Homilies: August 2007 Archives

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Sirach 26:1-4, 13-16
Psalm 130: 1bcde, 2, 3
Luke 7: 11-17

Walking in the Light of His Face

Today we see Jesus on his way into the town of Naim, accompanied by His disciples. “And there went with Him His disciples, and a great multitude” (Lk 7:11). Those who follow Our Lord and walk with Him are an image of the Church, the body of those who walk “in the light of His face” (Ps 88:15).

Death and Life

“And when He came night to the gate of the city, behold a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow: and a great multitude of the city was with her” (Lk 7:12). In the dead man the Church sees an image of Augustine before his conversion. In the widowed mother the Church sees an image of the holy mother Monica. In the crowd of mourners, the Church sees an image of those who experience sin and desire to be delivered from it: “those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Benedictus). Saint Luke depicts a striking scene: two crowds, arriving from opposite directions, meet. One is the community of death. The other is the community of life: an image of the Church.

Those Tears of Hers

“And when the Lord saw her, being moved with mercy towards her, he said to her, 'Weep not'" (Lk 7:13). Our Lord looked upon Saint Monica just as he looked upon the mother of the man being carried out for burial. Tears were the language of Saint Monica’s prayer. Saint Augustine himself says: “Thou didst listen to her, O Lord, and Thou didst not despise those tears of hers which moistened the earth wherever she prayed” (Benedictus Antiphon).

Dry Confessions

In Chapter 20 of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict says: “Indeed we must grasp that it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart and repentance with tears” (RB 20:3). I am always moved at the number of people, lay people especially, who make their confession with tears. If truly we hate our sins and regret them, it is normal that we should weep in going to confession.

It is easy to become indifferent to our sins, or coldly analytical. We may confess them insofar as we see them, but our confessions become a matter of routine. Our examinations of consciences rarely probe beneath the surface. We come to the sacrament with our pathetic little list of peccadillos. Having grown accustomed to our sins, they no longer fill us with horror. And so we begin to make dry confessions. The so-called dry confession is one of the signs of spiritual lukewarmness. “But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, nor hot," says the Lord, "I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth” (Ap 3:15).

Joy Comes with the Dawn

Touched by her tears, Jesus told the widow to stop weeping. He did not tell her to stop praying but to stop weeping. He wanted to change the language of her prayer from tears to cries of joy. The psalm says: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the dawn. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness” (Ps 29:5.11).

Et accumbent in regno Dei

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This mosaic of Christ the Redeemer revealing His pierced Side adorns the apse of one of my favourite Roman churches, Sant'Alfonso on the Via Merulana. Sant'Alfonso is also the shrine of the original miraculous icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Twenty-First Sunday of the Year C

Isaiah 66:18-21
Psalm 116:1-2
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Luke 13:22-30

The Salvation of God

Today, the Word of God shocks us out of any kind of narrowness. The salvation of God will not be shrunken, diminished, limited, or measured by men. People have never been comfortable with the inclusiveness of God. The arms of God are not only divinely comforting; they are frightening in their immensity, disconcerting in their embrace.

A Procession of Return

In the First Reading Isaiah describes an immense procession of return to Jerusalem: a grand liturgy of conversion and of convergence. “They shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them” (Is 66:18-19). The return to Jerusalem signifies a return to God; that is conversion. The reunion of all peoples in Jerusalem signifies the coming together of all peoples in Christ; that is convergence.

Missionaries and Priests

Isaiah announces that missionaries, witnesses to the glory of God and “brethren” to the Chosen People, will be sent forth to the most distant lands. God even announces that he intends to take priests from among the Gentiles, from among those who have no hereditary claim to the priestly office. “And some of them I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord” (Is 66:21). The excluded are included; the unchosen, chosen; those afar off, brought near.

The Divine Hospitality

In the Gospel, Our Lord explodes an exclusive and narrow vision of His Father’s hospitality. Those who have always assumed that they have, by right, a place inside, at the table, may find themselves outside, while those whom many considered outsiders, discover — to the scandal of some, and to the joy of others — that a place inside, at the table, has been reserved for them. This is the mystery of the Divine Hospitality.

