Newness of Life, Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), June 26, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
June 26, 2005
2Kings 4:8-11,14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Mt 10:37-42

1) In today’s second reading, St. Paul describes the incredible reality of Christian baptism, what it does in us when it happens and what its enduring effect is supposed to be. It’s a very dense passage, but one that is meant to open our hearts and minds to great wonder once we unpack it. He tells us first that when we’re baptized, “we’re buried with Christ by baptism into his death.” In other words, we die in Christ; that death, St. Paul tells us a little later, is a “death to sin.” But that death is only a beginning. Through baptism, St. Paul reminds us, we’re also resurrected with Christ, “so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in NEWNESS OF LIFE.” The purpose of our baptism is to make us capable of walking – living – with the joy of Christ risen from the dead. No matter what vicissitudes we encounter, we’re called to live with the joyful serenity and focus of Christ after Easter Sunday. St. Paul says that this newness of life – Christ’s risen life within us – is simply “life for God.” To live out the gift of our baptism, St. Paul concludes, involves two elements: we must be “dead to sin and alive for God in Christ Jesus.”

2) In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks explicitly about what this death to sin and life for God mean. He tells us, first, just like St. Paul, that in order for us to be experience this new life, we first need to die: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In order to find new life, we first need to lose our old life. This transformation occurs in two stages, which are also the two preconditions he states for our being “worthy” followers of him. First, he says that we must love God above every other love, and make Him the only absolute in our life. He tells us in the most straightforward language: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” The second condition concerns what loving him really means. True love is not a warm feeling of affection for Jesus; it’s rather a choice to be willing to suffer and die for him: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus showed us this type of love himself when he told us and showed us that “no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).

3) These are obviously very challenging words, coming from Truth Incarnate. For us to be worthy disciples of Jesus, he cannot merely be “important” in our lives; he must be “all-important,” numero uno, in short: God, to Whom everything and everyone else is a distant second. He must be the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46) in our life, worth selling everything else we have – our earthly loves, our possessions, our very earthly lives – to obtain. This is the death we need to experience before we can truly have this newness of life he died and rose to give us. Jesus is telling us essentially that almost everything in the world can be good – even the most bitter crosses, even death – provided that it leads us to Him; but he’s also telling us that everything in the world – even the greatest human blessings and loves, like our family – can be bad, to the extent that it tries to dislodge God from first place in our lives. Whether they are good or bad for us depends on whether they are ordered to Him.

4) With regard to our love for our mom and dad, for our children, for our siblings and for our friends, to say that we must love God more than we love them does not mean that we will love them any less. On the contrary, if we begin to experience the newness of life in and for God that Jesus and Paul describe, we will love them MORE and BETTER. We will learn how to love them more like God loves them, for God loves them even more than we do. If we love God as he deserves, we will become more capable of passing on to them the gift of God, who is the greatest gift we can give to anyone we love. We will become concerned above all, as God is, with their holiness and their salvation – their experiencing this newness of life that God wants to give them, in this world and in the next. And we will become more capable of true love, of giving our lives for them in imitation of Christ’s own love (cf. Eph 5:25). But in order to love them more, we need to make sure that we do not love them “too much,” by allowing them to take God’s place in our lives. If this happens, we will end up loving them too little and doing harm, rather than good, to them and to ourselves. This goes for all the realities of our lives. The way to true newness of life, and the full experience of love, is, as Christ tells us today, to love God above every other love and use the gift of our daily crosses to die to ourselves so that Christ’s life, this life for God, may live in us.

5) The Lord calls every single one of us to this newness of life through being his worthy disciples in this way. But in a special way, those disciples whom the Lord calls to be his priests often experience them more literally. These thoughts are very much before my mind today, on the sixth anniversary of my ordination as a priest, and on the occasion of my last Sunday Mass here at St. Francis Xavier. The Lord certainly calls his priests to a newness of life, to a life for God, through loving Him more than every other love and following him in the priesthood along the bloody Way of the Cross. If in baptism a man dies in Christ and arises with Him to newness of life, all the more does this happen through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In the priestly ordination rite, the candidate lies on the ground – just like the priest does on Good Friday – to symbolize his death to self, his entering into Christ’s own tomb. They chant the Litany of the Saints, just as they do on the day of baptism. In former centuries, they even used to cover the candidate with a funeral pall, so that his death to self would be apparent to all. He arises a new creation – and in some traditions takes or is given a new name to symbolize his new existence – and proceeds to the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, which confer on Him the grace of the priesthood. Like St. Paul the new priest is supposed to be able to say, in truth, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:18-20). As soon as he is clothed in the vesture of a priest, he proceeds to the bishop, who hands him what is needed for the celebration of the Eucharist – the paten with bread and the chalice – and instructs him: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.”

