Homilies: February 2009 Archives

Behold, I am doing a new thing

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Quinquagesima, The Seventh Sunday of the Year B

Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
Psalm 41:1-2, 3-4, 12-13
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

Christ, the Father's Yes

"The Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you . . . was not Yes and No; but in Him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him" (2 Cor 1:19-20). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Father's Yes to every yearning inscribed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Father's Yes to every prayer of ours for healing, the Father's Yes to every cry of ours in the night, the Father's Yes even to the petitions we dare not formulate "for we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). When the Holy Spirit himself "intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26), Christ is the Father's Yes to every one of those sighs. Christ is the Father's Yes to the inward groanings of those who hope for what is not yet seen (cf. Rom 8:24-25). Christ is the Father's Yes to all the promises made "by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old" (Lk 1:70).

Through Christ our Lord

The prophet is the mouthpiece of God, the living bearer of His Word, the emissary charged with delivering the promises of God to "those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (Lk 1:79). And Christ is the Yes to those promises: their guarantee and their fulfillment. "That is why," says the Apostle, "we utter the Amen through Him to the glory of God" (2 Cor 1:20). This, the Church has done from the beginning and continues to do in every age. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Receive the Promises of God

Those who refuse to let go of the past are not disposed to receive the promises of God. Their heads and their hearts are so full of what is old, that there is no room in them for what is new. What does God say, speaking today through His prophet? "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Is 43:19).

The Mercies of the Lord

Does that mean that we are to practice a kind of self-induced amnesia? Absolutely not. This is not about repression. To forget means to put away. Before something can be put away, it has to be found. The same God who says, "Remember not!" never tires of saying, "Remember!" O glorious paradox! "Remember the wonderful works that He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He uttered" (Ps 104:5). And in another place the psalmist says, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits" (Ps 102:2). We are to remember the mercies of the Lord and let go of all the rest. Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo. The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever (Ps 88:1).

Detachment

We are to let go of all those things that impede our going forward to claim the promises of God. We are to let go of all those things that oppose a no to Christ in whom all the promises of God find their Yes (cf. 2 Cor 1:19-20). This letting go allows the fragile green shoot of hope to break through the crusty hardness of a heart whose winter has gone on for too long.

Attachment to Christ Jesus

At the same time, we are to hold fast to the remembrance of God's mercies. Day after day we are sing of the promises of God fulfilled in Christ. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Praise

These are God's promises to us, delivered through the mouth of Isaias His prophet today:

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise (Is 43:20-21).

Every promise of God blossoms into praise. The designs of God have a doxological finality: the vast designs of cosmic proportions, and the little ones hidden in the life stories of the least of Christ's brethren. Faith in the promises of God flowers into an indefectible hope, and the fruit of hope is praise.

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And He Rose

The God who promises "a new thing" (Is 43:19) tells us precisely how He will go about it: "I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Is 43:25). "And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5). Fix your gaze on the Face of Christ and read there the Yes to all the promises of God! And lest any lingering doubt remain, "He said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.' And he rose. . . ." (Mk 2:10-12). And he rose.

The Promise of Resurrection

Fifty days before Pascha on this Quinquagesima Sunday, Our Lord speaks a word of spiritual resurrection. This is the word of hope that we are to remember and carry in our hearts: the promise of a resurrection from the pallet where we lay immobilized and paralyzed by the burdens and sins of "former things, of the things of old" (Is 43:18). "Behold," says God, "I am doing a new thing . . . a new thing in you, a new thing for you, a new thing among you, a new thing through you. . . now it springs forth, do you not perceive it" (cf. Is 43:19).

Amen

To all of this, Christ, knowing our weakness and our fears, says Yes for us. To His Yes, to the Yes that He is, we have only to say, "Amen." And for this we go to the altar to sing, "our Amen through Him to the glory of God" (2 Cor 1:20). "Through Him, and with Him, and in Him. . . . Amen." And then, "The Body of Christ. Amen." The Most Holy Eucharist is Christ, the Yes of God, on our tongues and in our mouths. The Body of Christ is the Yes of God in our hearts. "The Body of Christ. Amen."

