Greatness through Childlike Receptivity of the Cross, 19th Tuesday (II), August 9, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Mission of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the 19th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, Martyr
August 9, 2016
Ezek 2:8-3:4, Ps 119, Mt 18:1-5.10.12-14

 

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today in the Gospel, the disciples approached Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They took for granted that they were already in the kingdom and now were just jockeying for the path to supremacy. They had heard Jesus change Simon’s name to Peter and pronounce him as the rock on whom he would build his Church and to whom he would give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they had seen him take Peter, James and John up on the Transfiguration, and they were thinking about how to climb the ladder. In reply to their question, Jesus shocked them by swearing and oath and saying, “Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” They were heading on a path of ambition  that wasn’t leading to the kingdom at all and unless they turned around and started to head on the path of spiritual childhood, they were not even going to be among the least in the kingdom! Jesus brought a child over and called them to humble themselves like a child in order to enter his kingdom and become great. A child isn’t ambitious but humble, full of wonder rather cynical, docile rather than a know it all, trusting rather than suspicious, dependent rather than self-sufficient, and perhaps most important, recognizes he or she is a child, rather than oblivious to filiation. Jesus is telling all of us that we need to be on this way of spiritual childhood described most powerfully by St. Therese Lisieux. Is that the path we’re on? As we mature and grow spiritually to full stature in Christ, we are paradoxically supposed to become more humble, full of wonder, docile, trusting, dependent, and filial. We’re supposed to be more docile at 80 than we were at 70, than we were at 40, than we were at 20, even than we were at 5.
  • One way many of us need to turn around and be far more receptive like a child is with regard to Sacred Scripture. In today’s first reading, God tells the Prophet Ezekiel to be obedient like a trusting child and eat what he would give him. The chief sin of the people of Judah that had led to the exile was their disobedience to God, their lack of being docile children of God, and Ezekiel was first to model the redemption by his obedience. Then Ezekiel saw a hand stretched out to him with a scroll with writing on front and back — normally scrolls had writing on only one side, but you can almost see how much God wanted to say! — and then he was told, “Eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.” And so he ate it until his stomach was satiated. It tasted like honey in his mouth, a sign of his love for it, and then he was prepared to go to the house of Israel to speak God’s words to them. Notice that it wasn’t enough for him to read the Scroll. God wanted him to eat it, to assimilate it, to be nourished by it. We eat in order to live, and God wanted him to live by the Word of God. We see that that’s God’s intention for all of us. When Jesus was being tempted by the devil in the desert to convert stones into bread, Jesus responded, “Not on bread alone does man live but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus wants us, like hungry children, to devour his word as the real sustenance for our soul. In the Responsorial Psalm today, which is always our response in faith to what God revealed in the first reading, we talk about what our childlike attitude full of a desire to learn ought to be to God’s word in general; “I rejoice in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. Yes, your decrees are my delight; they are my counselors. The law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces. How sweet to my palate are your promises, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Your decrees are my inheritance forever; they are the joy of my heart. I gasp with open mouth in my yearning for your commands!” Do we really treat the Word of God as that valuable? Do we treasure it? If we had a choice between a bucket full of gold and silver pieces and an awesome book explaining part of the Bible, which would we choose? Do we yearn for God’s commandments with an open mouth, more than a dog panting for a treat? If we’re not on that path, today Jesus is calling us to turn around and go back to the foundations of our faith and start to give the Word of God the place it deserves. That’s part of the gift of spiritual childhood. Our receptivity toward God’s word is really a sign of our receptivity toward Him and toward His Kingdom. And once we really start to hear his word and obey it as God called Ezekiel to do — for in Hebrew, the same word is used for “hearing” and “obeying” — then our recognition, receptivity and response to God totally changes. We begin to see Christ in others and receive them, including every child, as we would receive Christ. We begin to become one with the zeal of God that we’ve consumed in his word and go out in search of his lost sheep, because like God we’re consumed with a love for 100 out of 100 and will leave the 99 in search of the one. Everything changes when we turn and become like little children in our embrace of God, his word, and his holy will.
