Homilies for March 2021

For March 7, March 14, March 21, March 25 (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord), and March 28 (Palm Sunday)

Third Sunday of Lent – March 7, 2021

Readings: Ex 20:1-17 or Ex 20:1–3, 7–8, 12–17 • Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11 • 1 Cor 1:22–25 • Jn 2:13–25   bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/030721-YearB.cfm

One of the pernicious and persistent misrepresentations of the religion of the Old Testament is that God was a distant and impersonal figure. In fact, the people of Israel felt that God was very near to them, and rejoiced in their privilege as His chosen people (cf. Deut 4:7). They encountered his presence particularly in the Law and the Temple. Our modern antinomian and anti-institutional bias tends to view such structures skeptically as restrictive. But the people of Israel, including Jesus himself, saw them as gifts from God, part of the covenant that made Him present to them. They met God in the Law and the Temple. The Temple was the privileged place of encounter with God, his dwelling place among his people. It was the one and only place where sacrifice could be offered and where the Jewish feasts could be fully celebrated. Jesus was no different. As a devout Jew, he made the annual pilgrimages to the Temple for festivals, with his parents Joseph and Mary when he was young. And as God’s Son, he had a special devotion to the Temple, a special intimacy that is reflected when he calls it, as he does in today’s Gospel, “my Father’s house.”

The destruction of the Temple by the Roman army in the year 70 was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity, still closely tied to its Jewish roots. Without the Temple, the question arose: where will God be encountered and worshiped? Rabbinic Judaism turned to the Law, a gift given by God to unite his people to him in covenant, which could be practiced wherever Jews lived. Christianity, however, pointed to Jesus as God’s new dwelling among his people, where God is present to his people, where God is encountered and worshiped.

Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple that we hear in today’s Gospel was a turning point in the life of Jesus that put him in direct conflict with the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, that would lead to his arrest and crucifixion. His claim, that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in the three days, was one of the key points of evidence raised against him at his trial. Jesus’s overturning of the tables is more than a direct effort to purify the Temple, but a symbolic action that predicts, or even threatens, the destruction of the Temple and its replacement by a new one, to be built by Jesus in three days. John’s gospel points out that this word of Jesus is only understood after his glorification, that is, after his death and resurrection: he was speaking of the Temple of his Body. Jesus himself is the new Temple, God’s new dwelling among his people, the privileged place of encounter between God and man. The Temple of his body would in fact be destroyed, and in just three days be raised up.

This of course speaks volumes about who Jesus is and his relationship to God and to his people. He takes over the role of the Temple as the way in which we encounter God, enter into relationship with him, and come to know him. If we want to God, we must know Jesus. And yet, it’s a very important detail to this Gospel today that even his disciples don’t understand the meaning of what Jesus has said and done under after his resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the key toward understanding and believing “the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” It is only in the new light that comes from the new perspective of Jesus risen from the dead that all becomes clear, that Jesus’s life and ministry make sense, that the Scriptures are unlocked.

The symbolic nature of Jesus’ action in the Temple points to an important point: that Scripture and Jesus’s own life have not only literal meaning, but also figural meaning. In the tradition of the Church, this has been described as a three-fold spiritual sense of Scripture: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. In this Gospel we can easily find all three. It is allegorical: the Temple refers to Christ’s body, its destruction to his death, and its restoration to his resurrection. The anagogical meaning refers to its significance for our final destination, and Jesus’s raising of the Temple of his body points to our own resurrection, as we hope and expect that the Temples of our own bodies will be raised and restored to a new life.