6) The priesthood is this imitation, this modeling, of the mystery of the Lord’s Cross, which means the priest is called to emulate both Christ’s self-denial and willingness to suffer for the kingdom, but also the Christ-like love for God and others that makes any amount of suffering bearable. The self-denial is evident in the life of a priest certainly through his free choice to give up the great blessings of marriage and family for the sake of a greater love, the love of God. His whole celibate existence is a proclamation that God is worthy to be loved above all other loves. The priest’s self-negation is also evident in his need, very practically, to choose God over his family, which is always hard in the life of any priest who loves his family. I remember the six times I couldn’t be with my family for Thanksgiving or Christmas during my seminary years, but I am convinced that the greatest way a priest honors his father and mother is by doing God’s will and advancing His kingdom, which will bring them eternal honor among the saints in heaven. With regard to the Crosses, Jesus asks his priests to carry, little did I know when Bishop O’Malley ordained me six years ago how heavy some of those crosses would be. I never anticipated the deep pain that would come to the priesthood and the whole Church as a result of the clergy sex abuse revelations, including priests I knew – or thought I knew – well. I never foresaw how many times strangers would call me a pedophile on elevators and “protect” their kids from me in department stores. I never expected to someone to pull an SUV close to the curb in Boston and say “Father, could I ask you a quick question?” only to spit on my face as I approached him to try to help. But even if I did know these were on the way, even if I knew that the sufferings would be much worse than these various “pinpricks,” I would choose to say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to the priesthood ten-thousand times over. Every one of the Crosses the Lord sends is a caress meant to help me to enter into newness of life through loving Him above all loves along the modern way of the Cross. Today is another bittersweet day in my priestly life. It’s hard – it is a true Cross – to leave this parish, to leave you whom I have grown to know and love over the past two years. You have been family to me. But, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, I must love Him more than I love family members. The Lord gives us these moments – and he gives them to priests more often than most – so that we might love him more than all other affections, and become “worthy” of the exalted title of disciple.

7) At the same time, the Lord Jesus promises that the priesthood will be filled with great joys and great friendships in the Lord. Jesus had Martha, Mary and Lazarus in the house of Bethany (Lk 10:38ff; Jn 11-12:2). Elisha had the elderly couple in today’s first reading. St. Paul had Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2 ff). I thank you for having taken me in during these past two years. Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward… and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” You have given me far more than a cup of cold water and I pray that the Lord Jesus who made that promise will make forever good on that guaranteed reward.

8 ) I finish this homily and my time with you as I finish every homily, with a direct reference to Jesus in the Eucharist, who is supposed to be the “source and the summit” of the Christian life and therefore our life if it is truly Christian. The Eucharist is the model of the life of a priest and the summary of today’s readings. If in baptism, we enter into Christ’s death and his resurrection for the first time, through the Eucharist we continue our participation in these greatest of all events. We enter live – now – into the Upper Room where Jesus gives us his body and blood under the appearances of bread and wine. We stand at the foot of the Cross, where Jesus gave that body and blood to the Father. We enter with him into the tomb and proceed with Him out of the tomb. This is why we proclaim Christ’s death, his resurrection and his coming again when we proclaim the Mystery of Faith. The Mass is meant to give to give us the newness of life begun in baptism. In the old rite, at the beginning of Mass, the priest prayed, “I will go up to the altar of God, to the God who gives joy to my youth” (Ps 43:4). The Eucharist renews all of us. It makes us ever younger. It helps us concretize our love for God above all loves and makes present among us the mystery of the Lord’s cross and resurrection. Six years ago at this very hour, I celebrated my first Mass – or, more precisely, Christ used me as his instrument for the first time to give me and others his flesh and blood. Today I celebrate for the 3136th time. But each time I celebrate Mass I become younger, I become newer, I become more and more like Christ, who wants me to model my entire life on the words of institution. The Eucharist is the greatest gift in the whole world, because the Eucharist is Jesus! I thank him for having given me the privilege so many times, and again today, to place him in your mouths, to place him in your hands, to place him in your lives. He is newness of life itself. May he help us, whom he calls to be his disciples, to be worthy of that name, and to live for God in love, so that all of us may one day be reunited around the altar in his celestial kingdom of love. Praised by Jesus Christ!