Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Solemnity of St. Patrick, Patron of the Archdiocese of New York
March 17, 2016
Gen 17:3-9, Ps 105, Jn 8:51-59
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- As Lent began, we were smudged with ashes as a priest said to us, in Jesus’ name and repeating Jesus’ words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The essential Lenten journey is all geared to helping us live by faith, by having us turn away from all of those ways of infidelity in which we have not lived in communion with God and helping us — through prayer, fasting, almsgiving — to unite ourselves to God: our thoughts (prayer), our deepest desires (hungering through fasting for what God most hungers) and interrelation with others (charity through union with God’s love and providence). On this last day of the “second phase” of Lent — a phase geared toward helping the Elect to prepare in faith for Baptism and the Baptized to prepare for the faithful renewal of their Baptismal promises not just verbally but existentially, the Church has us focus again on the whole meaning of faith. Faith, we know, is not fundamentally believing in a series of truths; faith, rather, is a believing in Someone who gives witness to those truths. To grow in faith means first to grow in trust for the One in whom we believe and then, as a result of that trust, to adhere much more to what he says.
- That’s why today we focus on Abraham, our father in faith. Abraham shows us what a genuine trust in God means: that we believe in what he says, even when he asks us to do something hard, even when he challenges us beyond what we know. Every Second Sunday of Lent, we encounter Abraham and his adventure of faith to help us with the coordinates of Lent and Christian life. Lent is meant to be a journey of faith by imitating the acts of faith we see in Abraham. Jesus calls us to leave our own Ur of the Chaldees, our own comfort zones, to travel to where he wants to lead us. He calls us to believe in all of his promises, even though they might seem impossible to believe, like Abraham’s not only becoming a dad but a father of many nations when he was childless past retirement age. He calls us to have the faith to be willing to sacrifice what we hold dearest, like Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, the “son of the promise,” knowing that God would be able to raise him from the dead and similarly can give life even to those sacrifices.
- When we don’t have that relationship of trust — a gift God will provide if we’re open — then we distrust what is said. We see that illustrated for us in today’s Gospel. Yesterday, Jesus spoke to those challenging him about their slavery to sin. They replied, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” Jesus retorted, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this.” To be a spiritual descendent of Abraham is to live by faith, to have our faith operative in deeds of love toward God and others. Rather than accepting Christ’s message in faith, however, the interlocutors were, in a way totally contrary to faith, plotting to kill the Messenger to extinguish his message. They thought that if Jesus were veering from their preconceived notions, then all his indisputable works couldn’t be coming from God but had to be coming from Beelzebul, the prince of demons. That’s what explains the beginning of today’s Gospel passage. When Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death,” they responded, “Now we are sure that you are possessed.” In other words, they were 99 percent convinced prior that we was possessed, but now they had no doubt. They listed various holy persons who kept the word of God and nevertheless died, Abraham and the prophets, and said that by this statement Jesus was making himself out to be greater than them, and his words more salvific than theirs. “Who do you make yourself out to be?,” they asked. The fact that he would be greater than Abraham and the prophets, that he would be the Son of God, they’d refused to accept. And because of that refusal, they were suspicious of everything else, as if Jesus were a blasphemous lunatic.
- When Jesus said, “Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad,” he was pointing to various aspects of the transformation that happens by faith, which he wanted to happen in them if only they opened up. We can understand this phrase of Jesus at least in three ways: Abraham saw Jesus’ resurrection with the birth of his son Isaac from two people whose reproductive systems were basically dead; Abraham saw Jesus in the multitude of nations of which Abraham would be a father, because he would become the father of all nations of the earth through his offspring, Jesus, who would establish God’s covenant with the entire human race; Abraham glimpsed him in the sacrifice of Isaac, when God the Father did in fact provide the Lamb, but also in foreseeing that God would raise his son from the dead.
- It’s important for all of us in faith to learn from Abraham how to trust in God, how to let him lead us, how to let God never cease to surprise us and move us beyond our finite categories. The Lord made a Covenant with Abraham and remembers his covenant for ever, as we prayed in the Responsorial Psalm. His fidelity is the ground of our own. And the covenant he made with us in his Son is even greater than the Covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants forever. And so it calls for an ever greater fidelity with God through grace. If God said to Abraham, “On your part, you and your descendants after you must keep my covenant throughout the ages,” so he says to us, “You and your spiritual family must keep my covenant forever!” And we know what the payoff is. Jesus swears an oath about it: ““Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”
- Today we celebrate a great saint of faith, someone who shows us how to trust in God and on that basis live on every word that comes from his mouth. Born in Britain, Patrick did not have much of a life of piety until he was captured by raiders at the age of 16 and sold into slavery in Ireland. Suffering and hardship often remind people of how much they need God. And it was a time of great growth in faith for him. Patrick said that during the six years he tended his master’s herds, he prayed constantly in the daytime and prayed almost as much at night, sometimes spending all night outdoors in prayerful vigil of the dawn. One night in a dream, he heard a voice telling him to be ready for a brave effort to secure his freedom. And he trusted in the dream, like Abraham trusted in God’s word and St. Joseph trusted in the Lord’s nocturnal revelations. In the morning, Patrick escaped and hustled 200 miles to a boat that he saw in the dream was about to depart. After adventures and hardship during which he was able to bring many of the ship’s crew to conversion, he arrived home. But after several days of joyous reunion with the family he loved very much, he began to be moved in prayer and in dreams to think of all those back in Ireland who had never known the Gospel. Against the wishes of his beloved family, he decided to use his newly found freedom to dedicate himself to returning to the land of his captors, to preach to them the truth that would set them free. That was a response of faith.