Et Deus tuus Deus meus

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Saturday of the Twentieth Week of the Year I

Ruth 2:1-3, 8-11; 4:13-17
Psalm 127: 1-5
Matthew 23:1-12

A Virtuous Woman

The book of Ruth is one of the most charming in all of Sacred Scripture. Its tone is quiet and reflective. Ruth, the book’s heroine is a Moabitess, but she has all the virtues of a daughter of Israel pleasing to God. She is humble, tender, faithful, gentle, and courageous. When her mother-in-law Naomi was not only widowed, but also left bereft of her two sons, and this in a foreign land, Ruth was moved to compassion and chose to remain united to her mother-in-law, and to return from Moab to Bethlehem with her.

Thy God My God

Ruth’s words to Naomi are among the most beautiful expressions of friendship in the Bible. “Be not against me, to desire that I should leave thee and depart: for whithersoever thou shalt go, I will go: and where thou shalt dwell, I also will dwell. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. The land that shall receive thee dying, in the same will I die: and there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Boaz Marries Ruth

In today’s reading, the two women have arrived in Naomi’s country of origin where Ruth asks leave of Naomi to go and glean in the field of Boaz. Boaz is smitten by the young widowed Moabitess and takes her as his wife. The child born of this union is Obed, the father of Jesse, and the grandfather of David.

The Genealogy

The names recalled in today’s reading are familiar to us from the genealogy of Our Lord Jesus Christ given by Saint Matthew (Mt 1:1-17). This is the genealogy that the Church reads on December 17, the first day of the Great O Antiphons, and again at the solemn Office of Vigils that precedes the Mass of Christmas during the night. The Church’s musical tradition has graced this text with a chant melody that renders the long list of names strangely moving and memorable.

Ecce venio, Domine

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Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini's painting from the early 1700s shows anguish and distress on the face of Jephte, the victorious warrior come home from battle. His daughter is the very image of innocence and purity.

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Thursday of the Twentieth Week of the Year I

Judges 11:29-39a
Psalm 39: 4, 6-7a, 7b-8, 9
Matthew 22:1-14

The Spirit Breatheth Where He Will

Today’s First Lesson relates the astonishing and tragic story of the judge Jephte, son of Gilead. The judges were not self-appointed. One became a judge in Israel by virtue of a mysterious action of the Spirit of the Lord. Suddenly and powerfully the Spirit of the Lord would fall upon the least likely candidates, inspiring them to heroic deeds that filled the people with awe. “The Spirit,” says the Lord Jesus, “breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (Jn 3:8).

Jephtee

Jephte did not seem to be made of the stuff of judges. He was a thug, and the son of a harlot (Judg 11:1). His half-brothers threw him out of his father’s house. He joined a gang and became a marauding raider (Judg 11:2-3), a kind of gangster in Canaan. When the Ammonites starting causing trouble, the elders of Gilead turned to Jephte for help. Apparently he had made a reputation for himself as a rather formidable fighter. Jephte took a perverse delight in letting them hang for a bit. “Are not you the men who hated me, and cast me out of my father’s house, and now you are come to me constrained by necessity?” (Judg 11:7). Sheepishly, the delegation promises that Jephte will be reinstated with honour among his own if he accepts to lead the sally against the Ammonites.

A Reckless Vow

A lot is at stake for Jephte. He makes an imprudent and reckless vow to the Lord. “If thou wilt deliver the children of the Ammonites into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord” (Judg 11:31). Jephte does slaughter the Ammonites. Returning in triumph, who should come out to greet him first but his daughter, his only child?

Human sacrifice was not unknown in Canaan. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, his only son comes immediately to mind. The all-important difference is that Jephte’s sacrifice of his daughter was in fulfillment of a vow that the Lord had neither inspired nor required, whereas God himself had called to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son, his only Isaac whom he loved, to test Abraham’s obedience and faith (Gen 22:2).

Dominus tecum, virorum fortissime

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The Lord Is With Thee

Today’s First Lesson gives us the Angel’s greeting to Gideon. “The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘The Lord is with thee, O most valiant of men” (Jgs 6:12). The Archangel Gabriel greeted the Virgin of Nazareth with similar words: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Lk 1:28). Now that “the fullness of time has come” (Gal 4:4), that greeting from heaven has passed into the liturgy of the Church on earth.

