Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
January 25, 2004
Neh 8:2-4,5-6,8-10; 1Cor12:12-30; Lk1:1-4;4:14-21
1) In the passage we have just heard, St. Luke tells us very clearly why the Holy Spirit inspired him to write his Gospel: “so that you may realize the CERTAINTY of the teachings you have received.” In another translation, the purpose is stated so that we may “know the truth” about the things we have been given. The whole purpose of the Gospel is to pass on to us, with certainty, the TRUTH — the truth about God, the truth about who we are, the truth about right and wrong, the truth about heaven and hell, the truth about real love, the truth, simply, about the most important things of all — and help us to LIVE THAT TRUTH.
2) This truth is an incredible gift, but many times we can take it for granted. Sometimes it is only when we lose the ability to live according to the truth that we recognize what a great gift it is. This is what happened to the ancient Israelites. It was only when they were forcibly dragged to Babylon (modern day Baghdad) to live under slavery for 50 years that many of them began to appreciate the great gift of God’s law, given to them hundreds of years earlier. When they returned to Jerusalem in 538 BC, the reconstruction of society went very slowly. As we’re seeing Iraq today, freedom from slavery doesn’t always translate into a free, ordered and virtuous society, because many will misuse their new freedom to do whatever they can get away with. In ancient Jerusalem, this meant great social problems, robberies, murders, adultery and other crimes. However, after about 100 years of chaos, God sent two leaders — Nehemiah and Ezra — to reorder the society and found it on God’s law. As we see in today’s first reading, Ezra opened up the scroll of God’s law and preached it to all the Israelites in Jerusalem from dawn until noon. The men, women and “children old enough to understand” listened attentively to God’s law for HOURS. After Ezra was done, they exclaimed “Amen! Amen!,” prostrated themselves before the Lord, and began to weep, which was probably a mixture of tears of sadness (because they realized how much they hadn’t kept God’s law) and tears of joy (because they realized how merciful God was in giving them the law). They saw the law as the great gift it was and praised God for it. The Jews prayed in the psalms, “Teach me your ways, O Lord” and meant deeply what we prayed today in the psalm: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decree of the Lord is trustworthy giving wisdom to the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.” Almost in summary, the psalmist prays, “The ordinances of the Lord are true, and all of them just.”
3) Like the ancient Israelites, we, too, can sometimes take the gift of God’s law for granted. Rather than looking at the commandments as perfect, trustworthy, right and true, we can view them as arbitrary commands of a divine dictator. Rather than recognizing how God’s law refreshes the soul, helps our hearts rejoice, makes us wise, and enlightens our minds, we can see them as a burden, something that limits our freedom rather than makes true freedom possible. Jesus said once in the Gospel, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The truth of LIVING GOD’S WORD will make us free. Pope John Paul II has stressed throughout his pontificate the real meaning of freedom against the modern world’s false conception. Modern man thinks that real freedom is the ability to do WHATEVER WE WANT. Pope John Paul II says it is rather the ability to be able to do WHAT WE OUGHT TO DO. Modern man thinks it’s not being hindered by anyone or anything, even God. The Holy Father says it is the ability to act fully in accord with the way God made us. Many in our country, especially the majority of young people, don’t understand why the Pope says what he does, but the pope’s biography can help all of us see it more clearly. He grew up in Poland, where his country was ruled first by the Nazis and then by the atheistic communists, both of whom brutally repressed Polish freedom. Just as the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt longed to go worship God, the communists in Poland made it extremely difficult for Poles to put God first. Polish parents hungered to be able to raise their kids well, by teaching them the difference between right and wrong, but the communist schools kept indoctrinating their kids with lies about who the human person is, with lies about the meaning of family and society, with lies about the real path to happiness. The young future Pope realized quite early on that real purpose of freedom is to do what we ought to do, and this is precisely what the totalitarian states tried to prevent, because they wanted to be worshipped as god. These regimes wanted to determine what is right or wrong.
4) We give thanks to God that we live in a free society, but sometimes, individually, we can make the same mistakes that the totalitarian states made in their societies. We can try to play God and pretend as if we are the ones who determine what’s right or wrong. Like them, we can start to act as if God is dead. We can start living a lie. We can begin to think that our real freedom exists in doing whatever we want to do rather than what is right before God in accordance with our nature and the nature of things. When we start to do so, and when our society starts to do so, we lose our freedom, by voluntarily becoming slaves to ourselves, to our desires, to our fallen human nature. Then all of society starts to suffer. We can make the same mistake that the Jews did in foresaking God’s teaching, as they did before the fall of Jerusalem. Their immorality made them weak and the Babylonians were able to overtake them. When we give in to immorality, we, too, become weaker and so does our society and set ourselves up for a massive fall. This is not principally because God punishes us, but because immorality always weakens us individually and as a society. This truth is obvious when we think about it, but sometimes I wonder how many of us think about it. When we keep the commandments, we are stronger; when we violate them, we are weaker. Just imagine how much better and stronger our society would be if we all kept the 10 commandments, if there were no murders or hatred, if there were no broken families through adultery, if there were no lies, or robberies, if everyone truly honored and respected the wisdom and experience of parents and those in authority, if everyone put God first on the Lord’s day, if we all loved others as Jesus has loved us. When we fail to respect the wisdom of God’s law and live by it, we inflict damage on ourselves and on all of society. And we will harm ourselves and others.
