Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Cecilia, Martyr
November 22, 2016
Rev 14:14-19, Ps 96, Lk 21:5-11
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Throughout the month of November, but especially in this last week of the liturgical year, the Church has us ponder the four last things. Today the Church puts before us lessons on the first two last things, death and judgment. The lesson is for us to prepare well for it, to prepare correctly, to prepare as true Christians.
- Many of us, perhaps even most of us, when we think about death and judgment we can be filled with fear, anxiety, even dread. On the surface today’s readings might buttress those trepidations. In the first reading, the Book of Revelation describes the time of judgment as two angels and someone looking like a son of man coming out with sharp sickles in their hand to reap the harvest of judgment, being instructed to use that sickle to “cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe” and then throwing them into the “great wine press of God’s fury.” In the Gospel, Jesus describes how all the stones and votive offerings in the resplendent Temple of Jerusalem will be thrown down, how there will be impostors coming and saying deceptively “I am he” and the “time has come!,” how there will be wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues and “awesome sights and mighty signs” from the sky. All of this can make us think that death and judgment will be straight out of a Stephen King horror movie in which we’re not playing victims but have become them.
- But fear is not supposed to be our reaction. Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “Do not be deceived,” “Do not follow them!,” and “Do not be terrified.” He’s describing these events precisely so that we can be at peace while they occur. We see it in St. Matthew’s parallel version of today’s Gospel. After he describes what will happen at the end of time he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” He wants us to build our lives on his word as the foundation of rock that will keep us secure even when the earthquakes, wars, insurrections, famines and plagues happen. Everything else is like building on sand (Mt 7). The proper reaction is likewise summarized by the Responsorial Psalm, in which we prayed four times, “The Lord comes to judge the earth!,” and we added, “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them! Then shall all the trees of the forest exult before the Lord, for he comes; for he comes to rule the earth. He shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy.” We’re to focus more on the Lord than we do on these events and we’re supposed to focus on him both now and in anticipation of that moment. As long as we’re not being deceived by impostors but living by the Lord’s truth, as long as we’re not following the pretenders but following the Good Shepherd, as long as we’re not focusing on terrors but recognizing that the Lord seeks to tell us, “Do not be afraid, it is I!,” then there’s absolutely no reason to fear death and judgment. In fact, we should look forward to them. It’s only when we’re not really living as the Lord wants in the present that we begin to become afraid.
- With regard to our attitude toward the Lord’s coming, I love to tell a story from my childhood. My father would leave for work at 4 am to commute to Portsmouth, NH, and would come back each day, almost like clockwork, between 4:10 and 4:15 pm. We would all be excited once it got to 4 pm. At about 4:10, we’d hear the brakes squealing on our own Ford Van as it came to a stop and then hear my father shut the heavy steel door. All four of us kids and our black labrador retriever Toby would run to the back door all hoping to be the first person to jump up into my dad’s strong arms and give him a hug, a kiss and a hearty, “Welcome home, Dad!” That was most days. There were several occasions, however, in which we had done something in which my mother said sternly, “I’m going to tell your father what you did when he comes home!” On those days, when it came to be 4 pm, we started sweating even in the dead of winter. When the brakes squealed and the van door slammed, rather than running to greet my father, we would try to find the biggest pile of dirty clothes, or the darkest closet, in order to hide from him! I think this is an appropriate image to describe how we prepare for the Lord’s coming. When we’re living in a way that would make him proud, when we’re living as he would expect, when we’re living with love for him and for others, we can’t wait for him to return. It’s only when we’re behaving in a way we know he wouldn’t approve of, when we’re being naughty, that we dread his return.
- And so the real lesson of today’s readings is for us to live today how we would want to be found by the Lord if today were the day of the Lord. It’s to live without fear, following him in truth, walking by faith, loving him and others as he taught us. In the image from the Book of Revelation, it means living in such a way that we’re becoming ripe, that our grapes are maturing with Jesus’ own juice poured out in love for God and others leaving nothing back, which happens naturally when we’re living as branches attached to Him the Vine (Jn 15). If we’re living as wild grapes producing sour wine, that will be obvious to everyone, to God and to us in the judgment of the great wine press Revelation envisions; if, on the other hand, we’re living as we ought, as branches on the vine, we know that the wine we produce will be greater than anything produced by the best vineyards at vintage time.
