Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of Lenten sermons on divine questions in Sacred Scripture, preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on March 27, 2018.
Modernity is characterized by an aimlessness which was institutionalized in the philosophy of Existentialism with its assessment of life as “absurd.” Its devotees constantly asked, “Can anything change or improve? Is there anyone who can do it?” Those philosophers of the absurd called their disciples to “engagement,” but for what purpose, except to be like Sisyphus of old, pushing that boulder up the mountain, only to have it roll back down on top of him? Hence, their abiding, profound spirit of hopelessness and despair. Producing tragedies in the fifth century before Christ, the Greek playwright Euripides saw this clearly: “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad!” Indeed, insanity and tragedy surround us.
The God of the Bible, however, never allows us to succumb to despair. And so, the final sermon in our Lenten series takes inspiration from three divine questions. The first two are voiced by prophets of the First Covenant, Isaiah and Ezekiel in their role as spokesmen for God. The third question comes from the lips of the Eternal Word Himself.
In a situation every bit as trying as our own, we hear Almighty God ask Ezekiel: “Son of Man, can these bones live?” (Ez 37:3). The same God asks Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Is 6:8). Those same questions are directed to us today, living in a world divorced from a transcendent horizon and in a Church seemingly returning to the chaos and confusion we thought Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had put to flight.
Let’s take a look at these prophets.
Ezekiel exercises his ministry in exile with his people in the sixth century before Christ but, interestingly, he is also a prophet of restoration and hope. In chapter 37, he is confronted with a vision of a field of dry, dead bones and commanded to prophesy over them, so as to bring them back to life. Isn’t that the situation in which we find ourselves in the secularized West? Unfortunately, like the Chosen People of old, most of our contemporaries don’t realize that they are dead and that the culture is moribund. It is our task to demonstrate to them just how lifeless the whole culture is. Were it otherwise, how would one explain the vast array of children with learning disabilities of every kind; the couches of psychiatrists constantly filled; the suicide rate (especially among the young) the highest in our history; 40% of children now born out of wedlock, with the distressing statistical forecast for them staring us in the face? Too often, we Catholics have been intimidated into silence in the face of what is in reality an “anti-culture,” lest we appear “out of it” or “uncool.”
Back in the silly – and stupid – Sixties, we were told that if we could shake off the shackles of religion and morality, we would experience true and complete happiness. Religion, we heard, was an albatross, an inhibition, an obstacle to human fulfillment. Well, the shackles were certainly removed, and the result has been a disaster. With the depressing signs all around us, we are in an ideal position to be societal educators, in the root Latin sense of the word, “educere,” to lead out – leading the open and the willing out of the misery and shackles of a godless modernity. We must convince them – being convinced first of all ourselves – of the truth put forth so powerfully by Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily, which in turn was harking back to the inaugural homily of Pope John Paul II:
At this point, my mind goes back to Oct. 22, 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society.
The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
The dry bones of the vision (immortalized in the Negro spiritual!) came to life when Ezekiel spoke God’s Word over them, causing them to rise from their graves and experience new life, true life. The limping, desiccated culture of most of the West can be revived because God never despairs of us, even when we might despair of ourselves or even despair of Him. Which leads us on to Isaiah’s vision.
That prophet of the eighth century before Christ is quite a realist: He sees himself as a “man of unclean lips,” living among a “people of unclean lips.” God supplies for his weaknesses and inadequacies by means of the cleansing coal taken from the brazier on the altar (which inspired the priest’s prayer before proclaiming the Gospel in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass). What is the context for the call of Isaiah and his response?
Chapter 6 brings us into the Temple as eyewitnesses to Isaiah’s call, amid clouds of incense and the Seraphim chanting, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” (Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus). Perceiving, even dimly, the holiness and majesty of God in so glorious a liturgical setting, Isaiah gained strength to respond affirmatively and enthusiastically to his vocation. What comes from the holy makes holy, provided the unholy wishes to be made holy (and not merely seem to be holy). Good liturgy – God-centered worship – sends its participants forth on mission. It is no accident that the dismissal of the Roman Rite starkly commands: “Ite, missa est” (literally, “Go, it has been sent”). What has been sent? Ecclesia – the Church, that is, you and I. That commission is the basis of all apostolic activity by every member of the Church – the commission first received in Baptism in the lovely Rite of Ephphetha, as the sacred minister touches the ears and lips of the newly baptized, saying: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his Word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” That commission is strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation and nourished in every worthy reception of Holy Communion.
