Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Chapel of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. John Vianney, Patron Saint of Parish Priests
August 4, 2016
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51, Mt 16:13-23
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- During this Year of Mercy, we’ve been pondering God’s merciful love, his hesed, which involves his fidelity to himself, in never breaking his end of the Covenant he made with us no matter how often we’ve broken our end. And we rejoice in how Jesus instituted the new and eternal Covenant in his merciful blood. Today we have a chance to ponder those covenants of mercy and how to live faithfully in response to it.
- In today’s first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah talks about the type of renewal God wanted to give the people of Jerusalem, Judah and Israel after the Babylonian exile. He wanted to give them a new covenant. God said it would be a different Covenant than the one he made on Mount Sinai through Moses. That Covenant God wrote on tablets and he needed to treat his people like infants, taking them “by the hand” and even needing to show them because of their disobedience that he was their master. Today he says that in the Covenant, he would write it not on tablets, not even in the minds, but upon their hearts, so that they might understand their relationship with God as a thing of love. He wouldn’t need to take them step by step by the hands and discipline them like a master, because they would be capable of following him out of love with mature freedom. “All, from least to greatest” would be able to know him personally; they wouldn’t need others to tell them about him. That’s a prophecy of what Jesus himself would accomplish when at last he came.
- During this Year of Mercy, Jesus wants to renew that Covenant with each of us. Jesus wants to place anew the fulfillment of the Covenant in us, the new and eternal Covenant incarnate, Christ himself, to place his poverty in us, his chastity in us, his obedience in us, his service in us, his love for God and others in us, so that we may know him even more intimately in these ways than before. In response to our pleas in the Psalm for a new, contrite and humbled heart, for a steadfast and willing spirit, for the joy of salvation, God replies, as he does every prayer we ever make, with the gift of Himself. God initiates the gift of that Covenant and also gives us the graces needed to respond to him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Today we use the gift of freedom to renew our side of this Covenant of Love, as he renews on the altar his own.
- But that renewal requires our accepting something that our human ways of understanding seeks to repel. We see that reality in today’s and tomorrow’s Gospel. Jesus asks the apostles who the people were saying that he was. They replied by saying they were numbering Jesus among the greatest figures, past and present, in Jewish history. Some, like Herod, were saying he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others were saying Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, the one whose return they believed would set the stage for the Messianic age. Others said Jeremiah, the one whom they believe had hidden the ark and the altar of sacrifice before the destruction of the Temple and the one they anticipated would reinstitute true worship. At the time Jesus asked the question, many of the Jews were saying that there had not been prophets for 400 years, and therefore they thought that Jesus was likely the greatest figure in four centuries. But none of that was sufficient, because it wasn’t true. Even though they were giving Jesus the highest reputation, who he was was higher still. As God had prophesied through Jeremiah in today’s first reading, it also wouldn’t be enough to rest on the testimony of others, because God’s plan was to have all of us enter into a personal Covenant with him. That could only happen with a daring first-person response, not hiding behind the results of a safe sociological, or behind the grammatical structure of indirect discourse.
- So Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter stood up and boldly replied that Jesus was far more than a great prophet, far more than the greatest figure in centuries, far more even than Moses. He wasn’t just the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior for whom the Jews had been waiting for a millennium. He was the Son of the Living God. Peter’s was a great act of faith, a bold profession holding nothing back. We all have a lot to learn from how God the Father moved Peter to confess the identity of his Son, because God the Father wants to give us the same gift. It’s not by “flesh and blood” that we recognize that Jesus is all that Peter confessed him to be. God the Father wants us to grasp this truth about Jesus and then, like Peter, to have us go out and courageously give witness that Jesus is the Savior and the long-desired of the nations, that Jesus is not the Son of a God understood as a life force somewhere else out in the universe, but of the God is who Living and with us seeking to bring us to full life. This is the way that, analogously to Peter, we become solid rocks on whom others can build lives of faith, rather than sand on which too many construct their existence. But this proclamation we make of Jesus’ true identity is not supposed to be some dry, “Joe Friday” factual declaration. It’s a proclamation meant to be done with jubilation. It’s a testimony from personal experience, from a personal relationship with the Lord that comes from knowing him in the new and eternal Covenant of Love. We proclaim with Peter’s successor in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. … With Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything.” We proclaim with gratitude and joy, with Peter and his successors, with the other apostles and the bishops, with the Church and the saints throughout the centuries, that Jesus’ kingdom has the last word, that evil, that the gates of Hell, won’t prevail against it.