5) In our Commonwealth today, we are on the brink of either one of the worst distasters in state history or one of the greatest triumphs — and that outcome depends on YOU. It’s the battle over the truth of marriage. It is a choice between what freely following what God has revealed to us through our nature and a false notion of freedom that wants to ignore those truths obvious to human reason. Some in our state are trying to get us to buy into a lie that there is real meaning to marriage beyond a commitment between any two people and hence that anyone should be free to “marry” anyone else, regardless of the other person’s sex. They ignore the reality that marriage specifically refers to the union of two people of opposite sexes, not just the union of two people. When that is lost, marriage becomes meaningless. As a witty friend of mine wrote to me yesterday in an email, “You can no more leave an entire sex outside of marriage and call it ‘marriage’ than you can leave chocolate out of a ‘chocolate brownie’ recipe. It becomes something else.” The truth about marriage as the union between a male and a female has been recognized since the beginning of recorded history, in every culture, among every race.
6) As Christians we have even more evidence than what God has revealed to us through our nature. The eternal Son of God came into our world and taught us very clearly the meaning of marriage. He is the Truth incarnate, the one through whom all things (including us) were made, and therefore he knows what he is talking about. He would never lie to us. Listen to what he said when a lawyer asked him a question about marriage: “In the beginning God ‘made them MALE AND FEMALE.’ … ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his WIFE, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In this teaching, Jesus the Lord reveals to us four things relevant to our present debate about marriage:
a) God made us male and female (and not male and male) for a purpose. There is great meaning in everything God does and hence to our masculinity or femininity.
b) God’s plan is not that a man leave his parents and cling to whomever he wishes, but to a wife.
c) In marriage, two people are meant by God to become one flesh. This is not a sweet metaphor, but points to a reality that goes beyond just the temporary physical contact that comes in the act of making love. It is geared toward a perduring union when man and woman, through making love, actually procreate love and become lastingly one flesh in a child. Obviously man and man, and woman and woman, cannot become one flesh in this way.
d) Finally, man must not divide what God has joined. God has joined man and woman in marriage and when we try to put that asunder, we will do so at our own and all of society’s expense.
7) What should our response be before this truth that the Lord has revealed? The Lord wants us to rejoice before this truth, just like the Israelites rejoiced before his law at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. He wants us to shout for joy, “Amen! Amen!” like they did, to praise him for giving us such amazing clarity when we need it. But he would also want us to do something more: to PREACH it and to PUT IT INTO ACTION. In today’s Gospel, Jesus arrived in his home town to “preach the good news.” He calls us to go into our home towns throughout the state and preach that same good news, the truth that will set us free. What would Christ say if he were to speak to our legislators? He wants us to say that for him. St. Teresa of Avila once said, very powerfully, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.” We need to be Christ’s voice and speak the truth in charity. We need to be his hands to dial the phone or pick up the paper and pen and contact our legislators. We need to be his witnesses, his disciples, his apostles.
8 ) None of us can pass the buck. This is the truth St. Paul teaches us in the second reading as he taught the Corinthians. By baptism, we have all become Christ’s mystical body, the Church. We have become Christ’s hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears. We all have to act together in the Church, all of us members of Christ according to our state in life and in the Church. The bishops of our state have been speaking out very forcefully in the name of Christ. The priests, especially yours here at this parish, have been doing a lot of work to help the bishops and preaching out strongly, as Father Tom does in today’s bulletin. But that is not enough. The lay people of the Church need to get involved as well. We are all parts of the mystical body of Christ and we must all act together. St. Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” The simple fact is that Christ needs us all. The whole mystical body needs to act in concert.
9) Christ wants each of us — and that includes YOU — to continue his work of proclaiming liberty to those enslaved by lies. He wants us to help him release those who are captive to false ideas, to return sight to those blinded by lust, to free those who are oppressed by lifestyles that harm them. The way to free those under the bondage of same-sex attraction is not to eliminate the distinctiveness of marriage, but to proclaim the real meaning of love, marriage, sexuality and family all the more. It is not to bring all of society INTO the prison cell of a false understanding, but to liberate all of society from it, by preaching the truth and bringing the light of Christ to those who are blind. Jesus loved us enough and trusted us enough that he wanted to give us a share in preaching the truth that will set others free.
10) Preaching the truth always comes with a price. Soon after the scene in today’s Gospel, the residents of Jesus’ hometown were filled with rage, rose up and tried to kill him by hurling him over the cliff on which the town on which Nazareth was built. We know what happened to the first apostles, whom the Lord sent out to preach the Good News: many rejected that good news and eleven of the first twelve were martyred. Probably some people will write the pastor, as they always do when I preach on something controversial, and say, “Pull the plug on this young priest!” But Jesus never promised us an easy life as his disciples, and when we really preach the Gospel we learn that others will oppose us just like the opposed Jesus. But while Jesus did not promise us a facile discipleship, he did promise us something more important: that he would be with us always until the end of time. With him, nothing is impossible. Now is our turn to stick up for him who died for us. Now is the time for real Christian men and women to stand up and be counted.
11) As we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we ask the Lord to make us Whom we receive, so that we can be his body, his hands, his lips, his eyes, his ears here in our Commonwealth, preaching and living the truth that sets us free, proclaiming “the certainy of the teachings” we have received. May the Lord give us the help he knows we need to respond like the Israelites did in the first reading to his law of love: “Amen! Amen!”