Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the 18th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Martyr
August 9, 2014
Hab 1:12-2:4, Ps 9, Mt 17:14-20
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today’s readings are all about the faith God wants to see in us and the somewhat shocking steps that he takes to help us grow in faith, because he recognizes that that growth is the most important thing in human life. As we pondered yesterday, it’s not worth it to gain the whole world if we forfeit our soul to do so. Correlatively, losing the whole world in order to gain our soul by growth in faith is a no-brainer good deal. Often, however, we don’t see things that way, and when we don’t, God who loves us more than we really love ourselves, will provide a means so that we at least have a chance to come to our senses and begin living by faith.
- In today’s first reading — the only time in the two year daily Mass readings that we encounter the Prophet Habakuk — we see the prophet’s representative complaint to God in the years immediately preceding the Babylonian captivity. There was so much evil and immorality and Habakuk asked the Lord, “Why, then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence while the wicked man devours one more just than himself?” The impious were eating the good alive, he said, “brandishing his sword to slay peoples without mercy.” The world had become chaotic. The people had become like “the fish of the sea” being consumed by others in the food chain, like insects with no ruler or hierarchy. Now they were feeling it as bigger foreign sharks had come into the pond. God replied to the Prophet to “write down the vision clearly upon tablets so that one can read it readily.” He’s done that in this book. He then called everyone to patience, that God’s vision “presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint. … It will surely come. It will not be late.” He had a plan and what was happening was all part of the plan. That plan was ultimately their salvation not from the King of Babylon but from the Prince of Darkness. He finishes by contrasting the “the rash man” who “has no integrity” and the “just man” who “because of his faith, will live.” The whole point of the suffering God was allowing was to form people to be just or righteous, to be in right relationship with God, to help them to structure their whole existence on him, and serve to renew the world from the rash, impatient, and impious. The Lord wants us to become truly just and live by and because of our faith, to have our faith be the most basic aspect of our existence. For the people of Judah and Jerusalem, they had ceased in large number to live by faith. Some still confessed God to exist. Some still worshipped him in the Temple on occasion. But many compartmentalized their worship. The exile was to help strip them of all their false gods so that they might convert and return to faith. The exile was more medicine than a punishment as the people, after decades of captivity, began to see clearly. Sometimes the Lord allows us to reap what we sow by living as practical atheists in the middle of the world, so that, seeing what happens when God isn’t at the center of our life and others’ lives, we may convert and learn and live the lessons he allows us to learn the hard way when we don’t learn them the easy way.
- We see a similar education in faith occur in the Gospel. As soon as Jesus and the three apostles descend the Mount of Transfiguration, a father runs up to Jesus, falls down on his knees before him and begs, “Kyrie, eleison,” “Lord have mercy on my son.” His boy seemed on the surface to have been suffering from a type of epilepsy that when the seizures happened led him to endanger his life by throwing himself into fire or drowning himself in water, two polar opposites (fire and water) showing that he was basically never safe. Jesus recognized that there was more than simply a disease at work, but one of demonic possession, something he would attack. The father added, “I brought him to your disciples but they could not cure him.”
- We see how Jesus uses the scene both to help the father and then everyone grow in faith. In St. Mark’s recollection of the scene, the man says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us,” to which Jesus replies, “If you can! Everything is possible to one who has faith.” The dad then exclaimed, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!” The father recognized he did have some faith, but that his faith was weak and he needed Jesus’ help to grow in faith. He had the faith to come first to ask the disciples for their assistance in healing his son. When that didn’t work, he ran to Jesus. He had faith not to give up out of discouragement. But he recognized he needed a lot more faith, faith to recognize fully how silly it is to say to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus would use this man’s faith as an illustration of just how much a mustard size portion of faith could accomplish as he would heal his son.
- But Jesus wanted to help his disciples to recognize their own lack of faith, their own need to recognize that they had some faith but needed to grow in faith much more. Jesus cried out, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” Many think initially this is a cry against the father’s little faith, but it actually seems to be of the disciples who didn’t have the faith to “move the mountain” and work the exorcism and cure, for reasons we’ll soon see. He numbers them among the “faithless” and “perverse” and wonders aloud how long it will take for them to get the message he’s been teaching. The word “per-verse” is etymology the exact opposite as “con-verted.” Con-vert means to “turn with the Lord” whereas “per-vert” means to turn away. From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus had been calling us “to repent and believe,” to convert and be faithful,” but even the disciples where joining the Scribes and Pharisees — whom Jesus elsewhere addressed by the same phrase for always seeking signs — as “perverse” and “faithless.” Why? What does it mean to convert? What does it mean to be faithful?
