his members and continues to suffer in them. And the suffering borne in union with the Lord is his suffering, incorporated in the great work of salvation and fruitful therein. That is fundamental premise of all religious life… to stand in proxy for sinners through voluntary and joyous suffering, and to cooperate in the salvation of humankind.21

Thus, the Eucharist, tied directly to the Cross, manifests and proclaims God humbling love that embraces us and provides us with a new life power, enlivening us so that we can return that love to Christ by sharing it with others. Here, this is the point of the Eucharist and the Cross: the redemption of humankind. When we receive the Eucharist, we accept the love of Christ on the Cross. We welcome Him. We consume Him and become like Him through the Spirit. In doing so, we become a work of God’s love. Through the Spirit, God invites us to come together in His Son to be the Body of Christ in the world for the world. The Church as the Body of Christ is the sacrament of redemption in this broken world.

 

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1 Donald Wallenfang, Human and Divine Being: A Study on the Theological Anthropology of Edith Stein, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

2 María Ruiz Scaperlanda, Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2017).

3 Alfred Delp (1907 – 1945) would later be imprisoned for seven months from late July 1944 to early February 1945, for being a member of an anti-Nazi resistance group, and would be executed on February 2, 1945. He was offered his freedom if he would renounce his priesthood. He refused and was hanged.

4 Alfred Delp, “Das Menschenbild Der Konstitutionen Der Gesellschaft Jesu,” in Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften 5 (Frankfurt am Main: Knecht, 1988), 205–21.

5 René Girard, I See Satan Fall like Lightning (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001), 7.

6 Margaret Baker, Temple Theology (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 24–27.

7 María Ruiz Scaperlanda, Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2017), 153.

8 Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters, ed. L. Gelber and Romanus Leuven, trans. Josephine Koeppel (Washinghton, DC: ICS Publications, 1993), 87.

9 Donald Wallenfang, Human and Divine Being: A Study on the Theological Anthropology of Edith Stein, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 200.

10 Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000).

11 Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters, 54.

12 Alfred Delp, Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften 4: Aus dem Gefängnis, ed. Roman Bleistein, 2. Aufl (Frankfurt am Main: Knecht, 1985), 242–67.

13 Ibid., 243.

14 Alfred Delp, Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften 1: Geistliche Schriften, ed. Roman Bleistein, 1. Aufl (Frankfurt am Main: J. Knecht, 1982), 259.

15 Delp, Gesammelte Schriften. 4, 258.

16 Ibid., 248.

17 Ibid.,, 252.

18 Alfred Delp, Alfred Delp, S.J.: Prison Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 97.

19 Ibid., 97–98.

20 Edith Stein, Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, trans. Mary Catherine Baseheart and Marianne Sawicki (Washington, DC: ICS, 2009), 85.

21 Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters, ed. L. Gelber and Romanus Leuven, trans. Josephine Koeppel (Washinghton, DC: ICS Publications, 1993), 128.

Fr. Peter Nguyen About Fr. Peter Nguyen

Fr. Peter Nguyen, S.J., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto where he trained in the areas of systematic theology and spirituality. He has published on the ecumenical aspect of Alfred Delp’s martyrdom. He has also given presentations on the Trinitarian dimension and the role of the Sacred Heart devotion in Alfred Delp’s martyrdom.

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