Fr. Roger J. Landry
Our Lady of Grace Chapel, Alma, MI
Retreat for the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma
Thursday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of Pope St. Sixtus and Companions, Martyrs
August 7, 2014
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51, Mt 16:13-23
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- A retreat is always a special time of renewal in our relationship with God. In today’s first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah talks about the type of renewal God wanted to give the people of Jerusalem, Judah and Israel after the Babylonian exile. He wanted to give them a new covenant. God said it would be a different Covenant than the one he made on Mount Sinai through Moses. That Covenant God wrote on tablets and he needed to treat his people like infants, taking them “by the hand” and even needing to show them because of their disobedience that he was their master. Today he says that in the Covenant, he would write it not on tablets, not even in the minds, but upon their hearts, so that they might understand their relationship with God as a thing of love. He wouldn’t need to take them step by step by the hands and discipline them like a master, because they would be capable of following him out of love with mature freedom. “All, from least to greatest” would be able to know him personally; they wouldn’t need others to tell them about him. That’s a prophecy of what Jesus himself would accomplish when at last he came.
- Today Jesus wants to renew that Covenant with each of us on retreat. As you prepare to renew your professions at the end of Mass, Jesus wants to place anew the fulfillment of the Covenant in you, the new and eternal Covenant incarnate, Christ himself, to place his poverty in you, his chastity in you, his obedience in you, his service in you, his love for God and others in you, so that you may know him even more intimately in these ways than before. In response to our pleas in the Psalm for a new, contrite and humbled heart, for a steadfast and willing spirit, for the joy of salvation, God replies, as he does every prayer we ever make, with the gift of Himself. God initiates the gift of that Covenant and also gives us the graces needed to respond to him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Today we use the gift of freedom to renew our side of this Covenant of Love, as he renews on the altar his own.
- A retreat focused on the Missionary Transformation of the Church involves, too, a renewal in our joyful proclamation of the Gospel in our public profession of Christ. Today’s Gospel helps us to ponder what that apostolic renewal looks like.
- Jesus asks the apostles first who the people were saying that he was. They replied by saying they were numbering Jesus among the greatest figures, past and present, in Jewish history. Some, like Herod, were saying he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others were saying Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, the one whose return they believed would set the stage for the Messianic age. Others said Jeremiah, the one whom they believe had hidden the ark and the altar of sacrifice before the destruction of the Temple and the one they anticipated would reinstitute true worship. At the time Jesus asked the question, many of the Jews were saying that there had not been prophets for 400 years, and therefore they thought that Jesus was likely the greatest figure in four centuries. But none of that was sufficient, because it wasn’t true. Even though they were giving Jesus the highest reputation, who he was was higher still. As God had prophesied through Jeremiah in today’s first reading, it also wouldn’t be enough to rest on the testimony of others, because God’s plan was to have all of us enter into a personal Covenant with him. That could only happen with a daring first-person response, not hiding behind the results of a safe sociological, or behind the grammatical structure of indirect discourse.
- So Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter stood up and boldly replied that Jesus was far more than a great prophet, far more than the greatest figure in centuries, far more even than Moses. He wasn’t just the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior for whom the Jews had been waiting for a millennium. He was the Son of the Living God. Peter’s was a great act of faith, a bold profession holding nothing back. We all have a lot to learn from how God the Father moved Peter to confess the identity of his Son, because God the Father wants to give us the same gift. It’s not by “flesh and blood” that we recognize that Jesus is all that Peter confessed him to be. God the Father wants us to grasp this truth about Jesus and then, like Peter, to have us go out and courageously give witness that Jesus is the Savior and the long-desired of the nations, that Jesus is not the Son of a God understood as a life force somewhere else out in the universe, but of the God is who Living and with us seeking to bring us to full life. This is the way that, analogously to Peter, we become solid rocks on whom others can build lives of faith, rather than sand on which too many construct their existence. But this proclamation we make of Jesus’ true identity is not supposed to be some dry, “Joe Friday” factual declaration. It’s a proclamation meant to be done with jubilation. It’s a testimony from personal experience, from a personal relationship with the Lord that comes from knowing him in the new and eternal Covenant of Love. We proclaim with Peter’s successor in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. … With Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything.” We proclaim with gratitude and joy, with Peter and his successors, with the other apostles and the bishops, with the Church and the saints throughout the centuries, that Jesus’ kingdom has the last word, that evil, that the gates of Hell, won’t prevail against it.