- We see it in the very next phrase. Jesus says, “Bring the boy here to me.” The “bring” here is a second person plural infinitive, not singular, which means Jesus was saying it to the disciples, not to the father. He was showing them what they should have done in the first place. He was showing what someone who lived by faith and was turning with the Lord would have done. They had essentially tried to work the miracle by themselves. “Why could we not drive it out?,” they asked later, failing to grasp that the power to drive out demons, the power to heal, the power to raise the dead, was not a power that would come from them but from God and in order to do any of this it needed to be done in union with God. Symbolically we see their failure to unite all of this to Jesus by the disciples’ failure to run to Jesus for help when at last they saw him. They, rather than the boy’s dad, could have been the ones to go to Jesus immediately and say, “Jesus, this boy desperately needs this miracle. Please come!” Instead, they stayed put and the father, with his little faith but great love, was the one to make the humble overture. In St. Mark’s version, Jesus would add, “This kind can only come out through prayer.” Prayer is not only true faith in action, but prayer is what we do when we recognize we don’t have the power to do anything. We turn to God and ask him to work the miracle. We ask him to move the mountain. It’s in prayer that we grasp that nothing is impossible. Jesus wants us all to learn this lesson and in prayer to bring to him the mountains that need to be leveled, to bring to him the needs, because the more we do, and the more persistently we do, the more we will grow to turn with him, to be faithful, to live by faith, to become truly just.
- Today we celebrate the feast day of a great modern saint whom God led on a great journey of faith from the size of a mustard seed to a large shrub in which so many throughout the world today are able to rest in its branches. 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 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.”
- 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, something that would happen a few months later.
- The fourth stage happened over the course of the next 12 years. 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. 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 in the midst of the world as well.
- The fifth stage happened when Hitler rose to power and it became impossible for her, with Jewish blood, to remain teaching in Germany. When friends suggested 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 faith 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.”
- 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. Like the father with the boy in today’s Gospel, she was bringing to Jesus on the Cross her entire people. She was asking for a far greater miracle than casting out a demon and curing of leprosy, but of saving her race and all of humanity. With faith now much greater than a mustard seed, she asked not for mountains to be moved but for everyone to receive the fruits growing on the Tree of Life planted on Mount Calvary. She knew that all things were possible for one with faith and that’s what she sought. 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 like the father in the Gospel and fall down before Jesus. It’s here we bring the prayers and needs of our loved ones and the whole world. It’s here that we ask the Lord to help our unbelief and increase our faith so that we be just and live because of faith, so that we may be crucified with Christ 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 Bordy and Bride on the wedding bed of the Cross, our only hope!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
my holy God, immortal?
O LORD, you have marked him for judgment,
O Rock, you have readied him punishment!
Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil,
and the sight of misery you cannot endure.
Why, then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence
while the wicked man devours
one more just than himself?
You have made man like the fish of the sea,
like creeping things without a ruler.
He brings them all up with his hook,
he hauls them away with his net,
He gathers them in his seine;
and so he rejoices and exults.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net,
and burns incense to his seine;
for thanks to them his portion is generous,
and his repast sumptuous.
Shall he, then, keep on brandishing his sword
to slay peoples without mercy?I will stand at my guard post,
and station myself upon the rampart,
And keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what answer he will give to my complaint.Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision
Clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
If it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash man has no integrity;
but the just man, because of his faith, shall live.
PS 9:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
The LORD sits enthroned forever;
he has set up his throne for judgment.
He judges the world with justice;
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. You forsake not those who seek you, O Lord.
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of distress.
They trust in you who cherish your name,
for you forsake not those who seek you, O LORD.
R. You forsake not those who seek you, O Lord.
Sing praise to the LORD enthroned in Zion;
proclaim among the nations his deeds;
For the avenger of blood has remembered;
he has not forgotten the cry of the poor.
R. You forsake not those who seek you, O Lord.
“Lord, have pity on my son, who is a lunatic and suffers severely;
often he falls into fire, and often into water.
I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.”
Jesus said in reply,
“O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you?
How long will I endure you?
Bring the boy here to me.”
Jesus rebuked him and the demon came out of him,
and from that hour the boy was cured.
Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said,
“Why could we not drive it out?”
He said to them, “Because of your little faith.
Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you will say to this mountain,
‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.
Nothing will be impossible for you.”