The Certainty of the Teachings We Have Received, Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (C), January 21, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
January 21, 2007
Neh 8:2-4,5-6,8-10; 1Cor 12:12-30; Lk 1:1-4;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 painfully seeing in 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. After about 100 years of chaos, however, God sent two leaders — Nehemiah and Ezra — to reorder the society and found it on God’s law. Ezra was a prophet who announced God’s word to the people. Nehemiah was a civil leader who brought order and civilization back, by bringing people back to knowing and practicing the law of God. 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 — please don’t miss this detail if you think my homilies are long! — 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. Think for a minute what would happen in Baghdad if everyone would just agree to follow the Ten Commandments, so that no one would have to live under threat of kidnapping, or being killed, or being ripped off, or betrayed. People would likely break down in tears of joy as well. 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” (Jn 8:32). The truth of LIVING GOD’S WORD will make us free. Pope John Paul II 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 taught it was rather the ability to be able to do WHAT WE OUGHT TO DO. Real freedom is not the capacity to play God, but to act in accordance with the way God made us. It’s not the ability to do wrong — because doing wrong is always a form of slavery, whether to ignorance or to our own false impulses — but to do what’s right with ever greater ease.

4) Nowhere is this contrast between the two understandings of freedom more apparent than in the false freedom of choice that attempts to justify killing one’s own children through abortion. Tomorrow we mark the 34th anniversary of Roe versus Wade, the 1973 decision of the Supreme Court that made abortion legal in our country for all nine months for really any reason. Since that time, almost fifty million children have perished in our country alone through abortion, one about every 23 seconds. In the span of this twenty minute homily, almost 50 other children will die. Real freedom can only be based on the truth and the truth about the unborn child is that God has made her in his image and likeness, formed her in the womb, infused in her a human soul, and called her to an eternal communion with him. The truth is that Jesus said to us that whatever we do or fail to do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do or fail to do to Him (Mt 25:31-46). And the unborn child is the littlest of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. What we do or fail to do with regard to the unborn child, we do or fail to do to Jesus. I want to repeat that: what we do or fail to do with regard to the unborn child, we do or fail to do to Jesus. This is a teaching that we have received with certainy! I’ll come back to this later.

5) The pro-abortion movement has been based not on the truth that God and human reason reveals about the humanity of the child, but on a bunch of lies — in both terminology and court testimony — and a false sense of freedom. A woman who makes the choice to abort her son or daughter is not living according to the truth, but rather is bound by one of the worst types of slavery. It is the type of slavery that convinces a woman that she’s trapped and the only way out of those shackles is to end the life of her own kid. It’s a slavery that often comes from her boyfriend or parents, who pressure her to make the choice by convincing her that her life — and their relationship — will be over unless the child is executed. It’s a slavery that she may feel even comes from her developing child, who forces her to “lose control” over her own destiny. But killing an innocent child in the womb is a perverse and false type of freedom. Our freedom is to love not to destroy, to give of ourselves to others, to sacrifice. Blessed Mother Teresa talked about this false freedom and its consequences in her address to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. In the presence of President and Mrs. Clinton, Vice-President and Mrs. Gore — all of whom support abortion on demand — she point out the link between freedom and responsibility, freedom and love, and false freedom and the lack of peace. Without mincing any words she said: “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child — a direct killing of the innocent child — murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? … By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. … Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.” The next year, immediately after Mother Teresa was here in New Bedford, she traveled to St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Boston, she entered the sick children’s ward, and then picked up an sick infant and went straight outside to the television cameras, where she said slowly and deliberately, in words that still make my eyes water and send chills up my spine: “Jesus said that whoever receives a little child like this in my name receives ME.”

6) So the question for us is whether we have received the little unborn child in Jesus’ name or looked the other way when he was slaughtered. We have to be honest: most of us here in Massachusetts have done the latter. There are two statistics that continue to dumbfound me. The first is that Rhode Island (63%) and Massachusetts (49%) are by far the two most Catholic states in the U.S. The second is that Rhode Island and Massachusetts have among the highest per capita abortion rates in the country. How shameful is that? This can only occur because many Catholics have been having abortions and most other Catholics have been looking the other way and doing nothing. It’s not that everyone has been silent. The Popes have been speaking out against abortion for decades. The Massachusetts bishops have been preaching about it. There have been many priests and groups of lay people who have actively been involved. But the vast majority of Catholics have simply done nothing or done very little.

7) In the second reading today, St. Paul tells us very clearly that the Church has to act in unison. None of us can pass the buck. He says that whether we’re a hand or a foot, that we can’t say that because we’re not an eye or the head that we don’t belong to the body. Nor can the one part of the body say to another, “I don’t need you.” The simple fact is we all need to work together. I can update St. Paul’s analogy in 21st century terms. The Patriots’ offense this afternoon can’t say to the defense, “we don’t need you.” The defense can’t say to the special teams, “we don’t need you.” Larry Izzo can’t say, “Because I’m not Tom Brady, I’m not an important part of the team.” The simple truth is that every member of the team is important. If the offense doesn’t do it’s job, the defense will be on the field much longer, get exhausted, and eventually be worn down. If the special teams doesn’t do its job, then the offense will start with terrible field position. If one member of the offensive line falls asleep, Tom Brady may end up getting massacred. It’s the same way with the Church. And with relation to abortion, the “team” of the Church in Massachusetts has really been no better than the Detroit Lions. Various limbs of the mystical body have simply been asleep. The Lord wants more from us. And what’s at stake is not a game, but the life or death of our younger brothers and sisters.