At the beginning of Holy Mass and at key moments within the celebration, the priest greets the people, saying, Dominus vobiscum, “The Lord be with you.” He refers to the presence of the Lord in the midst of the Church. The phrase can be understood either as a wish, May the Lord be with you, or as a declaration, The Lord is with you.

When the Angel says to Gideon, “The Lord is with thee, valiant warrior,” he is inviting him to take heart, trusting in the unfailing presence of the Lord. Thus do we hear Gideon say at the end of the mysterious encounter, “I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face” (Jgs 3:22). “And the Lord said to him: ‘Peace be with thee, fear not, thou shalt not die’” (Jgs 3:23).

Presence of Christ

How are we to understand the Dominus vobiscum of the Mass? It is a solemn and joyful affirmation of the presence of the Lord in the midst of the assembly. By His grace Christ is present and living in each baptized person for He is the Vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:5). According to Our Lord’s promise He is present also in the midst of those who come together in His Name. “Where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).

The Voice of Thy Salutation

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A thrill of jubilation should pass through the church every time the greeting of the priest, ancient and ever new, reaches the ears of the faithful. Recall what happened when the Virgin Mary greeted her cousin Elizabeth: “And she entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Lk 1:41). At what precise moment did this infilling take place? Elizabeth says, “Behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears” (Lk 1:44).

Chant

The musical tradition of the Roman Church has clothed this greeting in a little melody of two notes (sol and la) that is as sublime as it is simple. Dominus vobiscum. Only at the dialogue that precedes the Preface of the Mass does the greeting assume a more ample and solemn musical treatment, and this is to signify that at that very moment the priest and people are poised to enter into the Holy of Holies of the Mass.

Gesture

In singing these words, the priest extends his arms towards the assembly. He opens his hands as if to embrace all present and draw them into one single prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This particular gesture is reserved to bishops and priests. Though deacons are allowed to say, “The Lord be with you,” they do so with folded hands. It belongs to the bishop and to the priest to impart the grace of the Lord’s presence to the faithful, and to take them up with him into the prayer of Christ to the Father.

Ignem veni mittere in terram

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Twentieth Sunday of the Year C

Jeremiah 38: 4-6. 8-10
Psalm 39: 2-4. 18. R. v.14
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53

Fire Upon the Earth

The first sentence of today’s Gospel is a window into Our Lord’s interior life, a laying bare of the thoughts of His Sacred Heart. “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49). This is the sort of self-revelation that we more usually associate with the Gospel of Saint John. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Jesus identifies this mysterious fire with the very aim of His mission on earth, with the will of His Father, with the transmission of life, life in abundance. “I came to cast fire upon the earth” (Lk 12:49).

Near the Fire

Origen, in his homilies on Jeremiah, reports what he considers to be an authentic saying of Our Lord: “Whosoever is near me is near the fire; whosoever is far from me is far from the Kingdom” (Homily 20 on Jeremiah). Fire signifies the presence of Jesus, the inbreaking of the Kingdom, the incandescence of His divinity, the blaze that Moses had already contemplated on Horeb, the mountain of God (Ex 3:2). The “deifying light” of the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB Pro:2) is inseparable from the divinizing fire. “Whosoever is near me is near the fire,” says the Lord.

Fire of Destruction?

What is this fire? What does it represent? Is it a fire of destruction and of vengeance? When James and John wanted to bid fire come down from heaven to consume the inhospitable village of Samaritans, Jesus turned and rebuked them (Lk 9:54). His is not a fire of destruction.

The Sword

Is fire merely a metaphor for the divisions announced in the last three verses of today’s Gospel? The division brought about by the coming of Christ, I think, is better served by the metaphor of the sword found in the parallel passage in Saint Matthew: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34); and in the prophecy of the aged Simeon: “A sword will pierce through your own soul also that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35).

In conspectu Domini

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Friday of the Nineteenth Week of the Year I

Joshua 24:1-13
Psalm 135:1-3, 16-18, 21-22 and 24
Matthew 19:3-12

In Ranks Before God

In today’s First Lesson Joshua holds a solemn assembly of all the people. The text makes a point of saying that they “stood in ranks before God.” The image resembles that of a monastic choir. The Vulgate says that they “stood in conspectu Domini, in the sight of the Lord.” The RSV puts it this way: “They presented themselves before God” (Jos 24:1).

