Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday after Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2017
Dt 30:15-20, Ps 1, Lk 9:22-25
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Todays’ readings, on our second day in the pilgrimage of Lent, are about the choices we are called to make to the graces God gives us that St. Paul appealed yesterday that we wouldn’t take in vain. The choice is framed by Moses in today’s first reading. The Israelites were drawing toward the end of their 40 year pilgrimage in the desert. Moses had led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, accompanied them through the desert for four decades and now they were on the opposite side of the Jordan from the long-awaited Holy Land. God had told Moses that he would die before crossing, so Moses in today’s first reading, was giving as a sort of last will and testament, a summary of what God had done for them and taught them. As the long experience of their time in the desert had taught them, however, God’s wondrous actions were not enough. The ten plagues weren’t enough. Their passing through the Red Sea on dry land wasn’t enough. The manna from heaven, the daily quails, the water from the rock the theophanies associated with giving the Ten Commandments were not enough. None was sufficient to keep many of the Jews faithful. Many of them complained that they should have remained in Egypt, others made a golden calf, even Aaron the high priest fell into the clutches of a wavering faith. So Moses want to urge them to choose and choose wisely. He framed the decision facing them as it truly was, a decision of life and death:
- “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live and grow numerous, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods, I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy. I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”
- He reminded them that the choice for God is a life-giving choice, a choice full of blessing; and that the choice against God, even if it might seem at first a choice that leads to life and happiness, is actually fatal. This is not something, of course, that they recognized. Throughout the desert they complained that they had left their fleshpots in Egypt behind just to perish in the desert by following the Lord. Along the way, many times they thought that the choice for God was a choice for death. But it was a choice for life. And those who sought the counterfeit path of turning their hearts away from God, of refusing to listen, of adoring and serving other gods, never made it out of the desert.
- That’s the choice that faces all of us in Lent. Lent historically and actually is a catechumenate, a 40 day pilgrimage of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil or, for those of us who have already been baptized, a 40 day renewal of the meaning of our baptism. Like the Jews, we have been set free from the slavery of sin and death, passing through the waters of baptism like the Jews passed through the Red Sea. We are presently in the desert with Jesus for these 40 days looking with him toward the eternal promised land that is anticipated in the celebration of Easter. It’s a time for us to focus on the graces of our liberation and the choice God has given to our freedom between life-giving fidelity through “loving him, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments,” through “heeding his voice and holding fast to him” or the path that leads to death under the seduction of bringing life.
- The contrast between these two paths is highlighted in today’s Psalm, which is the first of all the Psalms and the one that in a sense orients the praying of every psalm. It describes the “blessed man” who “delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night” as like a “tree planted near running water that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves never fade.” He receives life and is able to give life from his contact with the “living water” of God. On the hand, the “wicked” man, the one follows “the counsel of the wicked, … walks in the company of way of sinners, [and] sits in the company of the insolent” as “like the chaff that the wind drives away.” There are no roots, no substance, no life. The Psalm says, “the way of the wicked vanishes.” That’s the choice facing us as we begin Lent.
- Well, the question comes to us: Isn’t this choice a no-brainer? Who, after all, would consciously choose death over life? It’s like the choice between eating filet mignon or tree bark. But in the Gospel we see why the choice, though conceptually simple, is morally challenging.
- But before we get there we should stop to reflect on St. John Paul II’s insights about this passage within the context of the Gospel of Life that you, Sisters, live, announce to the world and help others to live. In Evangelium Vitae 28, St. John Paul says, that we need to be “fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We find ourselves not only ‘faced with’ but necessarily ‘in the midst of’ this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. For us too Moses’ invitation rings out loud and clear: ‘See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. … I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live’ (Dt 30:15, 19). This invitation is very appropriate for us who are called day by day to the duty of choosing between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death.’ But,” St. John Paul II emphasizes, “the call of Deuteronomy goes even deeper, for it urges us to make a choice which is properly religious and moral. It is a question of giving our own existence a basic orientation and living the law of the Lord faithfully and consistently: ‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live … therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days’ (30:16,19-20).” Choosing life must become a whole way of life. And then St. John Paul II finishes by reminding us that that choice of life is ultimately a choice of a Person who is the Resurrection and the Life: “The unconditional choice for life reaches its full religious and moral meaning when it flows from, is formed by and nourished by faith in Christ. Nothing helps us so much to face positively the conflict between death and life in which we are engaged as faith in the Son of God who became man and dwelt among men so ‘that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10). It is a matter of faith in the Risen Lord, who has conquered death; faith in the blood of Christ ‘that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel’ (Heb 12:24).”
- With that in mind, we turn to the Gospel, where Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life incarnate, tells us that the path of life is paradoxically a path of self-denial. Just as he was going to “suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” before being raised to unending life on the third day, so “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. ” He gets even more explicit about that paradox: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. ” In order to obtain life, we need to die to ourselves. We need to lose our life for the sake of God and the Gospel in order to retain it. In the choice between self-denial and self-affirmation, we think that the latter is the path of life, but it really is the former. In the path between the Cross and the comfy recliner, we think the latter is the path of life, but it is the former. In the path between following Christ to Calvary and going to Club Med, we think that the latter is the path of life, but it is the former. The path of life doesn’t seem to be life-giving and the path of death on the contrary does. But that’s what we have to grasp. There’s a choice between forfeiting oneself to gain the whole world or forfeiting the whole world to gain oneself.
- This is why living a good and holy Lent is so important. Lent is meant to help us to make the choice for real life, to help us to walk in the footsteps of Christ, to plant ourselves in his living water in the midst of the desert so that we may grow to eternity. But we need to make the full and conscious choice for life, which requires the full and conscious choice to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Christ. The three Lenten practices, when we choose to live them generously, are all geared to do this. All three teach us self-denial: fasting denies the dominion of our lower appetites, almsgiving denies our selfishness, prayer denies our egocentrism. Each, in a sense, is a Cross that leads to our self-death, because at times giving into our cravings, spending what we have on ourselves, and using our time for our own pursuits seems the path of life but they’re not. And each helps us to follow Christ in his own fasting, giving of himself to the point of death, and prayer. But for these to occur, we really must choose bold resolutions that can help facilitate these spiritual fruits, rather than soft ones that even if we keep them won’t really lead to the crucifixion to the worldliness that is necessary in order to experience the life that Jesus wants to give.
- Today, with Moses, Jesus and the Church place before us this choice between life and death, between a blessing and a curse, between the fruitful tree and the chaff. To make the choice for life we need faith and God will give us that gift. Looking at Jesus on the Cross and remembering that that choice of love was paradoxically the most life-giving choice of all can embolden us. We’ll sing later at this Mass some of the most beautiful Christian hymn lyrics ever written that summarize this message: “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died; my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood. … Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
- As we prepare now to receive the fruits of Jesus’ losing his life to save ours in the Holy Eucharist, we ask him for all the graces he knows we need to count the riches gains in the world but loss, to sacrifice our vain charms to his blood and to give our soul, life and all in the choice for life with Him who chose us first!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
“Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse.
Choose life, then,
that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God,
heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.
For that will mean life for you,
a long life for you to live on the land that the LORD swore
he would give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
PS 1:1-2, 3, 4 AND 6
Blessed the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”