Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent
Memorial of St. Polycarp, Martyr
February 23, 2016
Is 1:10.16-20, Ps 50, Mt 23:1-12
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- One of the gentle criticisms that have been getting voiced about the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in certain circles of committed Catholics is that we hear a lot about mercy but little about conversion. That’s not because Pope Francis hasn’t been speaking clearly also about conversion, which he does most pointedly when he speaks about the difference between sinners (who know they’re sinners, repent and come to receive God’s mercy) and the corrupt (those who persevere in their sins without repentance, glorying in their shame and becoming “varnished putrefaction”). Conversion, Pope Francis clearly implies, is the flip side of God’s clemency, which is one of the reasons why he is constantly calling people by his words and example to go to the Sacrament of Confession. But Pope Francis has clearly been prioritizing the side of mercy so that everyone will know that God’s mercy comes first, it predates our repentance, even if in order to receive that mercy we need to convert. Since God’s mercy is eternal, in order for us to receive it, we need continually to be converting and opening ourselves up for this. This is one of the great messages of the Year of Mercy, the need for continual conversion.
- On Ash Wednesday each year, Jesus gives us the program for Lent and life when he announces “Repent and Believe,” and “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” But what is the continual conversion that God is asking of us? Very often we think that the conversion that’s needed is merely turning away from a bad life, from sin, from evil. But that’s just the first stage of conversion. Conversion is a continual process of “turning with” (con-vertere) the Lord. One of the clearest distinctions I’ve ever heard of the stages of this process happened in the life of St. Augustine. Back in 2007, Pope Benedict describes three different stages in St. Augustine’s conversion. The first was the most famous, leaving a sinful life shacking up with a concubine, praying “give me chastity but not yet,” having a child out of wedlock, using his extraordinary intellectual gifts to make fun of his mother and believers, etc. But St. Augustine’s conversion continued. After he had founded a monastery where he had written the rule and was cranking out theological tomes, God called him deeper. He was summoned to become the preacher — basically coadjutor — of the Bishop of Hippo, and realized that he needed to convert from a sense of serving God as he pleased rather to serving God as God pleased. “Christ died for all,” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “so that those who live should not live for themselves, but for him who died for them” (2 Cor 5:15). And these words had a profound impact on him. He had already ceased a life of serious commissions of sin, but he still needed to learn how to love. The third and final stage of his conversion was humbly to grasp that he needed to live by God’s mercy who forgives every day, that he couldn’t work by his own power but only by God’s. Lent is a time for us to progress in this continual conversion. And this Jubilee of Mercy is an opportunity for us to do so far more profoundly than we ever have before.
- In today’s readings we see that progression. At the beginning of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God through his emissary calls the Jews “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” to highlight the severity of their sins, because those were the most notoriously iniquitous cities of all time. Throughout Isaiah we see what those sins were. God speaks of their “misdeeds,” their “doing evil,” their “scarlet” and “crimson red” sins. “Wash yourselves clean!,” Isaiah cries out. In the Responsorial Psalm, God points out the hypocrisy of his people, saying, “Why do you recite my statutes and profess my covenant with your mouth” as “you hate discipline and cast my words behind you?” In the Gospel, Jesus begins a searing 35 verse call to repentance not only for the Scribes and Pharisees but for all of us who, like them — and in contrast to the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah who previously gloried in their debaucheries — can be tempted to appear white on the outside while our souls remain scarlet on the inside. That hypocrisy, that acting, was the principal vice of the Scribes and the Pharisees and often can remain the downfall for those who behave in a religious way but whose hearts are far from the Lord. Jesus says of them that they do not practice what they preach. They — and perhaps we can see a personal resemblance in these upcoming characteristics — tie up heavy religious burdens on others without lifting a finger to help them, whereas the truth, although at time challenging, is meant always to set us free. The reason why they didn’t lift a finger in charity and seek to help people who were struggling to align their lives to the Gospel was because they were doing everything to be seen by others. As religious prima donnas, they widened the phylacteries that would contain verses of sacred scripture in their locks of hair, lengthen the tassels that were to remind them of revelation, and prefer to be acknowledged by everyone for their religious devotion in banquets, synagogues and marketplaces. They were the types who, Jesus told us on Ash Wednesday, pray, fast and give alms not out of love for God and others but to be rewarded by others’ praise and esteem, the exact opposite of the type of motivation God wants: their motivation was not true love of God but rather self-love under the mask of devotion. They sat on Moses’ seat but didn’t share Moses’ own humility before God (Ex 4:10,13). Their knowledge of the law, rather than moving them to conform their lives ever more to God’s revelation, became in essence an obstacle, because it made them proud not humble. They manipulated their knowledge of the law to seek to grow in others’ eyes. They sought the titles of “rabbi” — which literally means “great one,” but is normally translated “teacher” — and “father” and “master,” but in seeking these titles they were seeking to take the place not only of Moses but of God: God is our Father; Jesus is our one Master; the Holy Spirit is our teacher and guide. The ultimate conversion Jesus is seeking in us this Lent and life is for us first to acknowledge this and to seek to become more and more like God through acting in accordance with the truth he gives us that will set us free and bring us joy.
