Homilies for February 2019

For Feb. 3, Feb. 10, Feb. 17, and Feb. 24.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Feb. 3, 2019

   Readings: Jer 1:4–5, 17–19 • Ps 71:1–6, 15–17 • 1 Cor 12:31—13:13 (or 1 Cor 13:4–13) • Lk 4:21–30

In Luke’s Gospel, the first word that Jesus speaks outside of reading Scripture is: “Today.” “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Lord is speaking of the great prophecy of Isaiah we heard last Sunday that promises a messiah who will bring good news to the poor, liberate captives, give sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and set everything right in the sight of the Lord. For centuries, God’s people had been looking, waiting for this to happen, searching and scanning for signs of what would come, and finally they hear. “Today.”

But they weren’t ready for this call to action for the Kingdom. The immediate reaction of the people in the synagogue is call to mind little details that would keep one from springing into action, from responding to God’s call right now. “Isn’t he just Joseph’s son?” By finding fault with the messenger, they feel excused from acting on his message. Then, when confronted, they get angry and reject Him. This has been a common reaction to the person of Jesus for the last two thousand years . . . trying to find a flaw in his sacred person in order to reject the living and true Word of God that has come into our midst and requires our immediate response.

In my parish church in New Orleans, there is a rather curious statue at the back of the church, near the doorway. It is a holy saint, a Roman soldier, who was martyred by the emperor Diocletian around the year 300 AD. He is called St. Expedíte, and many people invoke him for a quick resolution to problems. The truth, however, is that he was a man who heard the Word of God proclaimed in the midst of a pagan world, and he made up his mind right then to convert to Jesus Christ. The evil one, however, the minute St. Expedíte made up his mind to act for Christ, whispered in his ear: “Not now, do that tomorrow . . .” The holy saint rejected Satan and did not let another minute pass until he had moved in the direction of Christ, and for that reason, in his statue, he holds up triumphantly a cross with the Latin word hodie written on it, which means “today.”

The holy Word of God we hear proclaimed in Church is for us today — not for tomorrow, and certainly not for yesterday. Jesus gives us two examples: the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. What they have in common is that they act at once on God’s Word when it is brought to them — the widow acts on Elijah’s word as a prophet, and Naaman acts on the word of Elisha as it is clarified to him by a little slave girl — an unlikely source, but Naaman overcomes his doubts, acts, and is healed.

The people attracted by Jesus, in the synagogue of Nazareth and ourselves who are gathered in this church, share the same doubts and questions from time to time. What we know from the Gospel, however, is that, convenient or inconvenient, threatening or comforting, the Holy Word of God lives and has meaning in the life of every person, right now. This present moment is the only moment we have, and we are called to respond to God. He truly speaks to us in words we can understand, but like the people of Nazareth, we hear what we wish to hear in the moment, rather than hear fully.

The Rule of St. Benedict, which has guided the lives of monks in the West for more than 1500 years, begins with the admonition: “Listen, my sons, to the rule of the master.” Historians point to the fact that a “Rule of the Master” existed prior to Benedict’s rule, but it is clear from the way Benedict wrote his rule, that the “Master’s Voice” to which he refers is the Word of God. He quotes Psalm 95, which I have often prayed as the first psalm of the day in the Liturgy of the Hours: “Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Jesus shocks the people of his own hometown. He points out that God is at work in the world right now, in a radical way, but also that his own townspeople have been complacent about doing his work right where they are. Jeremiah is warned by God that the people will fight with him because of his prophecy — the true word of God in their midst. What are we fighting? Why do we seek to take away the urgency of the response we need to make to God? For each of us, what is holding us back from our call to make the Kingdom present today? This Eucharist teaches us that God has come into the midst of our assembly, body, blood, soul, and divinity. How will we respond to the fact that, in His Divine presence, every prophecy is fulfilled today, in our hearing? Like St. Expedíte, make that choice today.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Feb. 10, 2019

   Readings: Is 6:1–2a, 3–8 • Ps 138:1–5, 7–8 • 1 Cor 15:1–11 (or 1 Cor 15:3–8, 11) • Lk 5:1–11

The exchange between St. Peter and the Lord shows us how our holy Faith gives us such wonderful help in growing as disciples of Christ. These weeks of Ordinary Time are taking us through the Gospel of Luke, which is known among the Gospels for its emphasis on God’s mercy and love. We are able, in the same way as the first followers of Christ, to walk with him along the way, learning from him, not only by his words, but also by what we see him do. Words and actions put together can convey meaning that points to things and power beyond this world. St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, learns this by being with Jesus, and we all must learn the same thing, sooner or later, as Christian disciples.

