Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Virgin, Religious and Doctor
October 1, 2014
Job 9:1-12.14-16, Ps 88, Lk 9:57-62
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today on this feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, otherwise known as St. Therese of Lisieux or the Little Flower, we can ponder the whole meaning of vocation, hers and ours. She discovered that her vocation was not merely to be a Christian or a Carmelite Nun, but to be love in the heart of the Church her mother. God had called her to be the heart, in a sense, the heart of the mystical body. But her specific vocation is our general vocation. Each of us is called to be love in the heart of the Church Jesus founded out of love. Love, however, is not a feeling, but a choice, and not just a choice, but a radical and often highly challenging one. We see that in today’s readings and in St. Therese’s holy life.
- In the Gospel today, we have three different vocations stories, which St. Luke remembers to illumine our own calling and the choice that is incumbent upon it.
- In the first, a man runs up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus had come into the world to make disciples and many would refuse to follow him, so we would have expected for him to respond with joy. Instead he replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus wanted him to know the cost of discipleship, especially at a time in which messianic expectations had hyped up the Jews to think that the Messiah would kick out the Romans and set up a political administration in which there would be plenty of patronage. Jesus wanted him to know that to follow him wherever he went meant to follow someone who was basically homeless, to follow him meant to value him more than one’s own home and one’s own bed, to follow him meant that you wouldn’t even have what foxes and birds take for granted. We, too, need to ponder the radical nature of God’s call. Are we willing to follow Jesus wherever he goes? If he asks us, like God asked Abraham, to leave our own native place at 75 and go to a place he would eventually show us, would we follow him, or would we value our home, our bed, our old habits more than we do the Lord? St. Therese was able to leave her home in order to follow the Lord to Carmel and through Carmel to heaven and today she’s interceding for us to entrust ourselves to the Lord in this way.
- The second scene involves a man to him Jesus said, “Follow me!” But this man replied, “Lord, let me go first to bury my father.” When we hear this, we can presume that the person’s dad had just died and he just wanted to go home for the funeral and then return immediately. The text doesn’t say that, however. What’s much more likely was that the man’s father was very much alive and might live for decades still. What the man was likely communicating was, “Jesus, I’d like to follow you, but my father comes first. As soon as I’ve fulfilled all of my obligations to him, then I’ll be free to come and follow.” Jesus’ reply was strong: “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” As Jesus would say a little later at the raising of Lazarus, he is the Resurrection and the Life and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die, even if he dies (Jn 11:25-26). For us to become alive in the most important sense of all, we need to be in a living relationship to him. If we’re not following him, if we’re not allowing his life to reign within us, we’re dead, even if all our corporeal vital signs are health. He was calling this man to come fully alive and seeking to give him a participation in the Resurrection. He was giving him a choice between life and death, living and dying even while breathing, and encouraging him to let those who are “dead,” who don’t have this relationship, bury their confrères. This is a choice that St. Therese made. As much as she loved her father, whom she called her “Roi” (King), she needed to leave him behind for the sake of a greater love, for the sake of Jesus. Most often Jesus doesn’t call us to make a strict break between him and our family members. He calls us, after all, to honor our father and mother. He calls the family to be an image of the Church and the communion of persons who is God. Burying the dead is and will always remain a spiritual work of mercy. But at the same time he is reminding us that he needs to come first, so that our family life will become the life of the living rather than the walking dead. Our vocation is to a new type of familial life that will last forever and Jesus wants us to seize it, as he called this man in the Gospel and as he called St. Therese.
- The third vocation scene is another one that involves the family. After being summoned by Jesus, this person replied, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” This was almost identical to what Elisha had said to Elijah and Elijah gave him permission. Jesus, who could see what was in the heart of the one with whom he was speaking, grasped what the request symbolized. The person simply was oblivious to the greatness of the request he had received to follow Jesus. As we prayed in the Alleluia verse, God wants to help us, like he helped St. Paul, to recognize that everything else is “rubbish” compared to the unsurpassable worth of “knowing Christ Jesus” and being found in him. The young man was giving a condition on following Jesus, was placing human respect, human courtesy, and family above the call to follow Jesus. Very likely Jesus also suspected that this man’s family members might have objected to his leaving them behind to follow Jesus fully. So Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” He was saying, “Don’t look to what you’re leaving,” but rather, “Look ahead to what you’re gaining, to the work you’re called to do with me.” That’s what St. Therese never lost sight of. She was saying goodbye to those at home whom she loved very much, but looking ahead to the treasure of her collaboration with Christ for the kingdom and then to all that she would be able to do with him in heaven. She had no regrets. She didn’t look back. She kept plowing. All of us in our Christian vocations need to learn to do the same.
