Signs and Tests of Faith, Sixth Monday (II), February 17, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of the Seven Founders of the Servites of the Blessed Virgin Mary
February 17, 2014
James 1:1-11, Ps 119, Mk 8:11-13

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today in the Gospel, Jesus sighs with exasperation when the Pharisees came to argue with him and to ask him to perform “a sign from heaven” in order to test him. Jesus hadn’t come from heaven to earth to put on a show but to save people. The signs or miracles that he had been working in abundance were already giving evidence of the trustworthiness of his words and mission. He had himself announced in the Synagogue of Nazareth what Isaiah had prophesied about the Messiah, that he would make the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, the blind see, the prisoners experience liberation, and all people enter into a time of Jubilee, and that’s precisely what he had been doing. But no matter how many of these signs pointing to his divine mission and authority he did, the Pharisees just didn’t want to accept them, because they had already made up their mind about him. Immediately before this seen, he had just fed 4,000 men with 7 loaves and a few fish he had multiplied. He had one-by-one on several occasions cured all the sick who had been brought to him. In their presence, he had healed withered hands and paralyses, he had cast out demons, he had even raised a little girl from the dead. But they still wanted another sign.
  • The reality was that no matter how many signs that Jesus performed, they had made up their mind that they wouldn’t believe him; they were just hoping for a time in which when he sought to do a sign he would fail so that everyone would treat him as an impostor. Remember what had happened before when Jesus had finished various exorcisms. Rather than accept that as a sign, they accused him of casting out demons by the power of the Beelzebul, the prince of demons. When he later raised Lazarus from the dead on the fourth day — something no one would have imagined, because the Jews believed resurrection was possible until the third day, but on the fourth, they believe that there was no way a person could come back from the dead — rather than believe then, the same people who were plotting to get Jesus put to death wanted to have Lazarus killed as well, destroying the evidence of Jesus’ signs. And they sought to do the same thing with the one sign he announced he would do in St. Matthew’s Gospel in response to the same request. He said no sign would be given except the sign of Jonah, that just as Jonah had spent three days in the belly of the whale, so he would spend three days in the belly of the earth before being raised from the dead. Even after that sign, however, they still didn’t want to believe and instead they bribed the guards to like to say that Jesus’ disciples had come to steal the body while they were asleep. No matter what Jesus did — even rising from the dead on the third day after they had watched up be crucified and breath his last — they were not going to accept the sign as pointing to his divine mission or identity. No proof would be enough. No wonder why Jesus was so exasperated at their lack of faith!
  • The sign of Jonah is a sign that is still very important for us in the present. Jesus wants us not only to grasp that sign but, in a sense, perpetuate it. Today we begin two weeks of focus on the Letter of St. James, which is one of the clearest articulations of Christian behavior we find throughout the New Testament. Many Scripture scholars believe it’s a powerful application of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, which we’re pondering on Sundays through March 2. The essence of St. James’ letter, which we’ll hear later this week, is that we are called to be doers of the Word, not just listeners, to become living commentaries of what Jesus has taught.
  • Today St. James begins with, essentially, the Cross, our own share in Jesus’ Sign of Jonah. He tells us, “Consider it perfect joy when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let your perseverance be perfect so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The Lord Jesus allows us trials and tests so that we may grow in faithful perseverance, which is necessary for us to become to full stature in Christ. The word for perseverance used by St. James is hypomone, which points to the perseverance of Jesus on the Cross as well as to the perseverance of the Romans in a siege — they knew they would eventually win, no matter how long it would take. Such trials for us are tests, tests that not only we can pass, but with faith, will pass. Just as Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, so we, too, will rise if we persevere with him with faith.
  • Many times, St. James tells us a little later in today’s passage, we don’t have persevering faith. Our faith, he says, like the waves of the sea, undulating back and forth. Something we ride the wave of faith and put out boldly when we’re being tested, but then rather than continuing to advance, we pull back in faith. We don’t persevere. We’re of “two minds” and “unstable” in all we do. But in order to grow in this holy hypomone, we need trials, we need to acquire that virtue of patience through passing tests where we’re tempted toward impatience. When we bear sufferings well, when we unite ourselves to Christ during troubles with our health or with our family, we not only grow in faithful perseverance but we also become a sign of faith for others. Our suffering well helps them to see that faith is real and teaches them how to have faith even when we have anguish, distress, persecutions and other trials. But we need to embrace these tests given to us by God to help us grow in faith, because these crosses are truly caresses. In the Psalm today, we see the conversion of the Psalmist on this point. “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I hold to your promise,” he writes. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes. … In your faithfulness you have afflicted me!” God in his faithfulness allows us to be afflicted so that we may become more perfectly conformed to Christ and become united with him a sign of Jonah for the present age.
