Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cleansing the Temple

(3rd Sunday of Lent-Year B;This homily was given 19 March, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-25)

One of the oldest and most basic ways of establishing a relationship between persons is through what is called a covenant. We see this everywhere, even in our own culture. The most common covenant is the covenant of marriage. A man and a woman make a commitment and agreement with each other, to love one another, to care for one another, to be faithful to each other. It is a covenant of equals.

There is also such a thing as a covenant between two unequal parties. A king would make a covenant with his subjects; a landowner would make a covenant with tenants, agreeing to pay them a certain wage in exchange for the produce they gathered from the land.

Perhaps the greatest covenant in human history is the one we read about in the book of Exodus; it is the covenant God makes with the people of Israel. Having just freed them from slavery in Egypt and put them on the road to the Promised Land, the Lord leads Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, and there He makes a covenant with the people.

The covenant God makes with Israel is a covenant of love and the conditions of that covenant are crystal clear:

You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
—Exodus 19:3-6

This covenant of love, the Ten Commandments, with all of its prescriptions and implications, essentially comes down to two sides of the same coin: love of God and love of neighbor.

The first three commandments are directed towards the love of God:

I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me.

The people were to put nothing before their relationship with God: not family, not business, not personal interests. God was to have pride of place over everything else that they did and over all other priorities in life.

You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished the one who takes his name in vain.

They were to honor God with their speech, never taking His name in vain or dishonoring His name by the way they conversed with others.

Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.

The people of Israel were to observe that day as a day of rest, and a day of worship. No work was to be done, and God was to be honored in a particular way, for the Lord Himself rested on the seventh day.

The rest of the commandments are concerned with love of neighbor; if we love our neighbor, then we will not steal, we will not covet, we will not commit adultery, we will not kill . . .

To observe these commandments was to dwell in the fullness of life that God was calling them to in the Promised Land. They would be at peace and live in a harmonious relationship with God and those around them.

The history of the nation of Israel is essentially a set of footnotes as to how well or how poorly they observed this covenant and followed the commandments that God had given them. All throughout the Old Testament, God constantly sends them the prophets to call them back to fidelity, back to the covenant that God had made with them on Mount Sinai.

This morning Jesus enters the Temple, the place where the fullest expression of love of God and neighbor should be observed, and He finds anything but that expression. It was the place where the people of God would come together as one, and worship the Lord, their God.

But instead of love of neighbor, Christ finds exploitation of neighbor. He enters what should be a house of prayer and a place of worship, and instead He discovers a marketplace. God is no longer top priority here; now it’s business. And Christ is furious.

We see Christ in rare form in the cleansing of the Temple. In a display of righteous indignation, He makes a whip out of cords and drives away the moneychangers. But the Fathers of the Church have always seen in this event much more than Christ chastising the people. He is preparing them for an entirely new sacrifice, and a new and everlasting covenant.

The cleansing of the Temple is a dramatic and explosive event in the life of Christ, and one of the few moments that is included in all four Gospels. The scene itself goes much further than a reprimand of the moneychangers. St. John tells us that Christ:

Drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen . . . and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here.”
—John 2:15-16

He drove out the sheep and the oxen? What did they do wrong? He orders the doves to be taken out of there. For what reason? Christ is preparing the people of Israel for the day that is fast approaching when the animal sacrifices will cease and there will be an entirely new form of worship.

Historically, we know that in 70 A.D., less than 50 years from this scene in St. John’s Gospel, the Temple itself will be completely destroyed by the Roman Empire. Christ predicts this very event in the Gospels. He says, “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

What He has come to bring is a new sacrifice and a new covenant. No longer will there be a lamb sacrificed every year at Passover to remember the deliverance of the people of Israel. No longer will there be a sacrifice of a lamb every morning and every evening in the Temple for the atonement of sins.

