Monday, August 29, 2016

A Mature Faith

Thanks to all who prayed for and with me this weekend as I was formally installed as Pastor of All Saints Parish.  It was a beautiful day!  Now that it's done, though, it's definitely time to get to work :)

Bishop Doherty "presents" me to the parish.

I sign the Profession of Faith.

My Dad, Bill, and my Mom, Josie, were in attendance.

Homily: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C*
          Our second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews puts into contrast one of the major differences between what I might call “Old Testament” Faith and “New Testament” Faith.  It does this by painting two different pictures: one of Mount Sinai and one of Mount Zion, which themselves are symbolic representations of the Old and New Testaments.  And so, what do these pictures tell us?
          The first picture is of Mount Sinai, which is the mountain where God gave his Law to the People of Israel through Moses during their Exodus from slavery in Egypt and as they were making their way to the Promised Land.  Thus the Law became the foundation and the measure of Old Testament Faith and Mount Sinai its enduring image.
          The other picture is of Mount Zion, which is the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem was built.  Ever since King David established his throne there, and especially after his son Solomon built the first temple there, Mount Zion became a symbol of heaven, of the city of believers that have entered into communion with God: not through fearful obedience to God's strict laws, but through loving obedience to the Messiah, the one whom God promised to send to save all people (and whom we now know is Jesus Christ).  Thus loving obedience to a person, not just a Law, became the foundation and the measure of New Testament Faith and Mount Zion its enduring image.
          Now the Old and New Testaments are both covenants—that is, solemn, committed relationships freely entered into.   The relationship in both cases is between God and his chosen people, between God and those who believe in him.  This relationship gradually matured as God revealed himself more and more, from the beginning of the Old Testament until the establishment of the New.  These two pictures, therefore, can give us a good idea of the difference between an immature and a mature relationship with God.  And so, let’s take a closer look.
          In the Old Covenant, people had an incomplete notion of who God is and, as a result, their relationship with him was immature—not wrong, mind you, just immature.  This is evidenced by the fact that the predominant characteristic of the relationship was fear.  In those times, people were much more aware of the severity and seriousness of sin (and the punishment that sin truly deserved) than we are today.  They were also more aware of their own sinfulness.  This double awareness inspired fear: because God hates sin and they knew that they were sinners.
          This is the attitude that the Letter to the Hebrews calls to mind when it describes the experience that the ancient Israelites had of receiving God's Law on Mount Sinai.  They were so intimidated by God's holiness that they "begged that no message be further addressed to them."  The book of Exodus even tells us that, if an animal (like a cow or a sheep) touched the mountainside while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments, it had to be stoned.  Moses himself described his experience of being in God's presence by saying that he was "utterly terrified and trembling."  God was holy. Mankind was sinful.  And that created tension—to say the least.
          But fear was not the only characteristic of the Chosen People's relationship with God in the Old Testament.  In those times, people were also keenly aware of God's majesty; again, much more than we tend to be today.  They still saw wonder and magnificence in the world around them.  And they knew clearly that the Creator of such a world had to be even more wonderful and magnificent.  This is evident from the description of Mount Sinai as cloaked in "blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast".  Here is a God who is not only holy, but mysterious and transcendent and immensely powerful.  And so, they were full of awe when they thought of God and when they entered into his presence through prayer and worship.
          As I said, the fear and awe that characterized the Old Testament view of God was not wrong, but it was incomplete.  God still seemed so far away from man that man was suspicious of God.  But God didn't want to keep us at a distance.  When in his wisdom he saw that the time was right to do so, God built a bridge over the abyss that kept man and God so far apart.  That bridge was God becoming man in Jesus Christ.  Christ is the bridge that draws sinful man back into intimacy with God.  He shed his blood to atone for our sins, showing that God's mercy can release us from fear.  And he rose from the dead to prove that in him we don't have to keep our distance to admire God's majesty, but rather we can actually enter into it through our friendship with Christ and enjoy it from the inside.
          This is what we see in the picture of Mt Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.  It shows us a city where God is present and surrounded by immense crowds.  His angels are at his side.  And all the men and women who have been faithful to him make up "the assembly of the firstborn".  In other words, each has been welcomed and honored by God as his very own child.  The Greek word used to describe the scene is "panegyris" (pahn-eh-GEAR-ihs).  Translated, it means "festal gathering" and it's the word the Greeks used for civic holidays and festivals, when everyone gathered to celebrate in the town square.  This is what Christ has won for us: closeness to God, joyful intimacy with the Creator of the universe, healthy fear turned into confident love, and frightening awe transformed into indescribable delight.
          This is the picture being painted for us today in the Letter to the Hebrews: the stark contrast between a mature and an immature relationship with God.  As Christians, each one of us, no matter our age, is called to live in a mature relationship with God.  We are not strangers to God, as at Mount Sinai, but rather members of his household, called to live in a relationship of closeness and confidence with God, as on Mount Zion.  And so, perhaps the question that we need to ask ourselves today is, “Is that how we are living?”  And so, let's do a check-up.  Let's measure our spiritual maturity by looking at some of our Christian vital signs.
          First, there's confession.  The immature Christian stays far away from confession; for him, confession is like the thunderous mountaintop. It only inspires fear.  For the mature Christian, however, confession is an intimate conversation with the Lord who never gets tired of forgiving; it is a joyful embrace; a coming home again, like the Prodigal Son.
          Second, there's morality.  The immature Christian sees following the moral teachings of Christ and the Church as a burden; it's like following a list of random and inconvenient rules.  For the mature Christian, however, following Christ is a meaningful, joyful mission; he or she acknowledges it can be hard, but also that there are many other things in life that are hard, but that are worthwhile, nonetheless.
          Finally, there's the virtue of mercy.  The immature Christian takes pleasure in criticizing less faithful people and in talking about their faults.  The mature Christian, however, sees every person as a brother or sister, and treats them with unconditional respect, always giving them the benefit of the doubt, whether present or absent.
          If, my brothers and sisters, this check-up has shown that there is room for improvement in our Christian maturity, then, in this Mass, let us ask for God’s help to grow in maturity by opening our minds and hearts to see him as he really is: our loving Father and our faithful Friend, who humbled himself to become one of us so that we might be exalted with him: that same exalted presence that we will soon encounter once again here on this altar.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 28th, 2016

*I am grateful to for "filling in the gaps" for this week's homily.

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