Homilies for March 2020

1st Sunday of Lent – March 1, 2020

  Readings: Gen 2:7–9; 3:1–7 • Ps 51:3–6, 12–13, 17 • Rom 5:12–19 (or 5:12, 17–19) • Mt 4:1–11
  usccb.org/bible/readings/030120.cfm

“Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees of the garden?” And with that seemingly simple question, loosely veiling a sinister desire to plunge man into eternal despair, the devil introduced doubt regarding God’s goodness into the minds of our first parents. The doubt led to a consideration, and the consideration led to an action, and as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.” And hence we find ourselves in the year 2020, still walking through this valley of tears, continuing to feel the daily effects of that original sin.

Thanks be to God, we know that the story does not end there. We will even be hearing in the annual proclamation of the Exsultet during the first part of the Easter Vigil this scene from Genesis referred to as the “Happy Fault” that brought about so great a Redeemer. This Sunday, we see our Redeemer in His epic battle with the same one who introduced doubt into the minds of our first parents. The devil is up to his usual tricks, beginning his address to the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity with another attempt at inserting despair inducing doubt: “If you are the Son of God . . .” Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus does not take the bait, and we witness His masterful refusal to be swayed by the “Father of Lies.”

The question remains however, as we meditate on this three part temptation in the desert, what does this victory of Jesus mean? Our Lord clearly is the victor in this encounter, and the devil flees, having failed to introduce doubt in the same way he had been successful in the past. At the same time though, at the end of Jesus time in the desert, the devil does still seem to hold an awful lot of sway. There is still clearly hunger in the world, there are plenty of unanswered questions about how God chooses to interact to save us “lest we dash our foot against a stone,” and mighty kingdoms around the world do not seem to be significantly more God-fearing than the ones which the devil placed on display from the top of that “very high mountain” two millennia ago. Even though our Lord has won this battle, it certainly feels as though He has not won the war.

As we know, the end of the testing in the desert is not the end of the story, hence a reminder that we find ourselves at the beginning of another liturgical season, and a preparatory one at that. This battle between Jesus Christ and the devil reveals to us the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord — Who He is and what He came to bring. At the conclusion of his chapter on the temptation of Jesus in the desert in his first installment in the Jesus of Nazareth series, Pope Benedict XVI asks the question: “What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God.” This is what Lent helps us to bring (back) into focus. We are very clearly still in a valley of tears, as we say every time we conclude a rosary. We still live in a fallen world full of want, fear and greed. Satan still clearly holds a lot of sway as evil appears to be growing more and more bold and more and more protected. And yet, Jesus has come to bring us God.

Pope Benedict goes on to say:

It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.

Our Lord and Savior did not come to bring us a program to wipe out hunger; He did not give us a magic lamp with three wishes; He did not hand over keys to a merely earthly kingdom. Jesus Christ, not considering equality with God something to be grasped at, emptied Himself and dwelt among us that He might lead us into eternal relationship with His Father in communion with the Holy Spirit. The same God our first parents were tempted to believe did not want them to eat from any of the trees in the garden, has come to us Himself to give us more than fruit from trees but the very fruit of life lived in Him.

A few days ago on Ash Wednesday, we heard the opening prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

This annual “campaign” is one we fight to get back to the foundation of our peace, our joy, our happiness. The devil tempts us to doubt God’s goodness from every angle, and like our first parents, he works to get us to cast off our trust in God and take matters into our own hands. The glory of our faith rooted in the self-emptying of our Lord is that He has given us an example of how to confront our adversary. Jesus Christ through temptations of comfort and grandeur points to the primacy of relationship with God; we’ll see once again in a few short weeks, in the face of scorn and violence, He will again point toward the primacy of our relationship with God, Who is with us.

This Season of Lent invites us all to take account of our lives, whether we are being tempted to doubt God’s goodness from a place of comfort or a place of suffering, and to fight in this campaign to embrace what Jesus Christ has brought us . . . God. Strive against spiritual evils with the weapons of self-restraint to see anew what is in your midst: God Himself coming to bring us Himself.