In other words, every baptized believer is – or should be – an evangelist. How is that vocation to be lived out? First of all, through a life of prayer and worship, asking Our Lord – as He told us – to “pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest” (Lk 10:2). As Catholics, we have always interpreted that to mean praying in particular for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, which is absolutely correct and most necessary. I would suggest it also means being open to such a call oneself and seeing oneself as a conduit for such a call for others, especially one’s own children. As an aside, I am frequently scandalized by supposedly devout Catholic parents who so often bemoan the lack of clergy and religious but who actively oppose a positive response from their own sons and daughters.
Calling for prayer is not just a sop, a pious platitude or a throw-away line. Prayer is something every member of the Mystical Body of Christ can and should do. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, with full confidence: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” Only secularists think otherwise.
That prayer for workers in the vineyard, however, should encompass the entire People of God. “Catholic Action” was the byword in the first half of the twentieth century; that concept was developed even more deeply in Vatican II’s decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, which is a clarion call for the lay faithful to leave no stone unturned in the work of bringing souls to Christ. The focus of the lay apostolate, according to the Council Fathers, is not ad intra (within the confines of the Church) but ad extra (in the secular city), evangelizing society and culture wherever one’s life work places a believer: the world of commerce, education, the arts, politics, the family. Unfortunately, that message of the Council has been roundly ignored, so that all too many Catholics prefer to convince themselves that they are living out their baptismal commitment by distributing Holy Communion, rather than by witnessing to the truth of the Gospel in society-at-large. Believe it or not, we don’t need a single additional extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (the Church did quite well without them for centuries); we do need fearless witnesses. Here Pope Paul VI comes crashing in with a mammoth challenge, found in Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (n. 41).
When was the last time you shared your faith with another, with a view to bringing someone into or back to the Catholic Church, which alone has the fullness of truth and life? Kindly, sincere and loving invitations are not proselytism; it’s called “evangelization.” Convert work before Vatican II was an almost exclusively lay apostolate; my own father was probably responsible for at least a dozen converts. Furthermore, all of the “hot-button” issues would be handled both by proactive involvement and intelligent, convincing argumentation. When was the last time you represented the teaching of Christ’s Church in the public forum: at work, socially, within your own family? Or, what did you say in response when the Church’s teachings were attacked in one of those environments? Remember: Silence gives consent.
So, what cows us into silence or inaction? I would submit that it is nothing short of an inability to respond honestly, forthrightly and enthusiastically to the final divine question of our series. The Risen Christ poses a pointed question to the weak and sinful Simon Peter: Do you love me? (Jn 21:16). To appreciate the conversation between the Risen One and Peter, we need a bit of a language lesson. In the Greek, Our Lord asks the one on whom He had willed to build His Church, “Agapas me?”. Peter replies, “Philo se.” You see, there are different words in Greek for love. Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves Him “sacrificially,” that is, unto death (agape); Peter replies that he loves the Lord with the love of friendship (philia). Christ asks the question a second time and gets the same response. Jesus’ third query is more measured as He accepts Peter’s terminology, asking “Phileis me?” (“Do you love me as a friend?”), to which Peter responds affirmatively, thus undoing his triple denial of Holy Thursday night. What are we to make of this exchange? Christ always set the bar very high, but He is willing to accept the best we think we can offer at any given moment. As we know, Peter’s love of Jesus as a friend did eventually lead him to render his Lord sacrificial love unto death. And Jesus can do the same with us and for us.
If we offer Our Lord even our carefully framed, timid love, He can take that offer and transform it by the power of His grace into a love which is obedient and evangelistic, causing us to echo Isaiah: “Send me!”
So much of the holy season of Lent is focused on Baptism, where our love affair with the Triune God had its beginning. The baptismal font, however, leads inexorably to the altar and the Holy Eucharist, where the “agape” of Christ challenges us to return love with love.
The Lover of Mankind gives us a couple of acid tests for such love: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15); those who don’t keep the Ten Commandments cannot be counted among the lovers of God, nor can clergy who tell people that keeping the commandments is too burdensome because God loves us, anyway.
The second acid test is: “Love one another even as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). Yes, the mission conveyed in Baptism finds it consummation in the sacrificial love received in the Holy Eucharist and then shared with all in faithful response to our holy calling. Christ wants to associate us with His work: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (Jn 14:12). This realization had St. Teresa of Avila conclude:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
On these Lenten Tuesdays, by my count, we have pondered eighteen divine questions. I hope I have prompted you to give eighteen responses, or at least nudged you to consider giving such responses. Moving into the Paschal Triduum, perhaps all the questions we have reflected on can be summed up by two other questions of the Lord Jesus: “What is it you want?” (Mt 20:21) and “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mt 20:32). A devout and wholehearted participation in the Church’s moving rites recalling our redemption should enable us to answer those two questions as well – answers to be heard, if we listen carefully, in the Cenacle of the Last Supper, from the Throne of the Cross, and at the Empty Tomb .
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