The moral meaning of this story is particularly important for the season of Lent. Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple of the corrupt influence of money has deep moral significance, not for some distant religious institution, but for our own souls. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit, destined like Jesus to be destroyed by death but raised to new life. Each of us has, like Jesus, a human body that is to be a dwelling place of God. He wants to live in our hearts, to take up his dwelling with us. Yet there’s all kinds of junk in our lives that gets in the way and needs to be cleaned out. We have taken our own souls, meant to be God’s house, and turned them into marketplaces. Materialism, egoism, and hedonism, love of money, of the self, and of pleasure, have taken the place of God in our hearts and displaced him from his own home. During this Lenten season, Jesus wants to clean out our souls for us, to drive out whatever has pushed God out of lives, so that he can meet us.

Jesus is the new Temple, God’s dwelling place among men and our place of encounter with him. But in making his human body this new Temple, he has made all of our bodies temples. He wants us to meet him not in some distant place, but right in the temple of our own hearts. He wants to come to meet us, so that he can raise us up from the destruction of sin into new, risen lives of communion with God through Jesus Christ. During this holy season of Lent, let us clear out the temple of our hearts, so that we can be true temples, true dwelling place of God and places of encounter with him who raises us to new life.

Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 14, 2021

Readings: 2 Chr 36:14–16, 19–23 • Ps 137:1–2, 3, 4–5, 6 • Eph 2:4–10 • Jn 3:14–21  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/031421-YearB.cfm

When I taught Scripture to high school boys, I’d always give them a bonus question on an early quiz: what is your favorite verse in the Bible? I pointed out that I couldn’t be the judge of their piety, and so all they really needed to do to get the points was give me any verse in the Bible, but I wanted the words. Most didn’t get the bonus points. But at the end of the year, I asked them again, and to write an essay on why. The majority always picked John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Luther was wrong about much, but right to call this “the gospel in miniature.” It expresses in direct form the good news of God’s love for us revealed in Jesus and his mercy for our sins.

Today is called Laetare Sunday, from the Latin words that begins the entrance antiphon at today’s Mass, meaning “Rejoice!” It’s reflected in the rose-colored vestments worn today and in the readings that Church gives us today, especially this “Gospel in miniature.” The good news of Jesus Christ is indeed a cause of rejoicing. A key component of Lent, which we began on Ash Wednesday with the admonition taken from Jesus’s own first homily, is to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Alongside repentance, then, deepening our faith in the Gospel is a key element of our Lenten observance. In fact, these two elements are closely linked, for the Gospel is the good news that because of God’s mercy brought by Jesus Christ, our repentance and faith lead to eternal life.

This good news of mercy requires, though, an awareness of sinfulness, and that is where the first reading starts us. The first reading speaks of the wickedness of the people of Israel that led to their exile in Babylon. It is an ugly picture: infidelities and abominations, polluting the Lord’s temple and mocking his messengers. It led to the destruction of the Temple, the defeat of Israel and the death of many, and the loss of the Holy Land. But God is faithful when his people are not and did not forsake his promises. Rather, his mercy is shown through the pagan ruler Cyrus who restores Israel to the Holy Land and helps to rebuild the Temple.

This experience of exile is both a consequence of sin and a powerful expression of its nature. Sin separates. It separates the Israelites from their God and from the land he had given to them. It separates us from God as well, and from the dwelling he wishes to make with us and to which he wishes to bring us in heaven. The restoration of Israel is not just to their homeland, but also to their God with the rebuilding of the Temple where they encountered him. Jesus’s death and resurrection is often seen in Exodus imagery: as God liberating his people once more from slavery, this time to sin, and bringing them into the promised land, this time into eternal life. But the image of return from exile is equally important and powerful: that in Jesus, God brings us back from the exile that is our separation from him caused by sin, and brings us into our true home where we can dwell with him.

Jesus will accomplish this restoration through his cross, by being lifted up as a source of healing and eternal life. He wants us to live, not to die, as expressed so nicely in a common Lenten antiphon: “As I live, says the Lord, I do not wish the sinner to die, but to turn back to me and live” (Antiphon for the Psalms at Midday Prayer during Lent, cf. Ezek 18:23). But Jesus goes on to say that many people prefer darkness to light, that is, they prefer death to life. Though this may sound irrational, the sad reality is that the world trains us to look for life in the darkness, and that wealth, pleasure, fame, success, experiences, health, and so many other things of the world will bring us happiness and fulfillment. Those who only know the darkness become comfortable with it, and even if they are dissatisfied and miserable, it is all they know. In the most extreme form of this, addicts to alcohol, drugs, sex, and other destructive behaviors come to prefer the darkness they dwell in to the light of freedom.

