Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
January 21, 2016
1 Sam 18:6-9.19:1-7, Ps 56, Mk 3:7-12
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today on this fourth day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, we encounter explicitly in today’s first reading and the memorial we mark today, and between the lines of today’s Gospel, what is perhaps the greatest destroyer of unity. In this Year of Consecrated Life, it’s what priests and spiritual directors — including Pope Francis — say is the chief virus of women’s religious communities. In this Year of Mercy, we encounter something for which all of us probably at many times in our life need God to forgive. It’s the sin of envy, the deep sadness over someone else’s success, the anger over someone else’s goodness. It allows us within this extraordinary Jubilee, this Year of Consecrated Life, and this Octave to open ourselves up to particular graces the Lord wants to give us and wants us to live by.
- We see the destructive power of envy in today’s first reading. The Israelites, led by Saul, had triumphed in battle. Everyone was rejoicing. The women came out to meet the returning soldiers with an ancient ticker-tape parade, singing and dancing, with tambourines, sistrums and joyful songs they had composed. They began singing, “Saul has slain his thousands.” Think about that. Saul had triumphed over thousands of people. He was not just a king but a hero. And all the women were fawning over him. He should have been exultant, but his joy at his battlefield prowess was short-lived. In the second verse, they sang, “and David his ten thousands.” And that filled Saul with bitterness. Remember, David was slaying tens of thousands of people for the Israelites, for the nation Saul was leading. It would be like cheerleaders on a basketball team that has just won a championship, chanting “our point guard has scored 50 points, but our center has scored 60,” and having the point guard be more upset that he was upstaged by a teammate striving for the same team goal than he would be happy at winning a championship. It was ugly. It was petty. And it was destructive. Rather than rejoicing that God had obviously anointed David with special blessing — otherwise how could the harpist-shepherd really take down so many? — and blessed Saul and his armies with that gift, he said to himself, “All that remains for him is the kingship.” The victory turned into a defeat in his heart and he sought revenge against the one who helped him triumph. Like King Herod would eventually try to strike down out of envy David’s 28th generation grandson, so Saul put David in his royal crosshairs. Rather than fighting together, rather than working together for the good, rather than rejoicing in their victory, Saul decided to go and destroy his greatest military asset. And even after he calmed down at the end of today’s Gospel, we would see that this cancer of envy would return many times and Saul would seek to destroy David several times anew, despite David’s goodness to Saul.
- The future Pope Francis, in a book containing 48 spiritual conferences from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires that was compiled as he was preparing to retire two years ago, pondered what happened in Saul during this scene. “Saul’s envy of David,” he wrote, “betrayed a serious obtuseness on his part. Instead of joining with the people and benefitting from the unification of the whole nation around David, Saul preferred to go on his own way, stubbornly refusing to recognize this man anointed by God. Envy always errs in its object and frustrates the struggle. When people desire something good but do so with envy, they end up losing what is truly good, and, in the case of Saul, it was the common project, the corporate institution. When Saul’s isolated, disobedient conscience separated him from the Lord, he dragged the whole people down with him.” Cardinal Bergoglio makes a very profound point. When envy exists in a heart, it really can’t rejoice in a common victory because one can’t tolerate sharing the credit. Envy is a destructive selfishness that makes true solidarity disintegrate, because one is sad rather than joyful at the success or blessing of a teammate or a brother. Jealousy and envy are two different things. Jealously is basically, “I like your shirt and I hope to have one just like it one day.” Envy is, “I like your shirt, and because I don’t have one, I don’t want you to have yours either.” And it leads to terrible atrocities. It led Cain to kill Abel. It led to the devil’s fall and his desire to destroy us, because Christ took on our nature instead of the angelic nature. As the Book of Wisdom reminds us, “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it” (Wis 2:24). Envy is a sign that the devil to some degree possesses us, because the devil is defined by envy.
- This morning in his homily at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis compared envy to a weed that can choke the growth of the seed of God’s work in us. “How ugly envy is! it is an attitude, it is an ugly sin. And jealousy or envy grows in the heart like a weed: it grows, but it doesn’t allow good plants to grow. It harms everything that its shadow seems to fall upon. There is no peace! It is a tormented heart, it is an ugly heart! But the envious heart, too – we hear it here – leads to killing, to death. Envy kills. It does not tolerate others having something that I do not have. And it always suffers, because the heart of an envious or jealous person suffers. It is a suffering heart!” It is a suffering that desires ‘the death of others.'”