- What all three of these scenes show us very clearly is that there’s suffering involved in our vocation. The Lord Jesus asks us at least to be willing to sacrifice some of the greatest blessings, gifts and loves we have. There’s a cost involved in following him and he wants us to know the cost and to be able and willing to pay that price if that’s what it takes in order to obtain the pearl of much greater price. St. Therese teaches us how to become capable of following Jesus in this radical way. Her famous “little way of spiritual childhood,” which she calls a “way of trust and love” unites two basic sayings of the Gospel about the Kingdom of Heaven. The first is Jesus’ words that unless we convert and become like little children, we will not inherit the Kingdom of God; the second is that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are poor in spirit. To become capable of following Jesus into his kingdom, we need to be like poor children who trust in the love of a provident Father mercifully to provide all we really need. The problem is that sometimes we try to grow up, to think ourselves self-sufficient, to become independent even of our Father, saying essentially, “Thanks, but I don’t need you any more day to day. I’ve got it from here.” When we start to do that, we begin to lose a living relationship with him and begin to place our faith, hope and love in our material possessions — like our home, our warm bed — or in our family member and friends. We need to become like little children with empty hands who recognize they need the Father and depend on him. She once wrote, “To remain little before God and to remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, expect all things from the good God just as a little child expects all things from its father; it is not to be troubled by anything, not to try to be on the lookout for favors. Even among poor people, a child is given all it needs, as long as it is very little, but as soon as it has grown up, the father does not want to support it any longer and says: ‘Work, now you are able to take care of yourself.’ Because I never want to hear these words I do not want to grow up, feeling that I can never earn my living, that is, eternal life in heaven. So I have stayed little, and have no other occupation than of gathering flowers of love and sacrifice and of offering them to the good God to please Him. Again, to stay little means not attributing the virtues we practice to ourselves, under the impression that we are capable of such things, but to recognize that the good God places this treasure of virtue in the hand of His little child for him to use as he needs it; and that it remains God’s treasure.”
- Once we start living this way of trust and love toward God the Father, then we begin to grasp how everything that he gives and allows is for our betterment, even if at first we don’t grasp it. In today’s first reading, we see how Job was grappling with his suffering. Most of his family members and livestock were now dead and his friends were coming to him trying to explain what he must have done that was evil to merit such a castigation. Job recognized God’s majesty and goodness. While on the one hand, he couldn’t understand his own misfortune, but he knew that the answer was somehow caught up in the mystery of God, rather than just something of chance or fate. He didn’t have luxury that we do, to learn from Jesus, the fulfillment of so many Old Testaments prophecies about a suffering servant Messiah, that our sufferings can precisely help us to enhance our own sense of divine filiation, our own utter dependence on the Father, our own trust in God. This was a lesson St. Therese grasped. She knew that to be love in the heart of the Church meant to love with the love flowing from Jesus’ pierced heart. She knew that to be love in the heart of the Church she needed to live by that path of “greater love” that leads one to lay down his or her life for others. She knew that to be love would involve her deeply in the mystery of suffering, the mystery of the Cross. She suffered enormously from the death of her mother, from the separation anxiety from her sisters’ entrance into religious life, from the impatience to become a Carmelite, from various of the cantankerous older sisters in the Carmel, from the painful tuberculosis that eventually killed her at the age of 24, from the dark night that accompanied her last days. But this was all part of her little way of spiritual childhood, uniting herself to God in his providential mercy even in the midst of darkness. This was part of her path to become love. She calls us to follow her down that path.