I know that my Redeemer liveth

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In the traditional liturgy today is Septuagesima Sunday; the Office focuses on the first chapters of Genesis, and Mass on the passing of time from "the morning of the world" to the eleventh hour when the last labourers are hired. The reformed liturgy continues the lectio continua of Saint Mark's Gospel and relates today's passage to the sufferings of the prophet Job.

Even in the reformed liturgy one can and should allude to the traditional observance of Septuagesima. Without this pre-Lenten season, one arrives at Ash Wednesday unprepared; the transition into the Great Fast requires, even from the purely psychological point of view, a time of transition. There is enormous wisdom in the traditional practice of the Church.

Fifth Sunday of the Year B

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 146: 12, 3-4, 5-6
1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

The Woes of Job

"I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me" (Jb 7:3), says Job: the utterance of a man for whom life has lost all meaning. Job was a prosperous citizen, a man content with himself: comfortable in his religion, secure in his possessions, happy with his family. In a single day, he lost everything (Jb 1:14-16). A tornado struck the house where all his children were gathered for a dinner party, and all perished (Jb 1:18-19). Later he was stricken with a terrible illness; he was covered with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head" (Jb 2:7). His wife (hardly sympathetic and encouraging) tells him to curse God, and die (Jb 2:9). His friends come for visits, but their conversation brings no comfort and their company no solace.

My eye will never again see good

In only six verses, the First Reading reveals the bleakness and intensity of Job's suffering. His torment is more interior than exterior: restlessness, sleepless nights, and the total eclipse of hope. God is conspicuously absent from the text. God is not even mentioned. Listening to the reading, I was moved by the images of despondency that, one after the other, bare for us the depths of Job's pain. "Months of emptiness and nights of misery" (Jb 7:3). "The night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn" (Jb 7:4). Job has the fearful experience of seeing his life rush past him into an impenetrable obscurity. "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope" (Jb 7:6). The last line of the reading leaves one with the impression of an indefinable and tragic emptiness. "My eye will never again see good" (Jb 7:7) or, in the lectionary translation, "I shall not see happiness again."

Job finds an extraordinarily poignant echo in a poem by W. H. Auden.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Respect for Suffering

"For nothing now can ever come to any good." Auden is quoting Job. How do we leap from this into the Responsorial Psalm, "Praise the Lord, who heals the broken-hearted" (Ps 147:3). I'm not even sure that a leap is appropriate. The reality of human suffering, of the gnawing sense of hopelessness cannot, and should not, be treated dismissively. The pain of the human heart deserves the respect that only a speechless and attentive presence can offer. In any case, the leap into the Responsorial Psalm, however long it is respectfully delayed, cannot be attempted alone. We respond together to the glimmers of light that it holds out. God, conspicuously absent from the text of Job, comes out of hiding in the psalm to "gather the outcasts of Israel, to heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds, to lift up the downtrodden" (Ps 147:2-3, 6).

Weakness

As a rule, the Second Reading is not related to the other texts of the Sunday liturgy. Today, however, Saint Paul says something that brings him close to Job, and to us. "To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak" (1 Cor 9:22). Here, the Apostle reflects his Lord and Master, the Suffering Servant. Before Paul, Christ Himself, "despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Is 53:3), became as weak to the weak, that He might win the weak. The weak Christ -- like the weak Job, and the weak Paul -- speaks, I think, to the weakness in all of us, drawing us to Himself humbly and gently. Virtue that causes the righteous to seem distant, and holiness unattainable, is no virtue at all.

Christ Stretches Forth His Hand

Job and Paul, in their weakness, conduct us to the Gospel of the compassionate Christ. In the Gospel, the God of the Responsorial Psalm has a human face, human hands, a human heart, and a healing, human touch. Look at our Divine Lord in the Gospel. What do we see Him doing? He stretches forth His hand (Mk 1:31) to raise up, to set free, to heal. What Our Lord does in the Gospel for the mother-in-law of Peter (Mk 1:30), and for the whole city gathered together about the door (Mk 1:33), He wants to do for us.

Come to Him

Come to Him, present in the adorable Mystery of the Altar. He will take you by the hand and lift you up (Mk 1:31). If, scorched by the heat of the day, you long for the shadow (Jb 7:2), He will "hide you in the shelter of his wings" (Ps 17:8). If months of emptiness have been your lot (Jb 7:3), He comes to "crown the year with bounty" (Ps 65:11). If nights of misery have been your portion (Jb 7:3), He rises before you as the dawn of mercy (cf. Lk 1:78-79).

