Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Bonaventure
July 15, 2016
Is 38:1-8.21-22, Is 38, Mt 12:1-8
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
- In this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, it’s key for us to ponder God’s great desire for mercy. After Jesus called St. Matthew to conversion and the tax collector threw a party for all of his fellow sinners to encounter Jesus, the Pharisees complained that Jesus was associating with sinners. Jesus replied that he came to call sinners, not the self-righteous, and that it is the sick who need a doctor not those who think they’re fine. Then he said, referring to Hosea, “Go and learn the meaning of the phrase, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.” Today Jesus repeats the same phrase in the Gospel in another context, which shows just how important this is for him. Everything God does in his relationship with us can be summarized as an expression of his merciful love, and he so wants to transform us that we can become merciful like he is merciful, the theme of this Jubilee.
- The setting in the Gospel takes place because the Scribes and Pharisees had lost the center for the peripheries, the one thing necessary for so many other things. Historically what occurred is that after the Babylonian Captivity the Jews realized — accurately — that the reason for their exile was because they had been unfaithful to God’s law, and in an excess of precaution began to become so obsessed about the little details of the law that they missed the forest for the trees, they missed the Legislator because of the legislation. The class of scribes, the scholars of the law, arose in order to study every word, and then, in order to prevent Jews from violating it, began, as many scholars like to analogize, draw fences around the law so that they wouldn’t possibly violate it. With regard to the Sabbath, if the point of the Sabbath was to keep it holy, to keep it as a day of freedom apart from enslaving work, then they would make all types of regulations so that they wouldn’t get anywhere close to violating it. So they determined in minutiae what would be the minimalist form of work and invented rules that many Jews began to take as seriously as the commandments. For example, they said that on the Sabbath you couldn’t lift anything that would weigh more than two dry figs, they described how far you could walk, they said that you couldn’t prepare food, and so on. They had missed the point totally. Rather than a gift of God giving us a chance to set the reset button in our relationship with him and others, rather than a day of love and freedom, it became a day of a more intense form of slavery. That’s one of the most important things that Jesus came to fix.
- In today’s Gospel, we begin the Twelfth Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel which is all going to be about how Jesus’ bringing the Sabbath back to its original meaning would get people to begin plotting to kill him. His critics will go from observing and confronting him in today’s Gospel, to observing whether he’d heal — do an act of love — to outright plotting to kill him to persecution. Today Jesus is walking through the fields of grain with the disciples on the Sabbath. They were hungry because they really hadn’t eaten anything. So they plucked the heads of grain and began to eat what it. In doing so, it’s important to state, they weren’t stealing because Deuteronomy explicitly gave those who were traveling the right to do this. But in order to eat the grain, they needed to pluck it, winnow and thresh it in their hands, and then eat it, and it was this type of minimal work in order to eat that the Scribes and Pharisees said was contrary to God’s will, as if God were glorified by his sons’ starving on the Lord’s day. Jesus defended his disciples, and showed their erroneous interpretation, by two references to Sacred Scripture. The first was what David did with his troops as they were serving the Lord and had nothing to eat. They entered the temple area and ate the showbread — the bread that was symbolically placed in the Temple before the Lord for a week until it was replaced and the priests would eat it. Jesus was saying that there was a higher principle involved and that there was no sin in David because what was eaten was to strengthen them to do the Lord’s work. Likewise he pointed out to the work that the Temple priests do on the Sabbath, lighting candles, burning incense, dealing with sacrificed animals, and it’s clear that they were not violating the Sabbath by doing this work that was part of their praise and homage to God. Jesus was emphasizing that he and his disciples were glorifying God by doing what they were doing, not sinning against. Jesus had just finished calling those who were burdened to come to him to be refreshed and he was giving that refreshment, something that the Sabbath was intended to do, to remake us according to God’s image in love. Jesus stressed that the entirety of the law, that the practice of the faith, was meant to be transformative, to change us to become more and more like the Lord. That’s the whole point of the Sabbath. And the point of the law, as God would tell us most clearly through Hosea above all, was mercy. Mercy is so much more valuable than the sacrifice of animals, because God is merciful and wants us, in receiving his mercy, to share it. Jesus was stressing that his critics had no mercy whatsoever toward the “innocent men” who had become his followers.
