Sunday, January 31, 2016
(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on January 30 and January 31, 2016 at Holy Spirit Parish in Central Falls, R.I.; see 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, Luke 4:21-30 and CCC, #1812-1829)
We are currently in the heart of what Pope Francis has proclaimed as the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, an entire year to celebrate the great mercy of God poured out for us in the person of Jesus Christ. There could be no greater cause for jubilation than the celebration of God’s mercy, His forgiveness from the cross, His desire for each and every one of us to enter into eternal life with Him!
Yet I would suggest, with sorrow, there are some who may not be able to join in that celebration. There are, in fact, some who would actually be excluded from this celebration of God’s mercy. . . Now, I know how very negative that must sound. Sadly, however, it is true. There are some who would be excluded from the great celebration of God’s mercy not because God or the Church does not want them to experience it, but because they themselves are not disposed towards it. If someone is not prepared for, or even stubbornly resists God’s mercy, then that person would not be able to celebrate all that God desires for them.
The example I would offer is one we just listened to in our Gospel for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. We hear about Jesus Christ proclaiming God’s mercy in the synagogue at Nazareth. He is addressing the people that should have known and loved Him most of all, but instead they completely reject Him. By the end of the Gospel they are trying to force Him to the brow of the hill "to hurl him down headlong" (Luke 4:29). There is no greater obstacle to love than to throw the Beloved off a cliff! These people were not at all disposed to receive the love and mercy of God.
The Gospel this weekend reminds us that receiving the love and mercy of God is not like getting wet by standing in the rain. God’s mercy does not, and cannot, simply fall upon us without any response on our part. We do not, and cannot, receive forgiveness in some impersonal and passive manner. We do not, and cannot, enter eternal life by default. We need to be disposed towards these treasures from God. Our hearts need to be prepared and we need to respond to God’s completely gratuitous gift in Jesus Christ.
The way that happens par excellence is through our participation in the life of virtue.
St. Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians that we listen to this weekend, names the three great “theological” virtues: faith, hope and love. The theological virtues prepare the soul for God, making it ready for a full and fruitful participation in Christian life (see CCC, #1812-1814). The Church teaches that these virtues are “infused,” poured into our hearts as a completely free gift from God. We do not acquire the theological virtues by working really hard at them. If we want to have more faith, deeper hope, and the strongest love, there is only one sure way to get there: Ask God for it! God holds Himself back from no one who asks Him for these gifts.
But in addition to asking for and receiving these remarkable and life-giving theological virtues, we also have to respond willingly to them and persevere in our relationship with the God who gives them to us. The Gospels and the lives of the Apostles are instructive for us.
We begin with FAITH. Faith is the virtue by which God awakens and animates the soul, preparing it for a life-long relationship with Christ. In the Gospels Jesus Christ walks right into the lives of St. Peter and his brother St. Andrew, into the lives of St. John and St. James, while they are fishing. He reveals Himself to them and suddenly they are captivated by the desire to be with Him, to follow Him. They become His disciples and their lives are forever changed. The same thing happens with St. Matthew, the tax collector, sitting at the customs post. St. Matthew is in the wrong place, doing all the wrong things. Suddenly Jesus Christ walks into his life and Matthew’s soul comes alive. He is compelled to change, to see God and those around him in a new way. In a word: Matthew is compelled to follow Christ. That’s faith!
This morning Jesus Christ comes right into our lives. The Church teaches that when the word of God is proclaimed in this sacred assembly, it is Jesus Christ that speaks to us. When we listened to the call of the Prophet Jeremiah this morning, when we heard the words of St. Paul about the virtues, when we heard about Jesus Christ in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus Himself was speaking to us. He is in the tabernacle here, now. He will be on the altar, really and truly present for us and with us. He animates our souls this morning and awakens them for faith. How are we able to respond with the desire to follow Him more closely, to live our lives entirely for Him?
The theological virtue of HOPE likewise disposes our hearts towards God, making them more prepared to share in His divine life. Hope is not some vague feeling that somehow everything will just work itself out in the end. Hope is not some general desire that the future will somehow be better than the way things are today. St. John of the Cross describes hope as a force rooted not so much in the future but primarily in the memory, in the events and circumstances of the past. We look back on the wondrous works of God and take courage in His overwhelming providence and love towards His people. God has always loved and cared for those who place their trust in Him. The saints and the martyrs, even through seemingly impossible trials, were provided for and not abandoned. God has always been faithful to His promises.
The man or woman of faith looks back on the great history of the Church, or even at the various events and circumstances of his or her own past, and stubbornly insists that this same God who has never failed to love and care for His people will remain faithful even now. They say, "Lord, I do not see how I will be able to get through this difficulty or how you will provide for me, but I trust in you and in your promises. Fiat voluntas tua. Be it done unto me according to your word." That's hope!
But the "greatest of these," says St. Paul, "is LOVE." Love (or charity) as a theological virtue, is the very power of God broadening our hearts and disposing them towards a deeper participation in divine life, a greater love for God and neighbor. Love is not a rush of feelings or some passing emotion. "Love is strong as death" (Song of Songs, 8:6), strong enough to overcome the grave. When we receive this supernatural virtue and become docile to love in our daily lives, suddenly we can love God and those around us like never before. Jesus Christ challenges us to love even our enemies. How could we ever do that without this supernatural virtue that comes to us from God? Love can change our lives, can even change the world, if we let it...if...
Clearly the people in the synagogue this morning have not allowed this love to change their lives and their hearts, never mind the world around them. Jesus gives two examples of God's merciful love to show them that there can be no limits to the call and mission of God's holy people. He says:
There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.
The widow in Zarephath is not an Israelite. Naaman the Syria was a foreigner. Jesus is trying to show the people in the synagogue that there are no limits to the mercy of God, that He desires us to be changed and transformed, capable of loving Him and all those that we encounter.
Their response: Fury.
They were enraged and wanted to throw him off the brow of the hill. They were unable to participate in and celebrate the love and mercy of God, even though Love and Mercy incarnate was standing right in front of them. They were not disposed toward the gift of God freely offered from the heart of Christ.
This week we ask God to increase within us the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We ask for an increase of these virtues in our hearts and in our Church, so that we may be well disposed to receive all that God desires to bring into our lives, and, through us, into this world. Living the theological virtues more completely in these coming days, may we be all the more ready to embrace and welcome the mercy of God in this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.