- He had no illusions about how difficult the task was that lay in front of him. He went to France to prepare for the priesthood so that he would be able to bring the greatest gift of all, the presence of the Lord in the sacraments, to his missionary land. In France, he prayed, fasted and readied himself for 20 years. Then, at the age of 43, having been consecrated bishop so that he could found churches and ordain priests, he set off with a few apostolic collaborators. Over the course of the next 30 years, he labored tenaciously for the conversion of the nation. As one of the great “Lenten” saints, he famously fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on what is now called Croagh Patrick in prayerful bodily supplication that those entrusted to him would receive the Gospel with faith. Village by village, chieftain by chieftain, he planted the seed of the Gospel. Though his life was in constant peril due to the hatred of the druids, he soldiered on, and through prayer, mortification, disputation, and miracles, his life of faith bore enormous fruit. Twelve years after his arrival, he was able to found the Church of Armagh, Ireland’s primatial see. By the time of his death in 461, the whole nation was Christian.
- How did this transformation of someone from not living by faith to someone living totally by faith happen? St. Patrick gives us a glimpse in his autobiography, called his Confession — meaning his hymn of praise to God — which was the subject of this morning’s Office of Readings. He said it was all by God’s pedagogy and providence. “I give unceasing thanks to my God,” he wrote, “who kept me faithful in the day of my testing.” That day of testing was a long day! Six years of testing in slavery. 20 years of testing in preparation. So many years of testing in evangelization under duress. But God kept him faithful. “God showed me how to have faith in him for ever, as one who is never to be doubted,” he continued. And because of that trust in God, he was fearless in doing anything needed. “It is among that people that I want to wait for the promise made by him, who assuredly never tells a lie: … ‘They shall come from the east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ This is our faith: believers are to come from the whole world.” He had so much trust in God’s word that he knew God would bring the Irish to faith.
- He renewed his faith every morning when we vested by praying a prayer he wore on a patch underneath his clothes. It’s called St. Patrick’s breastplate or Lorica. It’s one of my favorite prayers. To talk about a breastplate is to think of armor, and faith really was his armor. We remember what St. Paul told the Church in Ephesus: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. … Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That’s what St. Patrick tried to do with the words of this powerful prayer by which he bound himself in faith to God in the following ways:
- He first bound himself in faith to the Trinity: “I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through the belief in the threeness, through confession of the oneness of the Creator of Creation.”
- Then he bound himself in faith to Christ through the mysteries of his life: “I arise today Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism, Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial, Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension, Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.”
- Then he bound himself in faith to God through the intercession of the angels and saints: “I arise today Through the strength of the love of Cherubim, In obedience of angels, In the service of archangels, In hope of resurrection to meet with reward, In prayers of patriarchs, In predictions of prophets, In preaching of apostles, In faith of confessors, In innocence of holy virgins, In deeds of righteous men.”
- Then he bound himself in faith to God the Creator. “I arise today Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock.”
- Then he bound himself in faith to the attributes of God so that he might become like God: “I arise today Through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me From snares of devils, From temptations of vices, From everyone who shall wish me ill, Afar and near, Alone and in multitude.”
- Then he in faith rejected by God’s power Satan and all of his evil works and empty promises in order to believe in God more: “I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul, Against incantations of false prophets, Against black laws of pagandom Against false laws of heretics, Against craft of idolatry, Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards, Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul. Christ to shield me today Against poison, against burning, Against drowning, against wounding, So that there may come to me abundance of reward.”
- Then he emphasized that he wanted to live totally by faith in communion with Christ, remaining in Him who is the Word made flesh: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
- Finally he renewed his entrusted to the Blessed Trinity: “I arise today Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the threeness, Through confession of the oneness, Of the Creator of Creation. Salvation is the Lord’s, salvation is the Lord’s, salvation is Christ’s. May Thy salvation, O Lord, be always with us.”
- Today we renew our Covenant with God by a similar commitment of faith. And the way we do so best is the way St. Patrick that St. Patrick was strengthened, allowing Christ to be with us through Holy Communion, in which we enter into a communion of body and soul with the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. He gives us his body and blood as the “new and eternal Covenant” and instructs us to “do this” in his memory, not only celebrating this Covenant but living the Covenant in communion with him, faithfully adhering to his promises and to the commandments of love that constitute our own end of that sacred alliance. Abraham “rejoiced to see my day,” Jesus said. We know St. Patrick now rejoices to see his eternal way. And if we remain in his word as Abraham and Patrick did, we will never see death but instead gaze forever on Him who is the Resurrection and the Life!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
“My covenant with you is this:
you are to become the father of a host of nations.
No longer shall you be called Abram;
your name shall be Abraham,
for I am making you the father of a host of nations.
I will render you exceedingly fertile;
I will make nations of you;
kings shall stem from you.
I will maintain my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
throughout the ages as an everlasting pact,
to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
I will give to you
and to your descendants after you
the land in which you are now staying,
the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession;
and I will be their God.”God also said to Abraham:
“On your part, you and your descendants after you
must keep my covenant throughout the ages.”
PS 105:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Look to the LORD in his strength;
seek to serve him constantly.
Recall the wondrous deeds that he has wrought,
his portents, and the judgments he has uttered.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
You descendants of Abraham, his servants,
sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!
He, the LORD, is our God;
throughout the earth his judgments prevail.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
He remembers forever his covenant
which he made binding for a thousand generations –
Which he entered into with Abraham
and by his oath to Isaac.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever keeps my word will never see death.”
So the Jews said to him,
“Now we are sure that you are possessed.
Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say,
‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’
Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?
Or the prophets, who died?
Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing;
but it is my Father who glorifies me,
of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’
You do not know him, but I know him.
And if I should say that I do not know him,
I would be like you a liar.
But I do know him and I keep his word.
Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day;
he saw it and was glad.”
So the Jews said to him,
“You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
before Abraham came to be, I AM.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him;
but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.