  • Those who became signs of Jonah for their age were the Seven Founders of the Order of the Servites (Servants) of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These were seven Merchants in Florence during the beginning of the mercantile age. They were great businessmen making a fortune, but they realized that there was another form of wealth, the only form of real wealth, a pearl of great price worth all of the other riches they had acquired. St. James said at the end of the first reading today words that they not only heard but did. “The brother in lowly circumstances should take pride in high standing — [his Christian dignity!] — and the rich one in his lowliness, for he will pass away ‘like the flower of the field.’ For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes. So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”  They were all devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and were in a special guild in Florence to venerate her and do works of charity in her honor. She called all of them one-by-one to desire to do something more and together they ended up founding this order. And the Order, founded around 1227, became like the Franciscans and the Dominicans founded shortly before, a great sign to the culture that spiritual poverty is more valuable than material riches, obedience to God more valuable than autonomy, chaste love of God even more important than the great good of marriage. They lived lives of prayer and penance so abstemious that a visiting bishop once said that poverty and mortification were one thing, but they were treating themselves like Barbarians. They had a special devotion to Mary’s Sorrows and sought to stand with her underneath the foot of her Son’s Cross, where they learned how to have that holy hypomone that would lead them to the glory of the Resurrection. One great test for all of them was the suppression of their order. The Pope and his advisors thought that the Church didn’t need any new orders but that the orders that existed needed to be reformed, so they suppressed all new orders. The Servites persevered in their prayer, though, and in their trust in God and after personal interventions in Rome, their order was reestablished. They teach us that even when we suffer on account of the Church that God will use those afflictions to bring us to perfection through persevering faith.
  • Today we ask their intercession that we in our own day may pass the tests of faith God gives us and become signs of Christ in the midst of a world that needs to see these signs as much as those of  13th century Florence. The great help they had for perseverance was the daily Mass, when they entered into Jesus’ own passover, his own Sign of Jonah, and came out already experiencing a union with him in his passion, death and resurrection. We have that same privilege today. Let us ask the Lord with whom we’re about to enter into a holy communion, to strengthen us from within with his own hypomone so that we may be a wave that doesn’t recede but pushes like a tsunami toward the eternal shore.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JAS 1:1-11

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings.
Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters,
when you encounter various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
And let perseverance be perfect,
so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
But if any of you lacks wisdom,
he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly,
and he will be given it.
But he should ask in faith, not doubting,
for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea
that is driven and tossed about by the wind.
For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord,
since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.The brother in lowly circumstances
should take pride in high standing,
and the rich one in his lowliness,
for he will pass away “like the flower of the field.”
For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass,
its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes.
So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 119:67, 68, 71, 72, 75, 76

R. (77a) Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I hold to your promise.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
You are good and bountiful;
teach me your statutes.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
It is good for me that I have been afflicted,
that I may learn your statutes.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
I know, O LORD, that your ordinances are just,
and in your faithfulness you have afflicted me.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.
Let your kindness comfort me
according to your promise to your servants.
R. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

Gospel
MK 8:11-13

The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,
seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.