2nd Sunday of Lent – March 8, 2020

  Readings: Gn 12:1–4a • Ps 33:4–5, 18–20, 22 • 2 Tm 1:8b–10 • Mt 17:1–9
  usccb.org/bible/readings/030820.cfm

Part of me loves Advent more than Lent because even though it is a preparatory season, there is so much else going on that we can dive into: parties, treats, wonderful music, and a whole selection of movies I can’t help but return to every year. But frankly, it is harder to stop and listen to our Lord in the days leading up to Christmas. I have had the intention the last several years during Advent of reading the “Introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours,” because it is in the Advent and Christmas volume of the breviary that this introduction is found. I’ve never been successful. Not that I’ve had terrible Advents, but it has just proven perpetually impossible (maybe when I’m retired).

Lent is different though. We’re forced more out into the quiet of the desert since society doesn’t really jump on board with us for this season. It’s hard to resist Christmas parties and Santa during Advent; I’ve never had a problem intentionally avoiding someone in a bunny costume. Thanks be to God for this difference because it makes obedience to the divine command of listening we just heard in the Gospel one that seems a lot more possible during this quiet, penitential season.

This year, over the next three Sunday’s, we are given three selections from the Gospel of St. John that are longer than normal for a Gospel at Sunday Mass. They are the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. These are all three well known Gospels, and you have likely heard them many times. May I suggest this year taking the time to read them well in advance of coming to Mass on Sunday and reflecting on them throughout the week.

Last Sunday, as we do at the beginning of every Lent, we meditated on the temptation of our Lord in the desert by the devil, and we saw that while Jesus did not give an immediate, apparent solution to the problems of world hunger, world peace or universal prosperity, He brought us instead that for which we are all longing: God. With this in mind, I would like to spend the next three Sunday’s looking at the Gospels through the lens of each test and to show how Jesus continues to answer the devil’s temptations even in His public ministry. Also, I hope to show how the three pillars of Lent — fasting, prayer and almsgiving — are helpful in making our Lord’s responses to the devil part of our own lives.1

Like Peter, James, and John, if we’re going to encounter the splendor of our Lord, we have to let ourselves be led out of our daily routine, and up a high mountain. Notice one slight difference though between the mountain we heard about in last week’s Gospel and the mountain we hear about this Sunday. During the temptation, the devil took Jesus up a very high mountain. Our Lord, however, leads the three up a high mountain. The wording is the same, except for that word very. I point this out because the devil likes to deal in extremes. Our Lord, on the other hand, does not do the extreme, but “builds on nature.” For Lent, you don’t have to rush to somewhere very far away; you do not have to take on penances which are very far beyond your normal routine. Rather, set some dedicated time aside, and ask our Lord to lead you deeper into your prayer life. Jesus knew what Peter, James and John could withstand, and even when they fell on their faces in fear, our Lord spoke those peace inducing words: “Rise, and do not be afraid.” He speaks in the same way to us. The question for us is, are we willing to stop and listen — and here is the difficult part — where we are.

As we continue on in this “Campaign of Christian Service,” I recommend following two pieces of advice from two of the best sources we have. The first we hear spoken by our Heavenly Father from the bright cloud in the Gospel today, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” Take the time this week to meditate on the word of God and listen to the Word made flesh who dwells among us. It may feel like a climb up a high mountain to do this, but our Lord will provide the necessary grace. Secondly, as this Gospel of the Transfiguration is the setting of the Fourth Luminous Mystery of the Rosary, I would like to draw your attention back to the Second Luminous Mystery in which Mary, the Mother of God, speaks to the servants, and in turn you and me, and gives some of the best advice that has ever been spoken: “Do whatever He tells you.” Our Lord may not deal in extremes, but He does deal in the right amount. Lent affords us the chance to take the time to listen, but it doesn’t end there. Rise, do not be afraid, and do whatever He tells you this week.

3rd Sunday of Lent – March 15, 2020

  Readings: Ex 17:3–7 • Ps 95:1–2, 6–9 • Rom 5:1–2, 5–8 • Jn 4:5–42 (or Jn 4:5–15, 19b–26, 39a, 40–42)
  usccb.org/bible/readings/031520.cfm

I have heard it said about advertising that it steals our peace and sells it back to us at a price. Now to all those who work in advertising, I apologize for such a non-nuanced description, but I don’t think it is completely off base. That feeling of restless searching is one that marks our common human experience, and hence why our peace is so easily stolen away and why we willingly pay up in an attempt to get it back . . . but it never sticks around for long.