- This is an important principle for all of us. The initial training God gives us in faith is meant to become so much a part of us that we can pass with God to the essence of everything for which he gave us those foundations. Altar boys are trained in the minutiae of what they’re supposed to do not so that at the end they’re obsessing about cruets, or incense, or how they’re folding their hands, but so that they can pray what they’re doing and inspire others by their prayerful discipline. All of us are trained in what to do during Mass, from taking holy water and blessing us to genuflecting, blessing ourselves before the Gospel, kneeling, standing, processing, and so forth not so that we can stay at the level of those gestures, but really love God and others through them. There is an issue that many times we, like the ancient Scribes and Pharisees, can remain at the level of rubrics rather than pass from the sign to the signified. We can see someone fail to genuflect and wonder what’s wrong with the person rather than be glad the person has come into the presence of the Lord and might even not be a Catholic and doesn’t know what to do in Church. I remember once when I had started to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in New Bedford that I was visited by a woman after Mass so concerned that the “novus ordo” Catholics in attendance were standing at the beginning of the Alleluia rather than at the “Dominus vobiscum” after the Alleluia. She was more concerned about that than the very meaning of the Gospel. For those of us in the priesthood or the religious life, we can sometimes become so narrowly focused on smaller aspects of the rule and customs, and upset at someone not taking care, for example of the way to fold napkins, then we can really identify lovingly with the person using the napkin. Postulancy and the novitiate are times in which we’re trained in lots of particular things but they’re meant to pass into a life in which, with good ingrained habits, we’re able to live fully according to the way the charism incarnates the greatest commandment and the one like it (love of God and neighbor with all we are and have). The whole point of divine pedagogy is to help the disciple become like the Teacher, the slave like the Master, the son or daughter like the Father. The little things are important in terms of our training, but they are meant to be ingredients in a much bigger offering to the Lord, means rather than ends in themselves.
- We see the Lord’s will of mercy very clearly displayed in today’s first reading. King Hezekiah was mortally ill and Isaiah came to him, saying on behalf of the Lord, “Put your house in order, for you are about to die; you shall not recover.” Hezekiah had been, overall, a good and faithful descendant of David who made mistakes. He wasn’t trusting in the Lord with regard to the threat of the Assyrians. But he turned to the Lord and prayed and wept and lamented how he had faithfully and wholeheartedly served the Lord once. God then showed his mercy to Hezekiah by sending Isaiah to him again and healing him, a sign in Hezekiah’s body that the Lord was forgiving him. Each of us, like Hezekiah, is called not only to put our house into order, but to keep the house in order, not taking for granted the Lord’s mercy, but availing ourselves of it in such a way that we are as transformed as Hezekiah was.
- Today the Church celebrates a saint who was transformed in this way. When St. Bonaventure was a young man, he didn’t focus on the Lord’s mercy but rather on his own sins and sinfulness. Even though later spiritual directors wondered whether he had ever committed a mortal sin, all he could see were his moral defects, failures and poor choices for which he was constantly doing penance and mortification. But eventually he was cured of this form of scrupulosity through learning to trust fully in the Lord’s mercy, and he spent the rest of his life trying to help others similarly to approach the Lord’s mercy. We have in the Office of Readings this morning a powerful passage from his most famous spiritual work, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, “The Journey of the Soul into [the very life of] God.” He focuses us on the Passover that is meant to happen when we behold Christ on the Cross, where he prayed for mercy because we didn’t know what we were doing, and died to give us that mercy. If we’re going to desire what God desires, if we’re going to seek the mercy he wants so much more than sacrifice, we need to do it through our will. He says we need to seek this union “in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; the Bridegroom not the Teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love.” In the world we often place our trust in what we can do, in what we’ve learned, in what we’ve understood, in our own study, in light rather than the unknowing darkness, but St. Bonaventure lays out for us the path of true faith, the path for the discovery of God’s mercy, and the transformation of his desire for mercy into our life. He goes on to say that for us truly to enter into Go’s mercy we must die to the old Adam in us through entering into Jesus’ Paschal Mystery: “Let us die, then,” he continues, “and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: ‘It is enough.’ We may hear with Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for you’; and we can rejoice with David, saying: ‘My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage forever.’” In the opening prayer of today’s Mass, we asked God that on this celebration of St. Bonaventure’s heavenly birthday, “we may benefit from his great learning and constantly imitate” the way he loved God, the way he lived by faith, the way he bore fruit that continues to nourish the entire Church. One of the greatest ways God wants to answer that prayer is by strengthening us to follow St. Bonaventure on this itinerary into the very life and burning mercy of God.