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Every response to the presence of God engages the three theological virtues. Charity makes us yearn for the presence of God. Hope makes us expect the presence of God. Faith allows us to perceive the presence of God and, at the same time, moves us to respond to His presence worthily.

Believe This

This is why Saint Benedict says in Chapter 19 of the Holy Rule: “We believe that God is present everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the good and the bad; but most of all should we believe this without any shadow of doubt, when we are engaged in the Work of God” (RB 19:1-2). Saint Benedict twice uses the verb to believe.

Saint Benedict

Faith shapes behaviour. Saint Benedict draws his conclusions: “We should therefore always be mindful of the prophet’s words, ‘Serve the Lord with fear.’ And again, ‘Sing wisely.’ And yet again, ‘In the sight of the angels I will sing to you.’ We must therefore consider how we should behave in the sight of the Divine Majesty and His Angels, and as we sing our psalms let us see to it that our mind is in harmony with our voice” (RB 19:3-7).

Romano Guardini

Faith shapes behaviour and, at the same time, behaviour — especially repeated patterns of behaviour — strengthen the virtue of faith. In his classic work, Sacred Signs, Romano Guardini demonstrates the value of a standing rightly in the presence of God, of kneeling in adoration, of a Sign of the Cross well made. There are moments, and sometimes, long hours of spiritual darkness in every Christian life. During such dark nights it is important to keep on expressing outwardly the faith that one does not feel inwardly. This is not hypocrisy. It is the exercise of the will fixed steadily on the Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God.

Et vos estote parati

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Nineteenth Sunday of the Year C

Wisdom 18:6-9
Psalm 32: 1 & 12, 18-19, 20 & 22 (R. 12b)
Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19
Luke 12: 32-28 or 35-40

The Liturgy Begins With What is Given

For every Sunday Throughout the Year of Years A, B, and C, the Liturgy of the Hours gives us three antiphons taken from the Gospel: one for the Magnificat at First Vespers, one for the Benedictus, and one for the Magnificat at Second Vespers. Some see in the variety of antiphons given an embarrassment of riches: more than any one choir can master, more than one heart can take in. These subjective appreciations are beside the point; the liturgy begins with what is given. Wisdom begins with our acceptance of the objective givenness of the liturgy; with that acceptance comes the taste of the things of the God, foretaste of the Kingdom.

Note: Nine Gospel antiphons are given for each Sunday of the Time Throughout the Year: three each, destined to be sung at the Magnificat I, the Benedictus, and the Magnificat II for Years A, B, and C. The editors of the American version of the Liturgy of the Hours reduced the nine antiphons to three, thereby deconstructing the magnificent biblical and liturgical harmonics intended by the Church.

The Manifold Mystery of Christ

The Gospel Antiphons of the Divine Office are carefully selected and crafted. Their Gregorian musical expression unlocks for us the hidden meaning of the texts. Like all sacramentals — for that is what the antiphons are — they are a way into the manifold mystery of Christ, mystical portals opening onto the light. Let us then enter today’s Gospel by passing, in succession, through each of this Sunday’s three Gospel Antiphons.

Treasure and Heart

At First Vespers, the Magnificat antiphon was: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, says the Lord” (Lk 12:34). Immediately, we are obliged to ask ourselves hard questions, incisive questions. Where is my treasure? There is my heart. What do I want above all else? There is my heart. What do I cherish? There is my heart. What things do I protect? There is my heart. For what thing or things am I willing to suffer? There is my heart. In what thing or things have I invested myself, my energy, my talents, and my time . . . especially my time? There is my heart.

Saint Dominic

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Eighteenth Wednesday of the Year I

Numbers 13:1-2, 25--14:1, 26a-29a, 34-35
Psalm 105: 6-7ab, 13-14, 21-22, 23 (R. 4a)
Matthew 15:21-28

The Mercy of God

Saint Dominic would spend whole nights weeping and groaning in prayer before the altar. Over and over again he would say, "What will become of sinners? What will become of sinners?" Saint Dominic's great passion was to reconcile sinners by preaching the mercy of God.