Think about the greatest meal you’ve ever eaten, the most incredible vacation you’ve ever taken, the most luxurious seats at a game you’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy; regardless of how lofty the heights of satisfaction we may have reached, when it comes to finite pleasures, we’re always left wanting more. If we’re not careful, we can be tempted to join in singing with Mick Jagger: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” That’s not a theme song I think any of us ultimately wants for our lives (especially with grammar that poor).

As we look ahead to the future overshadowed by this reality of finding lasting peace and satisfaction so elusive, what does Holy Mother Church recommend to us to escape this perpetual pursuit? Fasting.

Fasting can be compared to a fire drill. The basic idea is that in a fire drill you go through the motions to escape to safety when you are not in danger so that you are trained and ready to flee when you are in danger. The same principle basically applies in fasting; you tell yourself no when you don’t have to so that you are trained and ready to tell yourself no when you do have to. But why should we have to tell ourselves no at all? If it feels good, aren’t we therefore supposed to do it? Well, as we have seen, simply continuing to indulge the desire to “feel good” leaves us unsatisfied, without peace and wanting more. So, during this season of Lent, the Church offers to us the way out of this perpetual cycle of indulgence and disappointment; She tells us to fast.

Our Lord does not merely lay down commands without showing us the perfect example. You’ll remember the Gospel two weeks ago when our Lord was hungry in the desert and found Himself tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread. Jesus response was, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” It was an impressive response then, and continues to be what our Lord exemplifies for us as He interacts with the woman at the well. When His amazed disciples return and wonder at the fact that He must have eaten, our Lord points to the deeper source of His own satisfaction: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” Mere bread and water is not what He is after. True and lasting nourishment comes from God.

Our sustaining food comes from the same place. We are ultimately fulfilled, not by mere food and drink, but on “every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Of course we need to eat, to drink, to rest — but ultimately, as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”

It is not only our Lord who finds peace and satisfaction in something beyond bread and water. The Samaritan woman gradually comes to warm up to Jesus, moving from interacting with Him as a mere man, to a teacher, to a prophet, and finally realizing He is the Messiah. With this incredible discovery, she leaves her water jar, the source of what she thought she needed, and goes back to the town, eventually leading others to Christ.

The rest, the joy, the peace she finds in Jesus Christ is the same rest, joy and peace we are meant to find as well. This was not an offer merely made to one woman 2,000 years ago. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, Who came to bring us God, brings this ultimate gift to the woman, to the Samaritans who come out to Him, and, my brothers and sisters in Christ, He brings this everlasting gift to you and me as well.

We fast because we want to be able to tell ourselves no when we must. We must because attempting to fill ourselves up with the passing fancies of this world leaves us disappointed and without peace time and again. By telling ourselves no and fasting, we keep open the space for our Lord in ourselves that we are so tempted to fill with other things. And while counterintuitive at first, this is the only way. As St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, “Hope does not disappoint.”

Right now, this very day, we have on offer to us the same hope for eternal salvation presented to the woman at the well. Our Lord has come to us; He offers us eternal rest. Stop listening to advertisers for a minute and realize that true and lasting peace is on offer. It may cost you some fasting, but this is only so that there will be room for the love of God to be poured into our hearts. And being filled up with that love, our hearts will truly rest in Him.

4th Sunday of Lent – March 22, 2020

  Readings: 1 Sm 16:1b, 6–7, 10–13a • Ps 23: 1–6 • Eph 5:8–14 • Jn 9:1–41 (or Jn 9:1, 6–9, 13–17, 34–38)
  usccb.org/bible/readings/032220.cfm

Pray, trust, and take the next step. Certain things simply have to unfold. Look at the depths of vision the man born blind receives in the Gospel today. He receives his physical sight in an instant with just a little obedience. Our Lord spits on the ground, makes some clay, smears it on the man’s eyes, and gives him a simple command, which the man follows, and his physical sight is restored. Incredible right! But this fast acting miracle is only the beginning of the deeper and longer lasting sight. Our Lord disappears from the scene for most of today’s Gospel while the man goes through a good deal of testing and trial, gradually growing in his sight into who Jesus Christ really is.

