Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
10 November 2019
I am particularly struck by these words from the first reading:
After him the third suffered their cruel sport.
He put out his tongue at once when told to do so,
and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words:
“It was from Heaven that I received these;
for the sake of his laws I disdain them;
from him I hope to receive them again.”
Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,
because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.
These words reaffirm for us something we’ve heard from the very beginning, which is that there is no such thing as a Christianity that does not cost us something. We know that Jesus is asking us for our very lives, for everything that we have and are to be given to him. We know that by his death he brings meaning to our suffering, and that by his resurrection he has answered the world’s oldest and most convincing lie: that life is short, and then you die, and anyone or anything that tries to stand in the way of that enjoyment is misguided, the propaganda of those who are, themselves, small-minded and sacred.
On paper, in the scriptures and in the teaching of the Church, we know that we have an answer to this suggestion. We know that by his resurrection, Jesus has conquered the world. That the false prophets of worldly comfort, of pleasure and wealth and honor, are making promises to us that they ultimately cannot fulfill. Many men and women are convinced by these lies and led into captivity, but we know that the “antagonist of the great tempter is the Spirit of Truth.” (Newman, Sermon 7: “Contest between Faith and Sight”, para. 1) We understand that the “world witnesses to an untruth” but that in the person of Jesus, risen from the dead, and in the Church, “Truth might have its living and visible representative.” (ibid.)
But what happens when these truths never move from paper, from abstract creeds and systems, to the very “stuff” of our life? Until these truths begin to impact and change every part of our lives, until the “stuff” of our religion becomes the cornerstone of our daily experience, it will never be convincing. When we are faced with the difficulties of life (and we are all too familiar with those…), when we are faced with these difficulties and try to fall back on what we believe from scripture and the Church, but these beliefs have always remained in the abstract or merely theoretical, the situation can be hard to navigate. Factor in the speed and intensity with which the daily events come at us, and the outside voices of those who are captive to the lies of the world, and things become dangerous.
As Cardinal Newman wrote, when we get out there and start seeing the world, being affected by the world, it seems that “all at once” we “lose our reckoning, and let slip the lessons which we thought we had so accurately learned.” We become “gradually impressed with the belief that the religious system which we have received is an inadequate solution to the world’s mysteries, and a rule of conduct far too simple for its complicated transactions.” (para. 2)
It can begin to appear that the Bible and the Church are remnants from a different, bygone world with no application or import for us today. It seems like the Bible and the Church exist in a world all their own – and this is a great danger against we all must be vigilant – and all of a sudden the “truth” I thought I knew, the God I thought I believed in, falls apart in an instant. The narrative of the world begins to seem true. After we begin to take comfort in the things of the world – hiding in addictions, worshiping false idols like money or sports, using physical intimacy or images as a band-aid for deep emotional distress, etc – after we take comfort in these places, we sit back and begin to see our long-gone love for God the way the world always wanted us to: one theory among many, untrue; “uninteresting…dull, colorless, a sober landscape…unpractical, unnatural, unsuitable” to the events of daily of life and the nature of women and men.
But we still come to Church, and we still identify as Christians, and there is still a part of us that respects those in our families and communities who believe these things. Even though the “Bible seems to contain a world in itself, and not the same world as that which we inhabit” we still find ourselves in awe of those who conform themselves to its rule. We treat them “tenderly…indeed as you would touch cautiously any costly work of art” but regard these people “as little adapted to do good service in the world as it is, as a weapon of gold or soft clothing on a field of battle.” (Newman, para. 6)
But then, over time, we might move farther and farther from the Truth. We hear the voices of the false prophets preaching everywhere; this is how the devil does it. He addresses himself to the needs of our nature – for love, for food, for work, for recreation, for affection, for community – and, “by the promise of independence” from rules or doctrine, “seduces us into sin” and off we go further into darkness. (Newman, para. 7)
But what I want to know is: even in this state, is our love for God really “long-gone?”
Talk to anybody who has been lost for years and years in sin, and hits the bottom fully expecting to be as far away from God as possible only to find him sitting right there.
What, very often, is their next step?
The “counter-assertion” to a life lost in the pursuit of independence from God ends up being a life given over to him completely. Except, what was once only on a page or in a book or in a system, is now the very heart of their life. The counter-assertion to the life of the world, which promises fullness of life but only greases the downward slope toward death, is a “strict life and a resolute profession of the Truth.” (Newman, para. 17)
I think of a friend after he had some trouble with alcohol and the law, who gave himself over to Christ in one of the most powerful ways I’ve ever seen. And he would come to family parties and start preaching, and people would ignore him or tell him to be quiet. I think of a guy I know from earlier in my priesthood who had just come back to the Church after 30 years of living in sexual sin and drug addiction who wanted me to bless his rosary every day and used to stand outside the Church weeping until some school parents were disturbed by such behavior and asked him to leave.
But these people do affect us. The people, like the brothers in the first reading, who have been faced with the choice of God or nothing, and at the end of it all have chosen God, these people annoy us because we know they are right. Our hearts are more religious than our minds; the heart cannot forget the One from whom it came; we possess an instinct for him, and instinct which has come from God himself as a gift, a kind of homing device which always points the way.
And it does seem a little bit archaic at times, it does seem a little bit difficult at times, it does seem a little bit inconvenient at times…but ask anyone who has been through the ringer and has found the living God in the pit with them, suffering with them, and they will will tell you that what appears to be archaic is actually timeless, that what appears to be difficult is actually arduous and exhilarating, that what appears to be inconvenient is actually the most worth-it thing of all.
Jesus is the unconquered king of the universe, and he overcomes the world by suffering with and for the world; he is “conquering while he suffers”, and this is the path for us as well. (Newman, para. 17)
Let me close with the words C.S. Lewis uses to end his book, Mere Christianity:
The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give yourself up, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 226-227)