The Power of Preaching

Dominic understood that the power of preaching comes from ceaseless prayer. His prayer had three characteristics: humble adoration, heartfelt pity for sinners, and exultation in the Divine Mercy. Saint Dominic prayed constantly; he prayed at home and on the road, in church and in his cell. For Saint Dominic there was no place or time foreign to prayer. He loved to pray at night. He engaged his whole body in prayer by standing with outstretched arms, by bowing, prostrating, genuflecting, and kissing the sacred page. If you are not familiar with the extraordinary little booklet entitled The Nine Ways of Prayer of Saint Dominic, today would be a good day to find it and read it.

The Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Saint Dominic had a tenth way of prayer too: the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary that today we call the rosary. The use of beads was widespread and the repetition of the Hail Mary were both widespread before the time of Saint Dominic. The Hail Mary prayed 150 times in reference to the 150 psalms was practiced in Carthusian and Cistercian cloisters before the time of Saint Dominic.

Irrigated by Grace

Saint Dominic understood that preaching alone was not enough. Preaching had to be irrigated by grace, and grace is obtained by prayer. Inspired by the Mother of God, Saint Dominic interspersed his sermons with the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He exhorted his hearers to continue praying the Psalter of 150 Aves as a way of prolonging the benefits of holy preaching. The rosary allows the seed of the Word sown by holy preaching to germinate in the soul and bear fruit.

Moses Was Very Meek

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Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week of the Year I

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Numbers 12:1-13
Psalm 50:1-2, 3-4ab, 4cd-5, 10-11
Mt 14:22-36


Miriam and Aaron

Together with Moses, Miriam and Aaron had experienced the wonderful deeds of the Lord: the liberation from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen in the waters of the sea. It was on that occasion that Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and danced to the glory of the Lord, singing: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:21). Miriam and Aaron witnessed the wonder of manna from heaven. They had supported their brother Moses in his leadership of the people. A certain resentment however seems to have been festering in their hearts, a jealousy of Moses, and especially of his intimacy with the Lord.

Jealousy

As is so often the case, they look for a pretext, for an excuse to speak against him. They find it in Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman, a stranger, Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro of Midian. Now this marriage is no recent event. You recall that Moses married Zipporah after he had killed the Egyptian, and fled in fear from Pharaoh’s house, before the call of Moses by God, speaking from the burning bush on Mount Horeb (Ex 2:1). Zipporah has been with him for a long time. It is strange that Miriam and Aaron should only now be saying that they have a problem with their brother’s marriage, but jealousy makes people do strange things. Moses hears them speaking against him. Surely, it hurts him, this turning against him of both brother and sister.

The Meekness of Moses

It is here that we encounter the famous verse on the meekness of Moses. “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). We saw the violent side of Moses in the second chapter of Exodus, but that was before his transforming encounter with God in the burning bush. Here Moses is presented as a man who is humble before God. The experience of divine intimacy has chastened him and made him lowly and meek. We see here that humility is a fruit of adoration, adoration being the response of faith to the revelation of God.

Meekness: the Fruit of Adoration

Adoration, particularly Eucharistic adoration, makes one humble, and humility is the ground of every other virtue. If we are resentful, angry, judgmental and unforgiving, it is because we are not humble. We are not humble because we do not adore. Saint Peter Julian Eymard, whom we celebrated last week, saw adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as the great remedy for the wounds of the Church and the brokenness of society, precisely because adoration produces humility, and humility produces peace.

Defender of the Lowly and the Meek

God defends Moses against the spiteful gossip of his brother and sister. God is always the defender of the lowly and the meek. He summons all three to a family conference at the tent of meeting. The Lord descends in a pillar of cloud and orders Miriam and Aaron to come forward. How they must have trembled! God describes His relationship to Moses. “He is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Num 12:8).

With Him On The Holy Mountain

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To the Mountain of the Lord

The prophet Isaiah says that, “It shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob’” (Is 2:1-3).