- We see this truth about the homicidal hearts of the envious between the lines of today’s Gospel. The lines themselves show us the great attractiveness of the Lord Jesus on display. St. Mark tells us that such a large crowd of people was following Jesus that he needed to have a boat ready to push a little bit away from the shore so that the people wouldn’t crush him. They were coming from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, the Transjordan, Tyre and Sidon. For those who don’t know the geography of the Holy Land very well, those locations might just be names. But Galilee was in the north and Judea in the South of the Holy Land. Idumea was even further to the South. The Transjordan were pagan inhabited regions on the other side of the Jordan and Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were pagan cities way to the north along the Mediterranean. To get a sense of the message St. Mark was communicating it would be as if Jesus were here in Manhattan and that people were walking to see him from Maine, New Jersey and as far away as North Carolina, from Detroit and the outer reaches of Long Island, and it wasn’t just Catholics coming but also atheists, secularists, and those of other religions. They were all pressing upon Jesus, who was curing and teaching. Even the demons couldn’t help, in a sense, but praise him, blurting out against themselves that he was far more than the Jews’ long-awaited Messiah, but something far more significant, “You are the Son of God.”
- At the same time, however, we see in this scene that not everyone was attracted to Jesus. Amidst the joy of so many miraculous healings, so many exorcisms, so many blind people seeing for the first time, so many deaf and mute communicating normally, so many lame people leaving their mats and exultingly ripping off their bandages, not everyone was happy. In fact there were some people who — as we saw at the end of yesterdays Gospel — at this time were plotting to have him murdered, because he actually had the gall to love people with deeds on the Lord’s day. These were people who resented what he was doing, resented other people’s happiness, because of their own miserable approach to God, others and themselves. They were a society of older brothers from the Parable of the Prodigal Son who lived religious like servants not sons who when their brothers received any blessing couldn’t celebrate because their hearts were lived in resentment. They would rather have their brothers suffer, remain lost, remain crippled, even die than to celebrate their healing, rediscovery and spiritual resurrection. That is the evil that envy wreaks. And that envy would lead ultimately to Jesus’ death.
- And that envy continues in every age to those who don’t really want to accept Jesus and his way of blessing others. We see that in the lives of the martyrs, like that of St. Agnes, whom we celebrate today. St. Agnes was a beautiful 12 year old virgin, who had consecrated herself to the Lord, her “heavenly spouse,” as she called Jesus in the stories of her death. Men who wanted her for themselves couldn’t stand the fact that she belonged to someone else, even to the One she believed was God. If they couldn’t have her, they didn’t want anyone to have her. In fact, if they couldn’t have her, they wanted her dead. They outed her as a Christian during the ferocious anti-Christian persecution of Diocletian (early 300s). After the magistrate tried to frighten her through showing her various means of torture, she persevered. He sentenced her to a brothel so that people would destroy the beauty of her bodily consecration to the Lord, but the Lord miraculously protected her. Her martyrdom, as St. Ambrose once said, was simply an extension of the death to self out of love for God that characterized her chaste virginity: virginity is praiseworthy, he wrote, not because it is found in martyrs but because in makes martyrs. People rejoiced in the death of this beautiful, faithful, chaste your girl; that’s what evil does. And so we shouldn’t be surprised if envy gets people even in our own day to resent our love and service of God. We shouldn’t be surprised if our virtues are mocked. We shouldn’t be surprised if people try to destroy our reputations if prior to our conversion we did things that were not pleasing to the Lord. But the Lord Jesus died to take away the envy that led to his death, from all those who basically wanted the Father dead so that we could, as the Prodigal Son, spend our inheritance whichever way we pleased, from all those who succumbed to wanting to be “like God” by their own terms, as Adam and Eve did at the beginning. And so we will suffer envy as co-redeemers over the course of our Christian life and should be ready for it.