8 ) What are we called to do? What role does each of us have in bringing about a culture of life? When I think about what we’re called to do, I cannot forget my first time in prison, fifteen years ago, when I went to visit and interview Bill Cotter for a magazine I had help to found in college. Bill had been imprisoned for 2.5 years for chaining himself to the front doors of an abortion clinic in Brookline. The day he was sentenced, the judge gave two child molesters suspended sentences. This meek, humble computer software engineer was obviously considered by the judge a greater risk than two child abusers. I asked him during the interview why he did what he did. I’ll never forget his response. He said it was impossible for him merely to remain at home filling out pro-life postcards to send to representatives in Washington. He asked that if we observed kids in the road who were about to be run over by a speeding truck, what would be an adequate response? Would it be enough, he said, to watch the kids get slaughtered and then write postcards to the city council petitioning for a change in traffic patterns? No. Most of us in that circumstance would run to try to rescue the kids in the road before they died. That’s what he saw himself doing. The reality is that the kids are still in the road and the question is what are we willing to do about it. The Lord is not asking us all to do what Bill Cotter did, but he’s clearly asking us to do more than sign and send pro-life postcards.

a. The first thing all of us need to do is to pray and sacrifice. We need to pray and fast for those women who are being tempted by false friends and the devil to have an abortion, that they may be delivered from this evil. We need to pray for the conversion of those doctors and nurses who do the ghastly work of abortion. We need to pray and sacrifice for the conversion of legislators, executives and judges who promote abortion. We need to pray for those women who have had abortions, that they may come to receive God’s forgiveness and receive his strength to minister to other women facing difficult pregnancies so that they may not make the same disastrous choice. We need to pray for all the unborn (and unbaptized) children, that the Lord may treat them like the Holy Innocents and take them to himself. Tomorrow, the bishops of the United States have declared a special day of prayer and penance for all of these intentions, which we should treat like a Friday in Lent. They want the whole mystical body of Christ in the United States, head, eyes, hands, feet and heart to pray in unison. Please do your part.

b. The second thing I’d ask you all to do is to tell the young women you know and love that if they ever find themselves in a difficult pregnancy that you will be there to support them and help them choose life. Moms and dads, when you’re explaining to your sons and daughters about the birds and bees and the importance of remaining faithful to God and to their future spouse by saving themselves for marriage, please also tell them that if they happen to sin and it leads to a pregnancy, that you will never be ashamed of them and always love and support them and your new grandson or granddaughter.

c. Third, please live out your pro-life convictions. Get involved. Think about going down to pray peacefully at the various abortuaries within driving distance. In the Anchor next Friday there will be a story about the apostolate of prayer done outside of places where abortions are done. In the past year alone, they have saved sixty children from death. Frightened young girls see them praying and slow down. Sometimes they’ll say, “You don’t have to do this. We’ll help you.” And they follow through on that help. All of us I think aspire to real heroism, to be able to save someone’s life when that life is danger. These ordinary people just like us have saved sixty young children from certain death in just the last year alone in various places in our diocese. With your help, they might be able to save one, or ten, or twenty more.

d. Fourth, please vote pro-life. It is a colossal disgrace that in a state as Catholic as ours that both of our senators and all but one of our Massachusetts congressional delegation supports abortion. They’re there because we vote them in, and someone collectively we think that their support of killing innocent children in the womb is less important than party affiliation, or their last name, or some other issue. I doubt many of us could ever vote for a Nazi, or a racist of the Ku Klux Klan. How can we sleep at night if we say that someone who supports the destruction of innocent human life worthily represents us?

9) The Lord Jesus who came to his hometown synagogue to proclaim liberty to captives has come here today. He teaches us his truth and he calls on us to proclaim his Gospel — which is a gospel of life and genuine love — to all those who are held in the bondage of pro-abortion lies or personal fear or false sense freedom. This task is not easy. There will be many who will reject this message, just like they rejected Jesus. But Jesus never promised us an easy discipleship. What he did promise was that he would be with us always until the end of time. The same Holy Spirit who anointed him to proclaim Good News has anointed us in Confirmation. As we prepare to receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion, we ask the Holy Spirit to help us to become more and more him whom we receive, so that we can truly be his body, his hands, his lips, his eyes, his ears here in our Commonwealth. We ask him to help us never to take the gift of his law for granted. We ask him to help us to live, rejoice in and proclaim the “certainty of the teachings” that we have received, the truth that will set us free. Amen! Amen!