The house of the Lord is no longer the tent of meeting pitched by Moses in the desert (Ex 33:7), the tent upon which descended the pillar of cloud (Ex 33:9), the tent wherein the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Ex 33:11). We heard, in the second reading of the Vigil, that “everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting” (Ex 33:7). Moses used to come out of his ineffable conversations with the Lord so transfigured and radiant that he was obliged to cover his face with a veil, for the skin of his face shone with the glory of the Lord (Ex 35:33-35). The tent of meeting in the desert, set up according the prescriptions of the Lord, was but a figure and foreshadowing of the mystery we celebrate today.

The Tent

In the tent of meeting we discern, “as in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12), an obscure and mysterious revelation of the adorable Trinity. The tent prefigures the Body of Christ, the true, abiding, and indestructible place of meeting between God and man. Everyone who seeks the Father must go out to the new tent of meeting, that is, the Body of Christ, for he himself says, “No one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6).

In the tent, Moses heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him mouth to mouth (Num 12:8), the same voice that, in the beginning, had uttered, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). At the sound of the voice of the Lord, something of old Adam stirred deep inside Moses, and he remembered the voice that, in the garden, had called so gently, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

Moses beheld the pillar of cloud hovering over the tent (Ex 33:9). Something of old Adam stirred deep inside him, and he remembered the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8), in the breath of a gentle evening breeze.

Behold the tent, behold the voice, behold the cloud! Are we to look upon such mysteries and fail to see a dark and veiled epiphany of the Three calling us into the communion of their divine life? The tent points to Christ, the voice to the Father, the cloud to the Holy Spirit.

Et divites dimisit inanes

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Eighteenth Sunday of the Year C

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Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23
Psalm 94: 1-2, 6-7abc, 7d-9
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

Empty Hands

“Even in the night his mind does not rest.” (Eccl 2:23). So does Ecclesiastes describe the inner state of one whose search for happiness has produced little more than anxiety, exhaustion and sleepless nights. Toil, pain, and work amount to nothing in the pursuit of things eternal. The gifts of God are His for the giving. They cannot be produced or merited, purchased or won. In His wisdom, God often allows us to experience the utter vanity of all our toil and labours — even of our spiritual toil and labours — in order to bring us, sometimes by a path of apparent failure, to a state of blessed abjection and poverty. Blessed Jeanne Jugan put it this way, “It is so beautiful to be poor, to have nothing, to await all from God.” Saint Thérèse, in her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love, prayed, “In the eventide of this life, I will appear before you with empty hands.”

Working to Have Nothing

We are all so reluctant to appear before God with empty hands. We would prefer to have something to show for our toil and strain, for our days full of pain and our labours. The spiritual life is not about working to have something; it is, if anything, working to have nothing. This, of course, is unsettling and disturbing.

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To Await All From God

I am reminded of the novice mistress of Saint Bernadette at Nevers, the virtuous but icy Mère Thérèse Vauzou. All her religious life she had toiled and strained in the pursuit of holiness, mortifying her senses at every turn, holding herself with a will of steel to the slightest prescriptions of her rule, driving herself mercilessly towards perfection. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). When little Bernadette appeared on the scene, an ignorant peasant girl, unschooled in the spiritual life, rough and unrefined in her manners, and when this mere child admitted to conversations with the glorious Queen of heaven and Mother of God, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, it was altogether more than the virtuous Mère Vauzou could admit. Were all her spiritual labours and mortifications then worthless in the sight of heaven? Had she done so much, so hard, for so long, all for nothing? But, of course. For nothing. That is precisely the point, is it not? To be brought to nothing. To have nothing, to await all from God,” and to be able to say with Blessed Jeanne Jugan, “It is so beautiful.”

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The Peace of the Poor in Spirit

The biographers of Saint Bernadette say little about the final chapter in the life of Mère Vauzou. Long after the death of Bernadette, she was tormented with feelings of guilt and anxiety. She had, after all, treated the little saint harshly and added to her sufferings. In an attempt to recover peace of soul she went to the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide to consult with the saintly Père Jean, a monk known for his wisdom. We do not know the details of what transpired in secret between the monk and the distressed religious. We do know that after that meeting Mère Vauzou was freed of her anxiety and guilt, and found peace of heart. In all likelihood, Père Jean helped her to see that holiness is incompatible with achievements and great works, even spiritual ones, and that the Kingdom of heaven is given to the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3).

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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