- At the same time, we need to battle against envy in our own hearts. What would be the remedy for envy? I can propose a few ways:
- The first is that we need constantly to be wishing each other well, in our thoughts, in our words and with our deeds. Becoming the president of their fan club. Really wanting the best for them. Listing their good qualities in our own mind and heart. Praying for them to get ahead. This is the first antidote to envy that can invade communities of believers.
- The second is authentic humility. I’ve always loved Cardinal Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility and I pray it very often, as I know some of you also do. Praying the words sometimes takes heroism, because it goes so much against the way our fallen human nature can operate. We pray there, “That others may be esteemed more than I … That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease … That others may be chosen and I set aside … That others may be praised and I unnoticed … That others may be preferred to me in everything… That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.” This is a prayer that makes us happier when a brother is chosen than when we’re chosen and is a real expression of genuine love for our brother. The more we cultivate that prayer, the less we’ll be eaten alive by envy.
- The third is to cultivate authentic fraternity. We see in contrast to Saul’s envy Jonathan’s fraternal love. If anyone should have been jealous over David’s success it should have been he, because he was presumptively Saul’s heir, but instead of being filled with envy, he intervened to save David’s life. He was filled with fraternity, friendship and love. No wonder why he’s always been a model of a true friend.
- The last is to celebrate the gifts of others. We shouldn’t find others’ goodness a threat but a grace. If they’re holy, and sitting beside us, rather than making us feel bad, we should feel great that we have a companion who can strengthen us to become more like God. Envy ultimately flows from a deep insecurity about how loved we are by God in our own unique way, and when we can live in that love by God then we can more easily rejoice in the way God loves others, even if he loves them differently than the way he loves us.
- Today as we come forward to celebrate this Mass, we rejoice at the blessed that God has given everyone else, those who pray better than we do, who serve better than we do, who are more merciful, who are more patient, who are more enthusiastic, who sing better than we do, who do just about everything better than we do. We rejoice that they are on our team and are doing so much good for the Lord in helping him save the world. And we thank him for loving us so much that he has drafted us by name onto that same championship team. And we ask the Lord with whom we are about to enter into holy communion to bring us into greater loving communion with each other.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 SM 18:6-9;19:1-7
(on David’s return after slaying the Philistine),
women came out from each of the cities of Israel to meet King Saul,
singing and dancing, with tambourines, joyful songs, and sistrums.
The women played and sang:“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought:
“They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me.
All that remains for him is the kingship.”
And from that day on, Saul was jealous of David.Saul discussed his intention of killing David
with his son Jonathan and with all his servants.
But Saul’s son Jonathan, who was very fond of David, told him:
“My father Saul is trying to kill you.
Therefore, please be on your guard tomorrow morning;
get out of sight and remain in hiding.
I, however, will go out and stand beside my father
in the countryside where you are, and will speak to him about you.
If I learn anything, I will let you know.”Jonathan then spoke well of David to his father Saul, saying to him:
“Let not your majesty sin against his servant David,
for he has committed no offense against you,
but has helped you very much by his deeds.
When he took his life in his hands and slew the Philistine,
and the LORD brought about a great victory
for all Israel through him,
you were glad to see it.
Why, then, should you become guilty of shedding innocent blood
by killing David without cause?”
Saul heeded Jonathan’s plea and swore,
“As the LORD lives, he shall not be killed.”
So Jonathan summoned David and repeated the whole conversation to him.
Jonathan then brought David to Saul, and David served him as before.
PS 56:2-3, 9-10A, 10B-11, 12-13
Have mercy on me, O God, for men trample upon me;
all the day they press their attack against me.
My adversaries trample upon me all the day;
yes, many fight against me.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
My wanderings you have counted;
my tears are stored in your flask;
are they not recorded in your book?
Then do my enemies turn back,
when I call upon you.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
Now I know that God is with me.
In God, in whose promise I glory,
in God I trust without fear;
what can flesh do against me?
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
I am bound, O God, by vows to you;
your thank offerings I will fulfill.
For you have rescued me from death,
my feet, too, from stumbling;
that I may walk before God in the light of the living.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea.
Hearing what he was doing,
a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem,
from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan,
and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.
He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd,
so that they would not crush him.
He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases
were pressing upon him to touch him.
And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him
and shout, “You are the Son of God.”
He warned them sternly not to make him known.