- But the readings have us focus on one very important aspect of this preaching. Immediately after Jesus’ divinity was confessed, Jesus proclaimed his upcoming suffering and death. He shatters their image of who the Messiah would be and what he would do — become a political liberator restoring the temporal throne of David — and showed how he would lead them to salvation and triumph. It would be by fulfilling all of the prophecies they were prone to ignore. Jesus likely told them here that he was the fulfillment of the killing of Abel by his brother, of the sacrifice of Isaac, of the Passover Lamb, of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, of the “just man” beset by the envious in the Book of Wisdom, that he was the personification of the abandoned one of Psalm 22 with parched throat, bruised body and numbered bones, that he was the stone rejected by the builders, the temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt on the third day, the Serpent lifted up in the Desert. He announced what to them seemed like a humiliation and the time when they thought they should be celebrating an imminent conquest.
- St. Peter boldly steps forward and absolutely rejects this image as impossible for Jesus. He “rebukes” Jesus, saying God would never allow it. And Jesus, moments after calling Peer “rock,” now calls him “Satan” (adversary), for getting in the Lord’s way, for thinking as human beings rather than as God, for trying to lead the Lord rather than follow. The words, “Get behind me” were an indication that rather than seeking to guide Jesus, he needed to follow.
- The shock value of what Jesus was saying about his suffering, crucifixion and death is lost on us today. We’ve long accepted what Jesus did and know that all turns out well in the end. But what remains — or should remain — shocking is what Jesus says immediately thereafter, what we’ll hear tomorrow in the Gospel: that whoever wishes to follow Jesus, whoever wishes to think as God does, whoever wishes to confess Jesus and enter into the new and eternal covenant “must deny himself, take up his Cross and follow” him. And while we’ll accept Jesus’ suffering and death because we know of his resurrection, many times we will reject our own suffering and death and those of others. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves so as to affirm him, to die to ourselves on the Crosses he gives us each day so that he may live, to follow him rather than try to blaze our own path. The sacrifices he requires are “exchanges” as Archbishop Sheen used to say, in which we give up good things in order to obtain a buried treasure and precious pearl. We give up our life in order to have life with Him, losing our life so as to gain it. We learn in this way to look about the way of the Cross to which Jesus calls us as a way of love and life. This is what St. Paul learned. In Athens he professed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Greek’s longings for an “unknown God,” but it didn’t work so well. When he finally arrived in Corinth, he became to preach Christ crucified as the “power and wisdom of God.” And he began to profess Christ in that way not just on his lips but by his life, becoming through his own sufferings for Christ and the Gospel “crucified with Christ” to such a degree that “the life I know live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” In this Missionary Transformation of the Church, we all have so much to learn from St. Paul about how to preach Christ crucified.
- Today we celebrate a saint who got this message. During the persecution of the Roman emperor Valerian, Pope St. Sixtus and deacon companions thought like God thinks and gave witness to their faith in Christ even when it would lead to their suffering and death in union with him. On August 6, 258, against the imperial decree forbidding Christians to assemble in the cemeteries for Mass, Sixtus and the Church of Rome celebrated Mass in Catacombs of Praetextatus on the Via Appia. The soldiers came in while he was seated giving his homily. They decapitated him at that moment to stop his preaching and his blood dripped all over his temporary cathedra. The four deacons with him were also summarily executed and the Christians buried them across the street in the Catacombs of St. Callistus. Two other deacons were caught and killed that afternoon and St. Lawrence was executed four days later. The attitude of all of these saints was summarized by St. Cyprian of Carthage who would soon die himself by the same decree. Cyprian wrote, “Valerian has sent an order to the senate, importing that the bishops, priests and deacons should forthwith die… The officers of Rome are very keen upon this persecution and the persons who are brought before them are sure to suffer and to forfeit their estates to the exchequer. Pray, notify these particulars to my colleagues, that so our brethren may everywhere be prepared for their great conflict. That we may all think rather of immortality than death, and derive more joy than fear from this confession, in which we know that the soldiers of Christ are properly not killed but crowned!” They professed Christ crucified with more joy than fear to be their Messiah and the Son of the Living God by their crowning!
- As you come forward at the end of the Mass to renew your profession, you will do so with tapers lit from the Paschal Candle, a sign that you think of immortality rather than death, about what you’re gaining rather than what you’re given up. You pray every morning, in the words of St. John Paul II, that you will be “living signs of the Resurrection and of its treasures of virginity, poverty and obedience,” as you recognize that the Cross of giving up material possessions is nothing compared to the risen life with the Pearl of great price, that the Cross of forsaking the good of human love, marriage and family is nothing in comparison with the Love and Life you receive, that the Cross of obedience opens you up of the greatest possible freedom, that the Cross of service is nothing in exchange with the joy of union with the One who became Servant of all. Jesus today renews his Covenant with you and offers you again entrance into this new and eternal bond meant to last forever. Strengthened by him, the whole Church on earth and heaven rejoices as you profess the poor, chaste, obedient Jesus to be your Messiah, Savior, Lord, God and spouse.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers:
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
PS 51:12-13, 14-15, 18-19
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners shall return to you.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
and he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”