He Comes

If you say, "When shall I arise" (Jb 7:4), He stretches forth His hand to raise you up (cf. Mk 1:31). If you say, "the night is long" (Jb 7:4), He says, "You will not fear the terror of the night" (Ps 91:5). If the night is "full of tossing till the dawn" (Jb 7:4), He says, "Come to me . . . And you will find rest for your souls" (Mt 11:28 29). If the days of your life are rushing past, "swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (Jb 7:6), leaving things unresolved, questions unanswered, and your heart without hope, He comes to calm and quiet your soul, "like a child quieted at its mother's breast" (Ps 131:2).

My Hope Laid Up in My Heart

If you fear that never again your eye will see good (Jb 7:7), draw near today to the Holy Table saying with Job, "I know that my Redeemer liveth . . . and in my flesh I shall see my God . . . . This, my hope, is laid up in my heart" (Jb 19:25-27, Vulg).

Presentation of the Lord

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Malachy 3:1-4
Psalm 23: 7, 8, 9, 10
Hebrews 2: 14-18
Luke 2: 22-40

Susception Day

"We receive, O God, Your mercy, in the midst of Your temple" (Ps 47:10). This is the word from Psalm 47 that the liturgy places on our lips and in our hearts today. In the Middle Ages today's feast was sometimes called Susception Day, from "suscepimus," the first word of the entrance antiphon. Often translated as, "we receive," or "we accept," "suscepimus" has yet another meaning. This other meaning, while crucial to understanding the mystery we celebrate today, is often overlooked. "Suscipere" means to take up a new born child to acknowledge it as one's own. In ancient Rome a father acknowledged a child as belonging to him by taking the little one into his arms in the presence of witnesses. Knowing this, the Introit becomes transparent for us, illumined as it is by the word of the Gospel: "Simeon took him into his arms" (Lk 2:28). "We take up into our arms, O God, Your Mercy, in the midst of Your temple."

To Cradle Mercy in Our Arms

The one thing that everyone finds irresistible is to hold a baby, even if only for a few moments. Elders are transformed by it. Boys suddenly become tender and girls motherly. Even little children vie for the privilege of holding the newest arrival. As the little one is passed from one person to the next, faces grow bright with awe and delight. A little child has the power to light up a room. The little child we celebrate today has the power to light up the world: "A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Lk 2:32). The Introit names the Child "Mercy." Today, it is given us to cradle Mercy in our arms.

Guided by the Infant

An antiphon from today's Office sings that, "the ancient carried the Infant, but the Infant guided the steps of the ancient." Simeon, the image of all that in us has grown old with waiting, carries Mercy in his arms, but Mercy, by the light that shines on his face, guides the old man's steps. If we would be guided by Mercy, we must first receive Mercy, the Mercy of God that comes to us in the outstretched arms of a little Child seeking to be held.

In the Middle of the Temple

The Introit says that Mercy is given us in medio templi -- in the middle of the temple. This places the Infant Christ, the human Face of Divine Mercy, at the heart of today's mystery. As in the icon of today's feast, all of the other figures in the Gospel are seen in relation to the Child. All of the other figures are seen, in fact, in the light of his face. "What can bring us happiness?" they ask. "Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord" (Ps 4:7). "Look towards him," they say one to another, "and be radiant" (Ps 33:6). Christ is placed in our arms today that we might gaze upon the human face of Divine Mercy and, in the light of that face, be transformed.

Nolite obdurare corda vestra

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This painting of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum is the work of the Polish-Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). Note that he depicts Our Lord with earlocks, and wearing the traditional talith or prayer shawl.