As John the Baptist points out when Christ walks by the banks of the Jordan River: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The new sacrifice and the new covenant is Jesus Christ. There is only one sacrifice, and one man, Christ the Son of God, who has come to establish a new covenant between God and man.

We have been baptized into the very life of Christ; as St. Paul tells us: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Holy Spirit lives in us through baptism and we now have the ability—by the grace and mercy of God—to live out the covenant like never before. We are able to love God and neighbor the way Christ commands us because He gives us all we need to do so.

Each time we come together as the people of God to celebrate the Eucharist, we renew this new covenant that God has made with us. We hear the words of Christ, spoken in love at the Last Supper, when He said:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
This is the cup of my blood,
The blood of the new and everlasting covenant.

On this Third Sunday of Lent, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, how is God calling us to open our hearts and minds more completely to this covenant of love He has made with each of us? Where have we failed to love God or love our neighbor, and where are we in need of change?

If Christ were to enter the Temple of our hearts, or our assembly, what might He drive out and purify? We ask Him to come and cleanse the Temple of our souls and renew our lives in this new and everlasting covenant, that we might be ready to celebrate in the fullness of joy His resurrection this coming Easter.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


(2nd Sunday of Lent-Year B;This homily was given 12 March, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 9:2-8)

The Transfiguration is one of the most amazing events in the New Testament. Years later it remained etched in St. Peter’s mind; he never forgot that day. To one of the early Churches St. Peter wrote:

We were eyewitnesses to his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father . . . we were with him on the holy mountain.
—2 Peter 1:16,18

But what did Peter and those other disciples see? What were they “eyewitnesses to” on that “holy mountain”? Mark’s Gospel describes a breathtaking scene in which Christ “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mark 9:2-3). Imagine what it must have been like to see Christ transfigured on that mountain.

The Greek word St. Mark uses is metamorphothe; it’s where we get the word metamorphosis. It means to change (meta) form (morphe). Jesus was literally trans-formed right before their eyes. They no longer saw His human form, which had been so familiar to them. Instead, they saw His divine form, the glory that He shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the foundation of the world.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, talks about that same transformation, that same metamorphosis, but in reverse. He describes how the Son of God left the glory of heaven, humbled Himself, and became man. The word he uses, morphe, is the same one we just heard in St. Mark’s Gospel. St. Paul says that although Christ:

Was in the form (morphe) of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
—Philippians 2:6-8

That was the appearance of Christ in His humanity; it was the very thing that the disciples had seen all throughout their time with the Lord. But now—for that brief moment on the mountain—Christ reveals Himself to them in His divine glory. But why? St. Leo the Great says that there are two reasons why Christ chooses Peter, James and John to witness His transfiguration.

The first is so that they will be strengthened for that time when Christ will be taken from them and crucified. Having already seen His glory in the Transfiguration, they will be able to endure the scandal of the cross. They will eventually come to see that the suffering Jesus experiences is a voluntary one, where, as St. Paul says, he "humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2: 8). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again.
—John 10:17-18

In those days following the cross, the disciples will look back on what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, and remember that our glorious Lord gave Himself willingly so that we might have new life.

The second reason for the Transfiguration is to give the disciples a glimpse of the glory that Christ is calling them, and us, to share in for all eternity. That is why Christ “emptied Himself” to begin with, the reason why He took on our human form; so that we could undergo the greatest transformation, the greatest metamorphosis of all: to share in the very life of God.

Now, the temptation is to try to walk through door number 2—the glory of heaven and eternal life with Christ—without ever passing through door number 1: the labor and the toil, as well as the suffering and the cross that we all must share with Christ. You’ve heard it said before: no cross, no crown.

We see that temptation revealed in St. Peter, who desires nothing else but to remain on that mountain for as long as Christ will permit it.

“Rabbi,” he says, “it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).

Peter likes it up there! They’re away from all the crowds, away from the toil and the difficulties of everyday life. And Christ is certainly calling Peter to one day share in that serenity, to bask in that glory . . . but not yet! Not now! There is still much more to be done in the days to come, for Christ and for Peter.