- St. Bonaventure regularly made that journey into the very merciful heart of God in all his prayer but the foremost way that he did so was at Mass. It was at Mass and adoring Jesus outside of Mass that received the Son’s definitive mysterious revelation of the Father’s burning merciful love. He wrote a prayer, his famous Transfige, which the Church continues to pray after Mass to the Lord we have received within. I’d like to finish with that prayer, in the hope that you might take it up as something you will pray in thanksgiving after Mass and come through St. Bonaventure’s prayer to enter into a similar relationship of merciful receptivity: “Pierce, O most sweet Lord Jesus, my inmost soul with the most joyous and healthful wound of your love and with true, calm and most holy apostolic charity,” the Seraphic doctor wrote, “that my soul may ever languish and melt with entire love and longing for you, may yearn for you and for your courts, may long to be dissolved and to be with you. Grant that my soul may hunger after you, the Bread of Angels, the refreshment of holy souls, our daily and supersubstantial bread, having all sweetness and savor and every delightful taste. May my heart ever hunger after and feed upon you, Whom the angels desire to look upon, and may my inmost soul be filled with the sweetness of your savor; may it ever thirst for you, the fountain of life, the fountain of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of eternal light, the torrent of pleasure, the fulness of the house of God; may it ever compass you, seek you, find you, run to you, come up to you, meditate on you, speak of you, and do all for the praise and glory of your name, with humility and discretion, with love and delight, with ease and affection, with perseverence to the end; and be yours alone ever my hope, my entire confidence, my riches, my delight, my pleasure, my joy, my rest and tranquility, my peace, my sweetness, my food, my refreshment, my refuge, my help, my wisdom, my portion, my possession, my treasure; in Whom may my mind and my heart be ever fixed and firm and rooted immovably. Amen.”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 38:1-6, 21-22, 7-8
the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, came and said to him:
“Thus says the LORD: Put your house in order,
for you are about to die; you shall not recover.”
Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD:“O LORD, remember how faithfully and wholeheartedly
I conducted myself in your presence,
doing what was pleasing to you!”
And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go, tell Hezekiah:
Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David:
I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.
I will heal you: in three days you shall go up to the LORD’s temple;
I will add fifteen years to your life.
I will rescue you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria;
I will be a shield to this city.”
Isaiah then ordered a poultice of figs to be taken
and applied to the boil, that he might recover.
Then Hezekiah asked,
“What is the sign that I shall go up to the temple of the LORD?”
“This will be the sign for you from the LORD
that he will do what he has promised:
See, I will make the shadow cast by the sun
on the stairway to the terrace of Ahaz
go back the ten steps it has advanced.”
So the sun came back the ten steps it had advanced.
Responsorial Psalm IS 38:10, 11, 12ABCD, 16
Once I said,
“In the noontime of life I must depart!
To the gates of the nether world I shall be consigned
for the rest of my years.”
R. You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
I said, “I shall see the LORD no more
in the land of the living.
No longer shall I behold my fellow men
among those who dwell in the world.”
R. You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
You have folded up my life, like a weaver
who severs the last thread.
R. You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
Those live whom the LORD protects;
yours is the life of my spirit.
You have given me health and life.
R. You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
Alleluia JN 10:27
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
My sheep hear my voice, says the Lord;
I know them, and they follow me.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MT 12:1-8
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
“See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to the them, “Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”