But Jesus is the light, God’s own Son given to us and for us, who desires to restore sinners who are in exile. He wants to bring light to those who live in darkness. He wants to bring life to those who are perishing. This is the good news, the Gospel in miniature, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It is a cause for rejoicing in the midst of our Lenten efforts to repent and believe in the Gospel.

Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 21, 2021

Readings: Jer 31:31–34 • Ps 51:3–4, 12–13, 14–15 • Heb 5:7–9 • Jn 12:20–33    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/032121-YearB.cfm

The synoptic gospels are filled with dramatic stories of Jesus casting out demons. One of Jesus’s first miracles is the exorcism of a man in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), and the expulsion of the legion of demons from the Gerasene demoniac is one of the Gospels’ most dramatic stories (Mark 5:1-20). But the Gospel of John tells no such stories. John has dramatic and powerful accounts of miracles, to be sure, such as the raising of Lazarus. But no exorcisms.

Rather, John shows that Jesus’s entire life and mission is a big exorcism, casting Satan and his power out of the world. In today’s Gospel Jesus says that the purpose of his death on the cross is to drive out the ruler of the world, by which he means Satan, and to draw all people to himself. It is characteristic of Satan to divide, and his malice seeks to separate us from God. Jesus destroys his power through his death and glorification, and so unites his people once more with God. Today’s reading thus gives us a kind of tutorial to help understand what we will mark and remember next week as we read the Passion of the Lord on Palm Sunday.

Jesus came to do the will of His Father, that is, to carry out the plan that had been revealed through the prophet Jeremiah in the first reading: to establish this new covenant in His own blood and thus give glory to the Name of His Father, whose mercy and power will be seen and acclaimed by all peoples. The first reading prophesies a new covenant that God will make with his people. He will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. God had made a covenant with his people after bringing them out of their slavery at Egypt, and in the desert at Mt. Sinai, that covenant was sealed with the blood of the sacrifice that Moses sprinkled on the people (Exod 24:8). This new covenant is made in the Blood of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the language used by Jesus at the first Eucharist on the night before he died, which he says is the Blood of the new and eternal covenant. By his cross Jesus establishes this new covenant, by which our sins are forgiven and we are bound ever more closely to God as His people, just as the prophet foretold.

Jesus’s death is his glorification. What is true for Jesus is also true for his disciples: the only way to life is through death. As he says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” This is true at a physical level: to gain eternal life, our earthly life must come to an end. This gives us as Christians a holy fearlessness of death, for we know that in death life is changed, not ended. This is not just a literal truth about physical death, but also a spiritual truth about the need to die to sin and self. It is only by dying to the things of this world that we gain eternal life. Jesus intends not only to expel the ruler of this world from the world. Satan must be expelled from our hearts as well so that we can be drawn to Christ and brought to the Father.

As we get to the end of Lent and to the holy celebrations we have been preparing for, this can be our prayer and desire: that Jesus drive out the ruler of the world from our hearts and draw us to himself, so that we can follow him and serve him, die to ourselves and bear much fruit. Jesus’s glorification on the Cross was for just that purpose, and in the covenant of His blood in the Eucharist we celebrate today, we are forgiven and we brought ever more closely into union with God as His own people.

The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord – March 25, 2021

Readings: Is 7:10–14 • Ps 40:7–8a, 8b–9, 10, 11 • Heb 10:4–10 • Lk 1:26–38     bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/032521.cfm

Today’s feast of the Annunciation celebrates the Incarnation of Jesus according to the flesh and the role that Mary played in salvation history. As Christ is the new Adam, Mary is understood as the new Eve, who answers Eve’s sin with her own fidelity and thus makes possible the redemption of the human race from sin.