The man who was born blind has impressive faith. Notice that from the beginning he does not make demands; in fact, he doesn’t even make a request. It’s the disciples who ask about the sinful origin of his blindness. Our Lord takes the initiative to heal him. After the miracle, the questioning comes to him — he’s neither looking to pick a fight nor even to evangelize. And yet, just like he was docile to our Lord from the beginning and received his physical sight, he continues to be calm under pressure, weathering interrogation and insult from the Pharisees, and all the while recognizing more and more that the one who took the initiative to help him in the first place won’t abandon him, even if his parents fret about the outcome of such questioning.

Most of us listening today likely have our physical sight, and in this day and age corrective lenses are readily available (I’m wearing contacts myself). However, I would venture to bet that most of us could use a good dose of the trust in the loving presence of Jesus Christ demonstrated by this man born blind.

We often want signs, proof, unmistakable evidence that the love of God is living and effective. However, that is not how it typically works, and certainly not on our schedule. We do not make demands of God. As our Lord said to the devil in the face of the challenge to throw Himself down from the parapet of the temple, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The same rule applies in other relationships. A groom cannot say to his lovely bride on the day before their wedding “Prove to me that you will love me in 5 years. In 10 years. In 50 years.” Such a temptation to a soon to be spouse would be unprovable at best and downright insulting at worst. She will prove her love as it gradually unfolds over those coming years in ways that neither of them can fathom (And consequently, if it is to be a fruitful marriage, his fidelity is part of the equation as well). It is with time and fidelity that such love is proven, but without saying “I do” each day, without taking the next step in trust, neither will know the goodness of mutual fidelity that is theirs to enjoy. Trust has to be there, steps need to be taken, and the relationship gradually unfolds.

We prayerfully move forward with our Lord in the same way. We learn each day that He will not abandon us. Sometimes, there are moments of brilliant, enlightening radiance in which we see clearly, as if for the first time that His loving hand is present and that He is guiding us on. Sometimes, His presence is less obvious, merely the almost unrecognizable background music that is tying things together without so much as a notice.

How do we learn to faithfully keep taking the next step in trust without fear or anxiety? Prayer. Each and everyday is the time to lift our minds and hearts to our Lord in humble adoration and trust. The devil tempts us to think that our Lord is not present, that He doesn’t care about or notice what is happening in our lives. Just like the temptation to our Lord from the heights of the temple, the devil suggests that we put our Lord to the test. Such a test is not the way of love. Think back to our newly weds from before. Imagine the groom saying to his bride, “I love you,” and the bride looking back at him and saying, “Prove it!” It doesn’t work like that. The proof will come as the two weather the storms of life together, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, all the days of their lives. Each day demonstrates the love that they share in a way that no mere quick action can prove. We may like big, bold, firework type signs; however, true love and fidelity are proven over a lifetime.

Back to the Gospel for today. Just like last Sunday’s Gospel in which the woman at the well gradually came to see that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, the man born blind goes from declaring Jesus to be a prophet to eventually worshipping Him in the midst of the doubting crowds. Here we are, over halfway through Lent. There are questions and threats of exclusion from polite society for being to focused on our faith. It is generally accepted that we have a right to worship, in our own private ways, as long as we’re not too serious about it, as long as we don’t let those private devotions have an impact on our public life. It sure is tempting to ask God to change all of that and make it easy to be a faithful, practicing Catholic in the world without challenge or criticism for believing in Him and acting as though we did. But, that miracle does not currently seem to be on offer. Rather than sudden freedom from the challenges of living out our faith we have instead the insights of 2,000 years of Church history; we have the ordinary signs of God’s never-failing love for His Church in the seven Sacraments; we have the example of countless Saints who have gone before us showing us that lived faith is possible in our fallen world; and we have our Blessed Mother who has appeared many times reminding us of the love her Son has for us and all sinners and that we need to pray the rosary everyday to keep seeing this. Yes my brothers and sisters, we have so much going for us, so many reasons to take the next step with loving trust and fidelity.

Do not tempt the Lord your God. Do not demand of Him who laid down His life on the cross for you that He prove His love by signs and wonders. Rather, spend time with Him each day according to your vocation and state of life and move forward, one day at a time, with loving trust. Then, just like the man born blind, you will see that our Lord is there, in good times and in bad, leading us deeper and deeper into His love as long as we have the faithful trust to take the next step. Keep praying. Keep trusting in Him. And all the while remember, we may not know exactly what is coming next, but we know Him.