  • Today we celebrate the feast day of a woman who came to this childlike faith late in life and her “turning back and becoming like a little child” is a very powerful witness to us. She also shows us the maturity that comes through such authentic spiritual childhood as it approaches the mystery of the Cross.  St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was born into a devout Jewish family on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in 1891 in Breslau, Germany, a prophetic day insofar as she would eventually offer her whole life, together with Jesus and so many of their fellow Jews, in expiation for their salvation and the salvation of the world. Her father died when she was two and her mother heroically sought to raise the family of 11 and run the family business on her own. As much as she sought to pass on her deep Jewish piety to young Edith, Edith never really connected with God, she never truly encountered him and came to have a personal relationship with him or even to believe in his existence, and so at the age of 14, she made the deliberate decision to stop praying. For 16 years, study became her pseudo-religion. She was brilliant and easily obtained university degrees in history and German, while spending most of her free time learning philosophy at the feet of the famous phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Under his tutelage she eventually wrote her doctorate summa cum laude and embarked on a university teaching career. She eventually became one of the first female professors in the history of her country.
  • Her conversion to a life of faith through spiritual childhood happened in various stages. The first was a simple occurrence that happened in downtown Frankfurt. She saw an ordinary Catholic woman with a shopping basket enter Frankfurt’s cathedral, kneel down and pray. “This was something totally new to me,” she wrote later in an unfinished autobiography. “In the synagogues and in Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.” At least for that simple woman, God was real. He was someone you could talk to. He was someone to whom you could bring your prayers, your loved ones, your day.
  • The second stage happened later when she went to console the widow of a fellow philosopher, Adolf Reinach, who had just died. Edith was dreading what to say to the widow, but she was overwhelmed by the widow’s peace flowing from her Protestant Christian faith in the power of the Cross and Resurrection. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it,” she remarked. “It was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me — Christ in the mystery of the Cross.” Mrs. Reinach had received even the death of her beloved husband with childlike faith and it struck Edith.
  • The third stage happened four years later, when Edith was 29. While vacationing at the home of a fellow professor, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, one night she pulled a copy of St. Teresa of Avila’s Life from their bookshelves. She could not put it down the rest of the night. When she had finished the great Spanish mystic’s autobiography, she said simply, “This is the truth.” She never said what was it in the writings of St. Teresa that had moved her — she always said it was her secret — but I’m convinced it had something to do with the obvious fact that for St. Teresa, God was very much alive, someone to whom we not only could pray, but someone who responded with himself. Through St. Teresa’s help, she discovered that the truth for which she had been searching for years had a name — and from that moment on, she dedicated herself to Truth Incarnate. She went to the local Catholic parish the next day and asked the priest to be baptized — asked for the gift of divine filiation through that Sacrament, something that would happen a few months later.
  • She wanted to enter a Carmelite convent immediately but her spiritual director encouraged her to unite herself to God in the midst of her day-today life, in the midst of work as a teacher, a writer and a lecturer on women’s issues. That’s what she did, growing in childlike faith over the course of the next 12 years. She eventually developed the most profound theology of woman in the history of the Church and the world until now, all the while developing deep philosophical insights into being and especially into empathy. She began to pass on so many of her insights to others, especially other women, so that they, too, might grow in faith in the midst of ordinary life. This wasn’t an easy time for her because she longed to be in the convent but she grasped during his time that to live by faith, to be just, you didn’t have to run away to Carmel but could experience that as a child of God in the midst of the world as well.