St. Augustine, in one of his sermons on this scene of the Transfiguration, becomes so worked up about Peter’s desire to stay on the mountaintop that he stops preaching to the people and begins to speak and shout to St. Peter himself! He says: “Come down, Peter! You were desiring to rest on the mountain; come down!”

Then, reflecting on how Christ humbled himself, how He emptied Himself to take on our human form, Augustine goes on to say to Peter:

The Life came down, that He might be killed;
The Bread came down, that He might hunger;
The Way came down,
that He might be wearied on the journey;
The Fountain came down, that He might thirst;
And you [Peter] refuse to suffer?

—St. Augustine, Sermon 78, #6

The Transfiguration is given to us on this Second Sunday of Lent so that we, too, might catch a glimpse of the glory that Christ is calling us to share in, but most of all so that we may be strengthened in our resolve to follow Christ on the way.

But where are we tempted, like St. Peter, to stay on the mountaintop and not labor here on the earth? What are those things Christ has called us to do—in our vocation, in our daily practice of faith, in our Lenten observances as Catholics?

We are reminded today that even as Christ came down from heaven, and took upon Himself our human form and burdens, we too must strive here on earth to complete the work and the mission that He has entrusted to us.

And the goal of all this striving, the very point of everything that Christ wants to accomplish within us, is transformation; His desire is that we will undergo a metamorphosis in our own lives so that we will come to share in His glory forever. But that will never happen unless we are willing to come down with Him and labor here on this earth.

This second Sunday of Lent we renew our commitment to follow Christ on the way to Easter. Strengthened in the power of this sacrament we come to share in the Eucharist, we make ourselves ready to go back down the mountain, with St. Peter and so many saints after him.

And laboring here on this earth, might we experience that metamorphosis, that transformation of our hearts and minds, which sets us apart in this world as followers of Christ who will one day share His glory.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday-The Time is Now

(Ash Wednesday-Year B;This homily was given 1 March, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 6:1-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)

Today we begin the holy and penitential season of Lent, a time of preparation for Easter. Traditionally, Lent has often been seen as journey. On that journey we focus—in a particular way—on the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Yet in the Gospel, Christ challenges us to look at our motives and attitudes toward these spiritual practices. How are we following them, and for what end? When we fast, when we pray or give alms, are we doing it for God or only for ourselves?

St. Augustine has a unique way of looking at the reality of sin. He says that it is actually love “turned in on itself.” We tend sometimes to take the focus of love off God or away from others, and try to turn that focus back on ourselves. The glory that God should be receiving through my prayer or fasting or whatever it might be, is instead used to glorify myself.

The point of our Lenten journey is to recognize this tendency and to ask God for the grace to change it. For that reason, the theme that runs all throughout Lent is that of repentance, a turning away from sin and selfishness and a turning back again to God.

Cistercian monk and spiritual author Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., in one of his Lenten reflection books, talks about this recognition of our tendency to sometimes turn love back in on itself. Far from being discouraged by this recognition, he says that it can become the true beginning and very turning point of our Lenten Journey. Keating writes:

Now we experience the full force of the spiritual combat, the struggle with what we want to do and feel we should do, and our incredible inability to carry it out . . . Such insight is the beginning of the real spiritual journey.
—Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., Journey to the Center

Why is that the beginning? Because finally we begin to see, more and more clearly, that we need God in order to live and to love the way that we are called to. We need the grace that only He can give, in order to live out the Gospel and live in full communion with God and with each other.

God offers us today a vision of Easter; it is a picture of ourselves in a whole new light, living out a love directed more completely towards Him and towards those around us.

Are we willing to be taken by Him towards that vision? Will we walk that path on our Lenten journey towards Easter? The invitation could not be any clearer than we find it in the second reading for this Ash Wednesday:

In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
—2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2