Homily: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
These past two weeks, I was in Central America—El Salvador and Guatemala, to be precise—for a pilgrimage with other priests, deacons, and religious from around the country visiting the sites of the Central American martyrs. These are persons like Saint Oscar Romero, a bishop in El Salvador, and the newly beatified Blessed Stanley Rother, who was a priest from Oklahoma who went to serve in Guatemala. My anticipation when making this trip was that I’d be inspired be these holy priests and others who gave their lives for their people. From that standpoint (in case you wanted to ask), the trip was great.
In between those visits, our group was inundated (literally, flooded!) with information about the civil violence in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 70’s and 80’s, in which individual witnesses to the violence perpetrated against innocent persons (in some cases, whole villages!) was recounted. From this standpoint, the trip was horrible (and I mean by that, horrifying). I hope to be able to recount something of what I heard to you all in the next weeks, but now I’ll just say that that the stories of government sponsored atrocities against innocent people were sickening, saddening, and depressing.
Consoling through all of these stories was meeting some of the men and women who lived through these terrible times (which, by the way, haven’t completely ended) and who nonetheless have found a reason for hope in their Catholic faith. I encountered in the Maryknoll missionaries who worked with these people during these terrible times what it really means when the Church says that she has a “preferential option for the poor”, as they risked their lives to serve the needs and defend the rights of people who had very little resources to defend themselves. Finally, I discovered in myself an experience not unlike that which the people experienced in our first reading in today’s Mass.
There, the priest Ezra presents the newly recovered scroll of the Law of Moses, which had been lost to whole generations of Israelites as they were in exile in Babylon. Now, back in Jerusalem and tasked with rebuilding the city and, specifically, the Temple, the Israelites need some inspiration. Thus, Ezra calls the people together to read to them from the Torah (probably the book of Deuteronomy). As he does, the people weep. Scholars say that they wept both for joy and sorrow. Joy, because this word of God is filled with wisdom: wisdom that they had never heard in their lives and which they are now happy to receive (wisdom being such an sought after gift to the peoples of those times). Sorrow, because they remembered the sins of their ancestors that caused them to be taken into exile and because they recognized the sins under which they, themselves, had been living.
As I went through this pilgrimage, I, too, experienced joy and sorrow. Joy, as the truth of the Gospel that “brings glad tidings to the poor” pierced my heart: wounding me with its beauty. Sorrow, as I recognized the sins of generations past that have assaulted that beauty (and continue to do so today) as well as my own sins of ignorance, indifference, and inaction. As we heard story after story of injustices perpetrated against the poor my sadness grew. Then, I had a realization: I realized that there would be no happy ending to this pilgrimage. In other words, there would be no end to this story in which all of these negative scenes would be wrapped up into some positive conclusion, and this increased my sorrow.
Early this past week, however, I found words of consolation: words that helped me to see that there can be a “happy ending”. In the Office of Readings for the feast of Saint Vincent, Deacon and Martyr, these words of Saint Augustine were provided for reflection: “Against Christ’s army the world arrays a twofold battleline. It offers temptation to lead us astray; it strikes terror into us to break our spirit. Hence if our personal pleasures do not hold us captive, and if we are not frightened by brutality, then the world is overcome.” I think that Saint Augustine nailed it right on the head: What holds me back from acting on behalf of the poor except my fear of becoming poor myself or of what others might do to me if I do? Thus, if I can overcome my captivity to personal pleasures (and, thus, risk becoming poor) and if I can overcome my fear of reprisals (verbal and/or physical), then I can act with full freedom and release the full power of the Gospel and, thus, do something to bring about the “happy ending” for which I am looking.
Looking at today’s Gospel reading, we see that this is precisely the example that our Lord Jesus has given to us. There, he comes into the synagogue at Nazareth and solemnly declares that he is the one to fulfill the prophesies of Isaiah of the one who would come to liberate God’s people and inaugurate the kingdom of God. In doing so, he turned his back on personal pleasures and turned his life towards that of being a poor, itinerant preacher; and he overcame every fear of reprisal: reprisals that, ultimately, would lead to his death.
His death (an unjust death, by the way, driven by the fear of the religious elite) led to his resurrection and the chance for every person to find reconciliation with God and eternal life with him. Our work, as Christians—that is, followers of Christ—is to continue Christ’s work of proclaiming this Good News by helping people break free from their captivity to their personal pleasures and to overcome their fear of the brutality that the world can inflict upon them; and, thus, work to bring forth God’s kingdom: a kingdom in which the poor hear glad tidings, liberty is proclaimed to captives, sight is restored to the blind, and the oppressed are set free. Friends, if this is not our aim in life, then we are shirking the responsibilities given to us.
Saint Paul, in our second reading, makes this point even more clear. There he says that, as members of Christ’s Body, we are all one; and that no member of the body, regardless of how important it may seem, is any more important than any other. In fact, he says, those members of the body that seem to be least important are “all the more necessary” and are “surrounded with greater honor”. Thus, the question comes to us: Do the poor have an honored place among us? Or do we keep them at “arm’s length" so as not to make us too uncomfortable? Do we allow them to show us what a just kingdom might look like? Or do we condescend and try to instruct them, instead?
Friends, there are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, all over the world, right here in Lafayette, and, probably, right here in our church, who are suffering right now. Are we suffering with them? Some of us, yes. Many of us, however, no. Probably most of us, not enough. And so, if these words cut to your heart, good. Be sober about this reality and examine your conscience. Ask God to show you the ways that you might better work to bring forth God’s kingdom of justice and to grow in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in our society. Then risk becoming poor yourself and the reprisals of those who benefit from keeping the poor in their poverty by working to realize the ideals of justice and solidarity with which God has inspired you. In this way you will truly suffer with the members who are suffering and be honored with those members who are honored.
Yes, friends, be sober about this reality, but try not to be sad: because the victory over sin and injustice has already been won in Jesus. Rejoice, therefore, for in Christ we have overcome the world; and justice for every person—from conception to natural death, each created in the supreme dignity of the image of God—can be realized when we allow God’s Spirit to work in and through us. Yes, rejoice and give thanks today for Christ’s victory; and then choose to make the fruits of Christ’s victory—that is, the fullness of God’s kingdom—present among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 26th & 27th, 2019