In tempting Eve to eat from the tree in the Garden, the serpent deceived her with a diabolical lie that is at the heart of human sin: that God is in competition with her, that God is against her and not for her. He makes her think that God is withholding something good from her that she must take for herself. She comes to think that God’s interests are a rival to her own, and that God’s power diminishes her own power. These lies are at the heart of not just Eve’s sin, but of all human sin. Sin deceives us to think that God is our rival whose authority stands in the way of our flourishing. It is a lie that closes man off to God as a rival whose place in the world and our lives must be rejected or at least carefully limited, lest his power diminish our freedom.

As the new Eve, Mary shows the truth that opposes all those lies. She knows that God is not her adversary, but that the serpent is, and she crushes his head. A faithful daughter of Israel, she knows that God is faithful and true. She knows that God is on her side and that rather than withholding the good from her, God is the source of all good things. Through God, she is full of grace and blessed among women. By consenting to God’s will for her, she is not diminished but comes to the fullness of her being and realizes her full potential. She truly becomes the mother of all the living, of all who live in Christ. God’s power does not steal her agency, but amplifies it. He is not in competition with her, but as his power is manifest in her life, she grows in the spiritual power of the Holy Spirit who lives and moves within her.

It is one of the great lies that God’s power diminishes our humanity, and that as God’s power increases in our lives, our own agency is destroyed. This lie is evident in a world that views belief in God as an obstacle to human flourishing and a rival to human accomplishment. But it can even infect the mind of faithful and devout persons, who implicitly and even explicitly see God as an adversary. They view God as out to get them, always trying to catch them in mistakes. They think God is always trying to take away their fun and happiness, preventing them from doing what they want and forcing them to do what they don’t. They are afraid that God’s will is going to rob them of their dreams and change them into someone they don’t want to be. They are afraid that following God’s will will diminish them and destroy their own agency and identity.

But God is not our adversary. The devil is. God is on our side, so much so that he took on human flesh in order to be close to us, to deliver us from our mistakes, which is the very event we celebrate today. He desires our true happiness and shows us the way to find it and so become more fully ourselves. He helps us find our true identity and to realize the dreams that will most satisfy us. He gives us power in the midst of our weakness, so that our agency is fully realized. He makes us reach the fullness of our humanity. He makes us saints.

So to be fully human, and to be fully ourselves, we must follow the model given by Mary, not by Eve. Whereas Eve takes for herself, Mary receives from God. Mary allows God’s power to enter her life, allows the Holy Spirit to work within her. This is a model that we can follow: to allow God’s power to enter our lives rather than to try to assert our own. To learn to receive rather than to take for ourselves. We are not in competition with God. His power is not a threat to our own but in his power we become fully human, the people that we were made to be.

The effects of Mary’s faithful receptivity were the opposite of Eve’s fearful grasping. Through Mary, salvation came to the world, and she herself was given life and exalted. The effects of our own receptivity of God’s power in our life will be the same. We will be saved and come to life, and our lives will also show forth God’s power and help to bring salvation to the world. God is not our adversary. The devil is. Do God’s will and receive from Him the power to crush the devil’s head.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord – March 28, 2021

Readings: Mk 11:1–10 or 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    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/032821.cfm

Today’s celebration joins two observances: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the suffering and death that followed that. Ordinarily on Sunday, we celebrate and remember the Resurrection of Jesus. But with next Sunday being Easter, the great annual celebration of the Resurrection, this Sunday we prepare to celebrate that resurrection by remembering intensely his Passion and death. Each year, therefore, faithful Catholics will hear the entire account of Jesus’s suffering and death this week and his Resurrection next week. These two celebrations, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, bracket Holy Week. But even if one cannot attend the observances of Holy Week, the Sunday liturgy alone allows us to hear and ponder the entire paschal mystery, which encompasses Jesus’s death and resurrection.