For years, in teaching catechism to high-school students, I always found it interesting when a student would make an argument based on the things animals do in the natural world. They would propose whatever animal behavior they saw in nature, and say: “Why don’t humans act like that if that is natural?” I always thought those were clever questions, but that they were best answered by pointing out the things a human person can do that no animal can. These are the things in which we see the essential dignity we have as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

The first is that the human person is the only animal that can recognize its Creator. Second, the human person is the only animal that can choose freely to forgo essential goods like food, drink, or conjugal relations in order to achieve a greater good. Third, and perhaps most beautifully, the human person can forgive the one who has hurt him badly, showing mercy and choosing freely not to seek the destruction of his enemy. Luke’s Gospel points to these realities, and highlights how disciples are meant to cultivate these elements of their higher nature rather than remain trapped in the petty concerns of this world.

The earth is indeed filled with the glory of God, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, but Jesus shows Peter that this glory is not just something in a far-away prophecy; it is here and now. God’s glory is in front of us at this moment, but our eyes are veiled with our sinfulness and we do not see God’s work as clearly as we should. St. Peter is a good, hard-working man, but he realizes that he hasn’t really believed in the power of God at work in his life and, for that reason, he feels ashamed in front of the Lord. Jesus, however, gives him an even greater dignity, that of reaching out to his fellow man to lead them to salvation in Christ, to help him see as well that God’s love can be powerful in every one of his beloved children, and is at work before our very eyes.

Paul, too, the other prince of the Apostles, gives his testimony to this in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He points out that we have been saved through the Gospel. Paul testifies that God’s grace has made him what he is, and that grace worked powerfully within him. Paul felt acutely the mercy of Jesus in having saved him from his violent and degrading ways, putting him on the right path as a true son of God.

Again, another child in catechism class, this time preparing for First Communion, heard me talk about how Jesus came to save us. This little girl raised her hand sweetly and asked a wonderful question: “Father, he saved us from what?”

Answering this question is part of the daily spiritual practice of every good Christian. Jesus saved us from living a life of selfish isolation, from living unconnected to the power of the Divine, from living without intimate and personal understanding of the real power given to us as His creatures who are absolutely able to love and forgive and live in Holy Communion with the Creator and with one another.

We can live this way. The power has been given to us to live as children of a loving and merciful God. Luke’s Gospel points this out. Peter realized his sinfulness and blindness, but that realization only led him to live in perfect harmony with His Lord and Savior, learning along the path of discipleship, just as we do today. We realize our sinfulness and blindness, too, when we see the Holy Eucharist presented to us at Mass. When we say, “but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed,” one word Jesus says back is, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Feb. 17, 2019

   Readings: Jer 17:5–8 • Ps 1:1–4, 6 • 1 Cor 15:12, 16–20 • Lk 6:17, 20–26

The world is full of free advice. In our use of social media, we are bombarded with it. In conversations with friends, everyone is ready to tell you what you need to do to make your situation better. For millennia, men and women have been seeking counsel on what to do and how to do it, seeking advice from oracles and fortune-tellers, reading tea leaves and looking for any sort of way to glimpse into the future.

Today, we encounter Jesus gathering all of his followers on a stretch of level ground, and he gives them a teaching about how to approach life. It’s interesting that St. Luke tells us this is a level place, while St. Matthew calls it a sermon on the mount. Luke wants to emphasize that when we search for meaning, we find ourselves all in the same place, at the same level. It is from this level place that Jesus begins to give a teaching — not just advice — that will change the lives of his followers forever. It can change our lives, too.

In fact, Jesus reaches into our lives not to change just one thing or to resolve just one situation we are facing. He is teaching us how to live our lives every day, in every moment, so that a true and lasting happiness might be ours. The blessings and woes that Jesus speaks of describe how a life can be lived for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus presents to us today a way of life that is radical, that is different; one that gives a happiness that is stable, enduring, and which leads us beyond this visible world. St. Ignatius Loyola, that great master of the spiritual life, made as his first principle and foundation of the spiritual life that we should choose only those things that lead us closer to God, and reject everything that pushes us away from Him. This is a life that is rooted in God; a person whose human roots touch the water that gives life and strength, and who gives fruits which testify to his or her steadfast position.

Humans worry over many things. If we allow it, we can find any number of things to occupy our thoughts and aggravate us to distraction. We worry that we might not have all the resources we want in order to pick and choose how we live, that we might be poor . . . but Jesus says: “Choose the Kingdom of God instead.” We worry that we will have to endure suffering and sadness, anything that would make us cry bitter tears . . . but Jesus says: “There is always a grace to be found in every situation. Find it and laugh.” We worry that people will reject us for the things we hold dear . . . but Jesus says: “I am enough for you, and you are mine.”