  • When Hitler rose to power and it became impossible for her, with Jewish blood, to remain teaching in Germany, when friends were suggesting she immigrate to South America where she would never see her mother again, she saw that if that would be the case, she should enter the Convent finally, which she did. She discovered the life of childlike faith following her fellow Carmelite St. Therese even more profoundly here in a life of community and even more intense prayer, study and writing. There she became a bride of Christ and, since she knew with clarity that her one-flesh union with Divine Bridegroom would lead her to the Cross, asked for and received the name of “Teresa Blessed of the Cross.”  She saw her blessing in her vocation “to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross.” She began to grasp that to live by faith means to live crucified to the world, to live in a spousal union with Christ crucified. St. Paul had written to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live by Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” The only way to live by faith is to crucify our relationship with the things of the world, so that they are no longer idols. That’s why St. Paul would eventually say that he boasted of nothing but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world was crucified to him and him to the world. He would encourage the early Christians to learn how to become friends of the Cross of Christ, because the vast majority lived as enemies of the Cross, making their bellies their god and glorying in sins that should bring them shame. These are all lessons that St. Edith Stein pondered. When it became too dangerous for her to remain in a monastery in Cologne, the sisters smuggled her to Echt in the Netherlands, soon followed by her blood sister Rosa, a third-order Carmelite, who came after their mother died. “I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people,” she wrote. “I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf.” That’s one of the most profound truths of the faith, one she accepted with childlike faith.
  • As her understanding grew — shown in her most famous theological work, “The Science of the Cross” — so did her willingness to take it upon herself for her Jewish people. “Ave, Crux, Spes Unica,” she repeated: “I welcome you, O Cross, our only hope.”  Her welcome and knowledge of the Cross in faith would soon become a Biblical embrace of her crucified Spouse. After the Dutch bishops publicly condemned Nazism, the Gestapo retaliated by deporting all Jewish converts in the Netherlands to the concentration camps. “Come, we are going for our people,” she said as she was being rounded up in Echt. She was bringing to Jesus on the Cross her entire people. She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber 72 years ago today, the final culmination of her life in faith, knowing that moments after the poison gas would suffocate her in the gas chamber that she would be smelling forever the beautiful fragrance of Christ.
  • Today we come to the fruit of the Tree of Life and consume Christ’s own body and blood as we say, with St. Teresa Blessed by the Cross, “This is the truth!” It’s here that we run with childlike faith and bring the prayers and needs of our loved ones and the whole world. It’s here that we ask the Lord to be crucified with him and live by faith in the Son of God who loves us, gave his life for us, and now feeds us, as he consummates his union with his Body and Bride on the wedding bed of the Cross, our only hope! Just like the little ones Jesus mentions in the Gospel have “angels in heaven always look[ing] upon the face of my heavenly Father,” We, too, have our guardian angels there, with all the other angels, with St. Teresa Benedicta and all the saints. They’re all interceding for us before the Father that we might turn around if we have to in order to embrace God with the receptivity of a child, that we might base our whole life on his word, and come one day with them to experience the truth that God, his word and his will, are worth far more than all the silver and gold pieces the world has ever produced!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
EZ 2:8-3:4

The Lord GOD said to me:
As for you, son of man, obey me when I speak to you:
be not rebellious like this house of rebellion,
but open your mouth and eat what I shall give you.
It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me,
in which was a written scroll which he unrolled before me.
It was covered with writing front and back,
and written on it was:
Lamentation and wailing and woe!He said to me:
Son of man, eat what is before you;
eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.
So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat.
Son of man, he then said to me,
feed your belly and fill your stomach
with this scroll I am giving you.
I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.
He said: Son of man, go now to the house of Israel,
and speak my words to them.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 119:14, 24, 72, 103, 111, 131

R. (103a) How sweet to my taste is your promise!
In the way of your decrees I rejoice,
as much as in all riches.
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!
Yes, your decrees are my delight;
they are my counselors.
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!
How sweet to my palate are your promises,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!
Your decrees are my inheritance forever;
the joy of my heart they are.
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!
I gasp with open mouth,
in my yearning for your commands.
R. How sweet to my taste is your promise!

Gospel
MT 18:1-5, 10, 12-14

The disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”
He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said,
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Whoever becomes humble like this child
is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones,
for I say to you that their angels in heaven
always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.
What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”
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