The length and power of the Gospel, an entire two chapters from Mark’s Gospel, occupies our attention. But before that, the Church lays a foundation for understanding Jesus’s suffering and death with the beautiful second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a powerful hymn to Christ as the God who emptied himself even to death on the Cross. Most scholars believe that this hymn is not Paul’s creation, but an early Christian hymn that he incorporates into this letter. It expresses the mystery of Christ’s self-emptying love: that though he was in the form of God, he humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, even accepting death, death on a Cross. That death leads then to his exaltation, and his worship by all of creation. In Paul’s theology, the Cross reveals who Jesus truly is.

This Philippians hymn gives the theology, and the Gospel gives the history, the story of how Jesus empties himself through his death on the Cross. This year, we hear Mark’s account, which ends with the centurion professing that Jesus truly was the Son of God, the climactic moment of Mark’s Gospel in which the Cross reveals who Jesus truly is. In the opening verse of his Gospel, Mark identifies Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1), but as the story progresses, it is only demons who recognize him as such (cf. Mark 1:24; 5:7). In the center of Mark’s Gospel, Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, but he does not understand what that means, and earns Jesus’s rebuke for urging him against God’s plan of crucifixion (Mark 8:27-33). Jesus three times explains that the Messiah must suffer, die, and be raised, but Peter and the apostles do not understand (Mark 8:31; 9:31-32; 10:32-34). They are still looking for a glorious Messiah, but Jesus is a suffering servant, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43). Jesus’s true identity as the Son of God can only be seen at the foot of the cross, and in proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, the centurion speaks for all of humanity and indeed all of creation. This is what the Philippians hymn demands: that every tongue shall “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The context in which St. Paul uses this hymn in Philippians is important, for he is not primarily interested in teaching his readers about Christ, but in using the example of Christ to teach them how to live. If we read just before the point that the hymn begins in today’s reading, Paul is urging the Philippians to be of the same mind and have the same love, to do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility to count others as better themselves. His point is that they should live after the model of Christ, in self-emptying love that is of service to each other. Their lives ought to conform to Christ’s. Mark does the same through his Gospel: Jesus’s suffering and death are the model for his disciples to follow. The point isn’t simply about Jesus, but it is about us, his disciples. We are to follow Jesus in his self-emptying love, embodied in lives of service: not to be served but to serve and to give our own lives for Christ and the gospel. In the words of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, by following him in suffering, we will follow him in glory (Sp. Ex. 95). It is an eloquent answer to that fundamental question of human existence, the problem of evil and suffering: a God who empties himself to suffer with us, and leads us through suffering into glory.

Fr. Matthew Monnig About Fr. Matthew Monnig

Fr. Matthew Monnig, SJ, is a Jesuit of the East Province and was ordained in 2007. He is now an assistant professor of New Testament at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and lives in the attached formation community. He did his PhD at Duke University and also has an SSL from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He has directed the Spiritual Exercises in many forms and places, and has worked in San Quentin State Prison, taught math and religion at Boston College High while coaching basketball and track, and served the poor with the Missionaries of Charity in Jamaica, Russia, Rome, San Francisco, and the Bronx. For many years, he has helped the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) with the spiritual formation of their missionaries and staff.

Comments

  1. Dear Father Matthew,

    Your ministry is very much appreciated. You are helping the priests to prepare their homilies by your profound and deep reflections for the weekend readings. Words cannot express my gratitude. Please keep up the good work. May God continue to bless you and your ministry!

  2. Avatar FR. S. AROCKIA JUSTIN says:

    DEAR FR. MATTHEW,
    GREETINGS. THANKS FOR YOUR HOMILIES BY WHICH I AM VERY MUCH
    NOURISHED AND MEANINGFUL FOR ME.

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