By contrast, the prophet Jeremiah speaks God’s word to warn people that without being rooted in God the human person is rendered sterile, unproductive, and without growth: a barren bush, a lava waste, a salty and empty earth. The old sin of self-worship, which is so politely called narcissism today, consists of placing the human person at the center of the universe in place of God. By recognizing God as the true center of our lives and acting accordingly, we return to the balance and harmony of the life God gave us.

Jesus trains his apostles, his disciples, and even those who do not yet fully know him how to live a life that has meaning beyond this world. So many of us are content with only worldly wisdom, or comfort, or with being entertained in the moment. Jesus, however, on that level ground, gathers many different people together as he gathers us around the altar in the celebration of the Mass. He makes himself present on the altar so that we might understand our relationship to him more intimately. Our faithful participation in the Eucharist is a moment in which we make the radical statement that we believe in and desire to live a life that only begins in this world, but that has its fulfillment in God alone — a life eternal that is more real than the one which we live now.

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Feb 24, 2019

   Readings: 1 Sm 26:2, 7–9, 12–13, 22–23 • Ps 103:1–4, 8, 10, 12–13 • 1 Cor 15:45–49 • Lk 6:27–38

As a child, I would listen to the conversations of my elders with great interest. They always seemed to have so many interesting things to talk about: politics, sports, religion, and all the happenings going on in the town. Sometimes, in trying to describe a person who was welcoming, never judgmental, and who would deal with any condition of the human person, they would say: “That person has the compassion of a priest.” It was a natural idea for those older folks in the community that, when everyone else was frustrated and done with dealing with a troublemaker, the priest would be the one who would still be compassionate. I think that is certainly still a reasonable assumption, but I would change the phrase ever so slightly: “That person shows mercy like a priest.”

As a leader of the people, the priest is called to be a model of mercy for the community. As Geoffrey Chaucer says of the parish priest in the Canterbury tales: “If gold rust, what shall iron do?” We see the same thing proclaimed in the Scriptures today. The Most High God decided to take the kingship away from Saul and give it to David, but it is in this moment that David proves himself to be a God-fearing leader because he shows mercy even when he has the power to destroy. David becomes a model leader before the people of God because, though he knows he has been given power and authority, he uses it for God’s purposes rather than for his own.

Our Savior teaches everyone to live this way as priests by virtue of baptism. Every Christian disciple is called to strive to live in a way that reflects the compassion and mercy God shows to each and every person, saint and sinner alike. I have always loved the line from Psalm 16 that we pray in the breviary every Thursday before we go to bed: “He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in his land.” When we work to find that love that God has placed in the hearts of every believer, we are led to compassion and mercy. The gift of love, when we welcome it, changes our outlook and helps us to live in communion rather than in division.

King David could have rid himself of his enemy easily. He understood, however, that God loved Saul as much as he loved David himself and so, therefore, the love of God had to be respected and cherished. Jesus, son of David, teaches us some concrete ways we can put this knowledge into practice. He tells us to turn the other cheek, to give generously and not seek the return, to love freely and generously without holding back. That kind of love can be scary for many people, but it is the love that each of us are surviving on today, at this very moment.

God is all-powerful, and he could destroy us at any moment. The only reason we exist is because we are in his mind and in his thought constantly. And we are in his mind because he loves us unconditionally. The Gospel today tells us: “He himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, so be merciful just as your Father is merciful.” We live unwittingly everyday on his kindness, so by being mindful of his love, we can become more merciful ourselves.

This call to love and mercy is radical. It’s not easy to love one’s enemies, but at the end of all things, it is the only way to move forward towards God. We are often paralyzed by our hatreds and grudges, and the desire to use whatever means we have at hand to destroy our enemies occupies our thoughts from time to time, driving out the gift of love. Jesus gives us another way, and the celebration of the Mass reminds, renews, and refreshes us on this way.

The sacred host we receive in the Eucharist is a pledge. Jesus loves us to the fullest, and we promise to love him with our whole hearts. The “Amen” we say is an assent to do our best to love others as God first loved us, faithful to the words we hear just before communion, “Lord I am not worthy to enter under your roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” That Word has been said: the Word made Flesh in the person of Jesus, our high priest. Our call is to live always with the compassion of a priest, showing God’s mercy through our actions and attitudes, faithful leaders in a kingdom of justice, peace, and love.

Rev. John G. McDonald About Rev. John G. McDonald

Ordained in 2007 for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, Fr. John G. McDonald, former president of John Carroll High School, is currently serving the Church as the Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics at the Pontifical North American College, our American seminary in the Vatican City-State.


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