- The ones who show us how to live this way are the saints. Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Cecilia. She was a young girl of a noble Christian family who fasted, wore a hair shirt, and desired to give herself always as a virgin to God, but her father had plans for a good marriage to a young pagan patrician named Valerian. During their wedding, among the music and rejoicing of the guests, Cecilia stayed apart, singing to God within and praying for help. When she and Valerian retired to the place where he was prepared to consummate the marriage, Cecilia told him a secret that she has an angel watching over her and that if he touched her in the way of marriage, the angel would make his suffer, but if he respected her and got baptized, he would see the angel. Valerian received instruction, god baptized by Pope Urban, and then saw the angel standing by Cecilia’s side who put on both of their heads a crown of roses and lilies, a sign (like we’d see much later in the life of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe) of martyrdom and purity, respectively. The fact that Valerian could see Cecilia’s angel shows that we’re never abandoned, that our serving as a lamp stand and an olive tree is multiplied, as we see in Revelation, by the presence of the Angel God sends each of us. Valerian eventually helped his brother Tiburtius to convert and the two of them began to care for the bodies of all the martyrs seeking to bury them. That exposed them as Christians and both were brought to martyrdom with the guard, Maximus, who witnessed their supreme testimony and became a Christian on the spot and almost immediately a fellow martyr. Cecilia buried all three bodies and herself was exposed as a Christian and brought to trial before Almachius. She was unable to be threatened out of her faith and after they tried to suffocate her by fire, ended up trying to behead her, but the axe wouldn’t penetrate through her entire neck. The blow, however, turned out to be fatal after three days and she was buried close to the popes in the catacombs that would eventually be named after St. Callistus. Her relics were translated by Pope St. Paschal in the early 800s to the area that was believed to have been her house and where a Church had been built after the age of persecutions. In 1599, the Cardinal in charge of the Church of St. Cecilia (Cardinal Sfondrati), in doing various renovations, decided to re-inter Cecilia with SS. Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus, and as he opened her tomb, he found her incorrupt. He had the great renaissance sculptor Stefano Maderno make a sculpture identical to what was seen in the tomb. That statue is now found before her tomb as well as a copy has been placed in the catacombs closed to where her bodied had rested for over five centuries. He remains looked as if she were sleeping. You could see the axe marks in her neck. But what has always struck me — and many others — is the way she was prophesying even in death. In her right hand, she had two fingers and her thumb extended. In her left, she had her index finger extended. This was a means by which she was proclaiming her faith in her Triune God, one God in three persons. This was the supreme witness she was giving that not even Roman executioners could cut her off from her attachment to the Vine, because she was united with him even in martyrdom. She poured out her blood as a libation together with Christ’s, spending herself totally in love while she was alive, in such a way that the effusion of blood at her death was just an exclamation point on the way she lived.
- That’s what the Lord would like to see from us as well. Each day at Mass, Jesus gives us his body and blood and attaches us ever deeply as branches to Him who is the Vine, so that his very sap, his lifeblood, flows through us, making it capable for us to spend ourselves without reserve for God and others united to Christ who gave everything he had down to the last drop of his blood. Jesus described elsewhere in the Gospels that the judgment will be like a harvest that will take place “when the grain is ripe and at once he goes in with his sickle” and how the wheat will be separated from the chaff (Mk 4:29; 13:24-30, 37-43). He wants us to be every ready for that judgment so that when the harvest comes we might bear fruit that comes from our union with him. Today at this Eucharist he reminds us, as he did his first followers during the Last Supper, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. … I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit. … Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” It’s through the Eucharist more than any other means that we abide in Christ and he in us. It’s our union with him here that gives us the faith and constancy we need to spend ourselves fully, not to be afraid, but to follow him in a life of bearing fruit. He promises us that if we remain in him and the words he has given remain in us, then we can ask the Father anything and it will be done. Today we ask the Father through Christ the Vine to give us the grace, like St. Cecilia, to remain faithful and fruitful in life and faithful and fruitful in death so that we might have the joy of sharing her eternal price in that place with the angels will lift their sickles in triumph. And so let us offer him the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands and ask him not just to transform this matter into himself but through it make us ever more fruitful branches.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 rv 14:14-19
and sitting on the cloud one who looked like a son of man,
with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.
Another angel came out of the temple,
crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud,
“Use your sickle and reap the harvest,
for the time to reap has come,
because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.”
So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth,
and the earth was harvested.
who also had a sharp sickle.
Then another angel came from the altar, who was in charge of the fire,
and cried out in a loud voice
to the one who had the sharp sickle,
“Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines,
for its grapes are ripe.”
So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage.
He threw it into the great wine press of God’s fury.
Responsorial Psalm ps 96:10, 11-12, 13
Say among the nations: The LORD is king.
He has made the world firm, not to be moved;
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. The Lord comes to judge the earth.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R. The Lord comes to judge the earth.
Before the LORD, for he comes;
for he comes to rule the earth.
He shall rule the world with justice
and the peoples with his constancy.
R. The Lord comes to judge the earth.
Gospel lk 21:5-11
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”