Fourth Sunday of the Year

Mark 1:21-28
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Psalm 94: 1-2. 6-9
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Words from God for God

The genius of the sacred liturgy is that it allows us to respond to the Word of God with the Word of God. God speaks to us in the readings; we respond to him in the words of responsories and psalms, words inspired by the Holy Spirit and placed on our lips by the Church. The Word, which descends into our midst in the proclamation of the readings, becomes in the psalm a chariot of fire by which we, like the prophet Elias of old (2 K 2:11), are carried into the presence of the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

The Venite

Today's Responsorial Psalm is especially significant. It is the Venite, Psalm 94. This is the psalm that begin the Church's daily round of praise in the Divine Office. Every morning, and in many monasteries before the first glimmers of dawn while the world still sleeps, voices intone Psalm 94. It is more than an invitation to adoration and praise. It pleads with us: "Today if you shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps 94:7-8).

Praying Against Oneself

A hardened heart is one that refuses to listen. Encrusted in a shell, it becomes impenetrable even to the piercing grace of God. At times, we have to pray against ourselves. We are obliged to pray against our own hard and stony hearts, if we are to pray at all. The poet knew it well.

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"Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow burn, and make me new"
(John Donne, Holy Sonnets V).

The Risk of Listening

To listen is to risk. This is true of every human relationship; it is no less true of the relationship with God. The listening heart is vulnerable, open to being wounded by the two-edged sword of the Word (Heb 4:12) which like the surgeon's scalpel cuts in order to heal. A heart that listens is softened and melted by the Word received. The mystics tell us that the heart may be liquefied by the fire of love that burns in every utterance of the mouth of God. The disciples on the road to Emmaus knew it. "And they said one to the other: Was not our heart burning within us, whilst He spoke in this way, and opened to us the Scriptures?" (Lk 24:32).

A Word Unlike Any Other

The assembly in the synagogue at Capernaum risked listening to Jesus of Nazareth. They heard his voice. At least, on this one occasion, they did not harden their hearts. Saint Mark tells us that his teaching made a deep impression on them. What they experienced was different from the dry and lifeless teaching they were accustomed to hearing. This was no routine repetition of stale exhortations. Here was a word whose origin was deeper and more mysterious than anything they had heard before. Unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority. His teaching came not from Himself; it came from the One who sent Him (cf. Jn 7:16).

Taught By God

This episode in the synagogue fulfills God's promises to Moses: "I will raise them up a prophet out of the midst of their brethren like to thee: and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him" (Dt 18:18). The Lord Jesus himself makes it clear in the sixth chapter of Saint John. "It is written in the prophets: And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me" (Jn 6:45).

In the Synagogue

The worshipers in the village synagogue sensed the unique quality of Jesus' teaching in a confused sort of way. This unique quality was all too clear to the unclean spirit in the man possessed. The unclean spirit clamours, "I know who Thou art, the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24). Saint Jerome makes an astute observation about this. He says that even if the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God, it fails to confess Jesus as he truly is: not simply the Holy One of God, but the Holy God himself.

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To Become Wholly Teachable

Jesus speaks. The words of Our Lord are an outpouring, an effusion, an infusion, of the fire and light of his life with the Father in the Holy Spirit. One who really listens, risks being caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity. How I wish that we could all pray as Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity prayed:

O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to you, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from you. Then through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on you always and remain in your great light.

Power to Attend Upon the Lord

We come to Holy Mass to hearken to the words of the Word, to be wounded by them, to be espoused by them in such a way that, as the one Body of Christ, we are drawn upward with our Divine Head to the Father in the Holy Spirit. A listening Church will be one in which Saint Paul's goal for the Corinthians is necessarily fulfilled: "power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment" (1 Cor 7:35).

The Name of the Father

We cannot listen to the words of Jesus without being drawn into his own undivided attention to the Father. This was the desire of His Sacred Heart on the night before he died, "I have given them the words which Thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from Thee. . . . I made known to them Thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them" (Jn 17: 7-8;26).

Out of the Midst of the Fire

Today Moses' words to Israel are fulfilled for us. "Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that he might instruct thee: and upon earth He shewed thee his great fire; and thou heardest His words out of the midst of the fire." (Dt 4:36). In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the Father lets us see his great fire.

A Conflagration of Divine Love

What is the Most Holy Eucharist but a conflagration of Divine Love? Like the burning bush, the Church is ablaze and yet not consumed (Ex 3:2). From the heart of the fire -- if we are willing to risk it -- we hear the Word of God, "devouring fire from His mouth" (Ps 17:8). "Today if you shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps 94:7-8).

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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