- In one of her poems, St. Therese summoned us to build a booth on Calvary in order to enter into the school of the Cross, which is a school of suffering-that-is-worth-it. “To live of love, ’tis not to fix one’s tent / On Tabor’s height and there with Thee remain. / ‘Tis to climb Calvary with strength nigh spent. / And count Thy heavy cross our truest gain.” Living by love means not to build booths to keep the consolation of the Transfiguration, in other words, but to enter with Jesus on Calvary and build our booth together with Jesus on the Cross. She continues, ” In heaven, my life a life of joy shall be / The heavy cross shall then be gone for aye. / Here upon earth, in suffering with Thee, Love! let me stay.” She begs to stay with Jesus in this crucified love in order to enter into Jesus’ eternal joy. She built on those insights in a second poem in which she recognized that be crucified with Christ was to be transformed into his salvific love. “I long for suffering; and the cross / With strong desire my heart doth crave. / A thousand deaths were gain, not loss, / If but one soul I help to save!” She made that self-gift, holding nothing back, and wants to help and encourage us to do the same. In a third and final poem, she teaches us practically how to follow her with love and trust down the way of the Cross. “O Jesu! O my Love! Each eve I come to fling / Before Thy sacred Cross sweet flowers of all the year. By these plucked petals bright, my hands how gladly bring, I long to dry Thine every tear! To scatter flowers! — that means each sacrifice, / My lightest sighs and pains, my heaviest, saddest hours, / My hopes, my joys, my prayers, — I will not count the price. / Behold my flowers! / With deep, untold delight Thy beauty fills my soul. / Would I might light this love in hearts of all who live! / For this, my fairest flowers, all things in my control, How fondly, gladly I would give! / To scatter flowers! — behold my chosen sword / For saving sinners’ souls and filling heaven’s bowers. / The victory is mine: yes, I disarm Thee, Lord, With these my flowers!” Everything in her day — all her sacrifices, all her sufferings — she treated as flowers with which she would adorn Jesus with love on the Cross. She wants to help us to do the same, to convert our suffering into saving grace, to grasp that God permits suffering to conform us ever more to Jesus, so that we might follow him along the way of trust and love which is the path of salvation.
- She’s praying for us to respond to this calling today with true radicality. The Christian people have always found in her a great intercessor since her death 117 years ago. During her lifetime, she prayed fervently and continuously for Henri Pranzini, who had murdered two women and a child but showed no remorse, so that might repent and be saved before he would be guillotined in 1887 for the triple homicide. Just as his neck was placed on the guillotine, he grabbed a crucifix and kissed it three times. She was convinced her prayers had helped save him and she prayed for him after his death. She’s praying for us, I’m convinced, just as insistently, that we might follow her down the path that will help us to be love in the heart of the Church, the path of sanctity, the path of life. Sanctity is a consequence of living the little way of spiritual childhood. She said, “Sanctity does not consist in performing such and such acts; it means being ready at heart to become small and humble in the arms of God, acknowledging our own weaknesses and trusting in his fatherly goodness to the point of audacity.” But this is an act of entrustment we must not make half-heartedly, but with all our strength. “You cannot become half a saint,” she said. “You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” She is a whole saint and from heaven she continues to seek to guide us. She said on her deathbed, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making God loved as I love him, of giving my little way to souls. If God answers my desires, my heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world. Yes, I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Doing she wants to do much good in helping us to go for it, to become truly holy by converting, becoming small and trusting, and offering up all of our sacrifices and our heartbeats at the foot of the Cross. “If you want to be a saint, it will be easy,” she said. “You have but one goal: to give pleasure to Jesus.” Today we do give pleasure to Jesus not just by honoring St. Therese who teaches us the path to please him forever, but also by coming together for Mass, so that he can feed us with the same celestial nourishment so that with St. Therese we may spend our time in this world and forever doing good on earth.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
jb 9:1-12, 14-16
but how can a man be justified before God?
Should one wish to contend with him,
he could not answer him once in a thousand times.
God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?He removes the mountains before they know it;
he overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth out of its place,
and the pillars beneath it tremble.
He commands the sun, and it rises not;
he seals up the stars.He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning.
Should he come near me, I see him not;
should he pass by, I am not aware of him;
Should he seize me forcibly, who can say him nay?
Who can say to him, “What are you doing?”
How much less shall I give him any answer,
or choose out arguments against him!
Even though I were right, I could not answer him,
but should rather beg for what was due me.
If I appealed to him and he answered my call,
I could not believe that he would hearken to my words.
ps 88:10bc-11, 12-13, 14-15
Daily I call upon you, O LORD;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work wonders for the dead?
Will the shades arise to give you thanks?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
Do they declare your mercy in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?
Are your wonders made known in the darkness,
or your justice in the land of oblivion?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
with my morning prayer I wait upon you.
Why, O LORD, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
on their journey, someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
And to another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
Jesus answered him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”