- That leads us to the second stage of conversion. It’s not merely fighting against and eliminating sin. It’s positively and passionately doing good. It’s loving God and loving others as God loves others, with all we have and are. Isaiah says we should be ambitious to “make justice your aim!,” and “learn to do good.” He gives us hope that even if our sins be crimson and scarlet they can become white as snow; in other words they can be transformed from evil into good, by giving us the added motivation to make up for lost time, to recognize what a great and merciful God we have and imitate his loving generosity to those who need our help as much as we need God’s mercy. In the Gospel, Jesus summarizes this holy ambition by saying, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Jesus, the greatest ever, humbled himself to take on our nature, to become our slave, to wash our feet and our hands, head and souls as well, and calls us to follow him along that path of humility and service. For him, and for those who truly follow him, to reign is to serve, not to be served. He wants us to share his ambition that we be truly great not necessarily in the eyes of others but in the eyes of his Father and in the Father’s kingdom. He teaches us by his words and by his own life that the way up in greatness is the way down in humility. That’s the second stage of conversion, for us, like St. Paul, like St. Augustine, to grasp that because “Christ died for all,” we should “not live for [ourselves], but for him who died for them” (2 Cor 5:15).
- The third stage in conversion is to grasp, with St. Augustine, that everything we do is meant to depend on, to flow from, and to be yoked to the mercy of God. Looking back at his life as he neared death, St. Augustine wrote a book of “retractions” for all of the mistakes he had made in his voluminous writings and he criticized his treatise on the Beatitudes — the greatest treatise on Jesus’ words about the path to happiness in the history of the Church! — because there was too much of a focus on us, on our efforts, and too little a focus on God’s mercy and help. St. Augustine saw that everything ultimately must come from the mercy of God. If his mercy endures forever, our openness to it, our receiving it, our responding to it, must likewise endure — and that’s something to which all of us need to convert because so often we try to do things by our own effort and power when God’s grace, when his assistance, is at our side. The Jubilee of Mercy is an opportunity for us to open ourselves up fully and say to Jesus in every instant, “Jesus, I trust in you!”
- And we have a great saint today to help us to learn how to do that. St. Polycarp was the heroic bishop of Smyrna in southwestern Turkey who was martyred on this day in 155. He learned the Gospel as a young boy from St. John the Apostle, who in his later years, St. Jerome tells us, never tired of simply preaching, “Little children, love one another,” saying that he would do so because the Lord never tired of calling us to love others in this way. St. Polycarp learned the lesson. With Pope St. Clement and St. Ignatius of Antioch (a saint whom he knew and from whom he received a celebrated letter), he is one of the three great Apostolic fathers, the great leaders of second generation of Christians, the ones who succeeded the apostles. We know how the faith spread so much in the first generations: it was the witness of martyrdom — that sane people treated Jesus as someone worth living for and dying for — and the witness of Christian charity, that Christians would sell all they had, lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles and bishops to care for everyone as family members where needed. Polycarp presided over that charity and mutual mercy. And at the end of life he also spread the faith, out of love for God and others, through his martyrdom. He was given a chance to save his life simply by cursing Jesus Christ. He replied, “For 86 years I have served him and he has done me no wrong, why would I betray him now?” He was dependent on God’s mercy until the end. They sentenced him to be burned at the stake and as they were tying his feet to the stake and were about to nail his feet, but he said, “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” He knew that God’s mercy could give him power even to sustain joyfully being burned alive. After he had prayed, they lit the fire, and the Christian eyewitnesses noted in their account of his martyrdom, “When a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.” He entered into the sacrifice of Christ that he had the privilege of celebrating each morning. And we prayed for the same gift as we opened today’s Mass, begging God to “grant, through [Polycarp’s] intercession, that, sharing with him in the chalice of Christ, we may rise through the Holy Spirit to eternal life.” It’s through receiving Christ’s mercy poured out for us for the remission of our sins each day that we are able to rise by the power of the Holy Spirit, our guide, to eternal life. This is the means by which we live out our perpetual conversion and receiving God’s enduring mercy so that we, like the saint we celebrate, may remain faithful to serving the Lord and never betraying him no matter how long we live and no matter what vicissitudes we face!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 1:10, 16-20
princes of Sodom!
Listen to the instruction of our God,
people of Gomorrah!Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.Come now, let us set things right,
says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be crimson red,
they may become white as wool.
If you are willing, and obey,
you shall eat the good things of the land;
But if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!
Responsorial Psalm PS 50:8-9, 16BC-17, 21 AND 23
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,
for your burnt offerings are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats out of your fold.”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
Verse Before The Gospel EZ 18:31
Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, says the LORD,
and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.
Gospel MT 23:1-12
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”