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Homily of Bishop Steven J Raica - September 2, 2018
My brothers and sisters in Christ:
This weekend, we return to our journey in Mark’s Gospel and pick up where we left off with a very pointed lesson from our Lord. Underneath the surface and behind the façade of our coming to Church, what precisely is our motivation? Why are we here week after week?
We can easily notice the external acts and rituals. This can be a cause of criticism of any person who says they are a Catholic. We guard against equating religion with performing merely external acts and rituals as though there is something superstitious or magical. Religion is something more than going to church, saying prayers, abstaining from meat on Fridays, following the commandments. These things do not guarantee eternal life.
What counts is not what we do – but the love in our hearts that motivates us to do what we do.
In that sense – there is something that comes before, to see what it is we are doing and the reason why. The awakening that happens is one that opens us to what is truly before us.
Our readings point the way and light the path for our understanding of this great gift.
A key word in the first reading from Deuteronomy is the word “Hear”. “Hear” in the sense of open your hearts and minds to the Lord’s teaching “that you may live.” Our humanity cries out for life and wants to live – and that observing these teachings indicates a certain wisdom and intelligence.
In other words, we cannot attribute to ourselves or our human genius that which belongs to God. Some today want to build a world in which only human genius is acknowledged. Acknowledging the role and place of God is something that does not take away anything from our humanity but enlarges it. I think of a compelling image that I saw in visiting St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York a few years ago … just outside the Cathedral across Fifth Avenue are the soaring towers of Rockefeller Center, a tribute to human genius and effort. In the plaza across St Patrick’s visitors are greeting by an enormous statue of Atlas, the Greek god of endurance. He is crouched over revealing all of his muscles as he supports the weight of planet earth with all of his strength. Then inside St Patrick’s back near Our Lady’s chapel is a statue of Mary holding the child Jesus, her Son … and there the child Jesus has the globe of the earth in one hand supporting it effortlessly. It is as if to say: He has the whole world in His hands!
The second reading speaks of the welcome that is necessary for the word that has been planted in each one of us to save our souls. It is a word that is dynamic – “Be doers of the word and not hearers only …” The works of charity that we do because of Christ will give witness to the fact that the Word is within us.
The Gospel illustrates the challenge that Jesus faced when he noticed that more attention was given to external rituals and practices rather than the very heart and soul of why we do what we do. Like a veneer, it looks nice but in reality it is shallow and lacking in depth and value.
We find ourselves today here at this Eucharist – here as Catholics – and one of our great challenges is to keep asking ourselves – why do we do what we do? What is at the very heart of why I am here today? Admittedly, there sure is a lot pulling at us Catholic Christians these days. We didn’t go looking for it! We ask ourselves, and I am among you, that given all we hear and read about on an almost daily basis about the misdeeds and failures of clergy at every level, and I sometimes ask myself – what am I doing here? I want to run away! Every emotion imaginable comes out. Then, I hear the Lord in my prayer saying – to whom do you belong? It was the answer Peter gave last week – “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words that give life!” Where am I going to find the support that sustains me as a Christian in my daily walk to live a life that is full and complete? There are landmines, distractions, anguish and despair over those whose lives are less than exemplary and whose sin defiles the Body of Christ. It is that which tries to pull me away and create doubts.
It is precisely at times like this historically where great and towering saints are raised up. It gives me a certainty that I long for. Yes, every saint has a past – and every sinner a future – drawn into that everlasting relationship with the Lord. While so many are screaming “Look at the evil – the bad things that your disciples do” – we say “Look at the good, the holy, the true and just things that disciples have done”, “Look at Christ”, “Look – here’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s where it all began at the beginning of John’s Gospel to Andrew and John, and they followed Christ in a way that would begin to be a place of hope in the time of despair, a place of love in the time of hate, a place of life when all seemed lost. To whom do I belong?
For me – as painful as this moment is, and I am joining in the call of prayer and abstaining, I remain with Christ. Because I have met Christ!
Oscar Wilde the writer, who reportedly lived a rather ambiguous life and became Catholic at the end, had this line that has touched me as I think of all that we must do going forward: “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”
So many broken hearts, denials and betrayals through history. The brokenness we have is the portal through which the light of Christ can shine and raise us up to a new hope. It just takes a crack, a wound for the light to come in. In that brokenness, we look for something to repair it. Everything we do humanly can help, but at the end of the day it will be insufficient. It takes something well beyond our power to bring about a new hope. Jesus said that some evil is only cast out through prayer and fasting. It will be when we encounter Christ again – meet the One who can lift us up and restore us and give us the strength – not to keep looking back at sin and grave errors, but forward in hope to the wonder of what Christ can do with our brokenness through His loving gaze.
So, for all the angst and anger at the betrayals of vocations and sleepless nights I have been having these days, this is a consolation for me that the Body of Christ – the Church – which has been the ongoing presence of Christ for over 2,000 years – and which continues to proclaim the victory of Jesus Christ over evil and sin – still provides the best chance for me to live in hope and become a saint.
What will it take? I remember helping out with a retreat for collegians some years ago downstate. I recall a coed who approached me and said, “Monsignor, I want to become a saint!” She wasn’t looking back at other’s misdeeds. She wasn’t caught up in the rhetoric for or against religion or church. She merely stated, without provocation, what was her heart’s desire. That just blew me away – because, up to that point, no one had ever said that to me. Most of us try to do what we think is good – or like we often do in class, we say: “what’s the least I can do to get by?” Walking down the path of holiness is a walk down the path in which I become truly myself – genuinely human as the Lord made me – and fulfilling the dream that God has for me. God doesn’t say, “What’s the least I can do for you?” He showed us the depth of his love. I am called to that as well.
What happens is that others meet a humanity that is something more and say, “I don’t know what it is – but you have something that I want”.
It is not merely the externals of what we do – but the very heart of who we are that begins to change me and those around me. If you want to change the course of history, human hearts have to be transformed.
When we hear the words of our readings summoning us to “Hear” God’s Word so that we may live; or be “doers” of the world and not “hearers” only – that somehow living our lives is in obedience to what we have experienced – or not do things without a reason – keeping our hearts closed to the very heart of Christ; I am prompted to ask myself – what is it I truly give my life for? What is it that I hold most dear?
Just before her death, St Joan of Arc wrote, “I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it and then it’s gone. But to surrender what you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying – even more terrible than dying young.”
To walk with you during these unsettling times and receiving your words and prayers of encouragement gives me great hope. In the end, Christ will be victorious, great saints will be raised up, the church of Christ will witness to all that is true and good and just. And the kingdom of God will take root as a beacon of hope to the world. He has the whole world – in his hands!