5th Sunday of Lent – March 29, 2020

  Readings: Ez 37:12–14 • Ps 130:1–8 • Rom 8:8–11 • Jn 11:1–45 (or Jn 11:3–7, 17, 20–27, 33b–45)
  usccb.org/bible/readings/032920.cfm

I entered seminary right out of college, in August of 2004. After graduation in May, I went to work for a few months with a company I had worked for in high school. My task for those few months was delivering mail at a sprawling factory which also had many business offices. There was a lot of down time between mail arrival and delivery in the morning and the same routine in the afternoon. I usually spent the in between time reading. About a month and a half into the job, one of the other mail room workers asked me a question, and it is a question I have often pondered ever since: “Why do you do all that reading? You’re just gonna die anyway.” It was a charming mail room.

If you get right down to it, I suppose the same despairing question could be asked about many more things than reading. What is the point of it all if we know with certainty that all of it will come to an end? I don’t think my co-worker was intending to get very philosophical, but her question, phrased as it was, called into doubt a lot more than my choice of the way to spend my free time.

There are a lot of problems in our world, and many of them are brought into heightened relief during a presidential campaign year as candidates seem to do all that they can to remind us of how terrible everything is, and how they are the one to fix it. I’m sure many of us have been tempted to think that “if I were in charge” or “if I won the lottery,” then all of these problems, these issues, theses difficulties would be fixed. Even the devil tried his damned hand at tempting our Lord with the same power to make the problems go away:

Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

But the question from the mail room remains: “Why even take on the ruling of the kingdoms of the world? You’re just gonna die anyway.”

And this is where our Lord showed us in the face of temptation on top of that very high mountain and in the face of despair in the Gospel today that He came to do something so much more than merely assume the rule of kingdoms, to merely fix problems, to merely be one more actor in the passing stage of life. He came to bring us God, even into the very depths of where it seems God has abandoned us.

At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”

Look today at how Jesus chooses to worship and serve the Lord our God. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the one who did not come to be served, but to serve. He does not take up residence on top of that very high mountain or in the palaces of any one of those kingdoms shown to Him. He rather goes down to the very depths of meaninglessness, death itself, and weeps at the sorrow that surrounds Him. Yes, we are gonna die anyway, and our Lord did not excuse Himself from confronting that reality in all of its power.

Rather than standing on a very high mountain and looking down on the world, our Lord descends into the depths of our sorrow, and, raising His eyes from those very depths He says, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” In worshiping the Lord, our God, His Father, and serving Him alone, Jesus Christ shines the light into the dark meaninglessness into which our fallen world has been plunged. He has brought us God, and if we are willing to let our our hearts lose their hardness, if we are willing to drop our cynicism, if we are willing to open our eyes to the light, we will see that He is the Resurrection and the Life.

We are now rapidly approaching the end of Lent. Next week is already Palm Sunday. We will see the crowds cheering, then in the blink of an eye, they’ll be calling for His crucifixion. Remember, the devil showed Jesus the heights of his dominion and our Lord did not take the bait. Next week, we will enter into the Passion, when the devil came back at a more opportune time, and as we know, our Lord defeated the accuser of our brothers once again. No matter what the devil promises, it will come to an end. No matter what the devil threatens to throw at us, that too will pass. The powerful love of Jesus, however, is eternal, powerful, death defying. Jesus is Lord of all; may we never be parted from Him.

  1. As a final note, while I hoped to mention almsgiving in this homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, I was unable to incorporate it without it feeling forced. I plan to mention almsgiving in my bulletin article for this Sunday pointing to the fact that just like our Lord we are called to serve rather than to be served. Also, while our small contributions may not bring an end to poverty, charity done for love of Jesus Christ and His Church does point attention to God in our often dark and despairing world. It is a gift to participate in this kind of light bearing, and one that the Church recommends for our participation during Lent.
Fr. John Eckert About Fr. John Eckert

Fr. John Eckert is Pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury, NC. He graduated from Saint Louis University in 2004 and the Pontifical College Josephinum in 2010, and was ordained for the Diocese of Charlotte in 2010.

Comments

  1. Great job John Hope everything’s going well with you.
    Yancey

  2. Avatar Fr. Van Chinnappan says:

    Very good analysis and o

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