- But the readings have us focus on one very important aspect of this preaching. Immediately after Jesus’ divinity was confessed, Jesus proclaimed his upcoming suffering and death. He shatters their image of who the Messiah would be and what he would do — become a political liberator restoring the temporal throne of David — and showed how he would lead them to salvation and triumph. It would be by fulfilling all of the prophecies they were prone to ignore. Jesus likely told them here that he was the fulfillment of the killing of Abel by his brother, of the sacrifice of Isaac, of the Passover Lamb, of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, of the “just man” beset by the envious in the Book of Wisdom, that he was the personification of the abandoned one of Psalm 22 with parched throat, bruised body and numbered bones, that he was the stone rejected by the builders, the temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt on the third day, the Serpent lifted up in the Desert. He announced what to them seemed like a humiliation and the time when they thought they should be celebrating an imminent conquest. St. Peter boldly steps forward and absolutely rejects this image as impossible for Jesus. He “rebukes” Jesus, saying God would never allow it. And Jesus, moments after calling Peer “rock,” now calls him “Satan” (adversary), for getting in the Lord’s way, for thinking as human beings rather than as God, for trying to lead the Lord rather than follow. The words, “Get behind me” were an indication that rather than seeking to guide Jesus, he needed to follow.
- The shock value of what Jesus was saying about his suffering, crucifixion and death is lost on us today. We’ve long accepted what Jesus did and know that all turns out well in the end. But what remains — or should remain — shocking is what Jesus says immediately thereafter, what we’ll hear tomorrow in the Gospel: that whoever wishes to follow Jesus, whoever wishes to think as God does, whoever wishes to confess Jesus and enter into the new and eternal covenant “must deny himself, take up his Cross and follow” him. And while we’ll accept Jesus’ suffering and death because we know of his resurrection, many times we will reject our own suffering and death and those of others. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves so as to affirm him, to die to ourselves on the Crosses he gives us each day so that he may live, to follow him rather than try to blaze our own path. The sacrifices he requires are “exchanges” in which we give up good things in order to obtain a buried treasure and precious pearl. We give up our life in order to have life with Him, losing our life so as to gain it. We learn in this way to look about the way of the Cross to which Jesus calls us as a way of love and life. This is what St. Paul learned. In Athens he professed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Greek’s longings for an “unknown God,” but it didn’t work so well. When he finally arrived in Corinth, he became to preach Christ crucified as the “power and wisdom of God.” And he began to profess Christ in that way not just on his lips but by his life, becoming through his own sufferings for Christ and the Gospel “crucified with Christ” to such a degree that “the life I know live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.”
- This is a lesson well lived by the great saint we celebrate today, St. John Baptist Mary Vianney, the patron saint of priests. He suffered a great deal as a young boy during the French Revolution risking his life with his family to attend Mass, walking the way of the Cross at night to barns where Mass would be secretly celebrated. He suffered from getting kicked out of the seminary three times because he couldnt get enough Latin and theology in his “bad head.” He suffered from the infestation of the devil for 35 years. He picked up the Cross of mortification and united himself to Jesus through eating a few potatoes a week, through hearing confessions 12-18 hours a day for 31 years, through bearing terrible calumny against his reputation even from his brother priests, and so much more. But in all of it he was confessing his faith that his Messiah and the Son of the Living God was with him. In all of it, he was getting behind Jesus on the way of the Cross, the way of self-giving love, and following him. He did it so well that his contemporaries said about him that he was like “God in a man.” In this Year of Mercy, we ponder just how much he nailed himself to the Cross of his Confessional to take away the sins Jesus had begged the Father to forgive on Calvary, and we ask his intercession that we might receive this gift and pass it on, by confessing Jesus as the One who comes into the world to take away the sins of the world. Today we ponder how Jesus seeks to fulfill the prophecy of giving us another heart: he does so in a special way through the gift of the priesthood, which St. John Vianney would say was the “love of the heart of Christ.”
- Today at Mass we celebrate what was the heart of St. John Vianney’s life, the means of the daily renewal of his heart to live in union with God’s covenant. We ask him to pray for us that we may celebrate this Mass and receive God’s heart transplant with the same fervor that he did!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers:
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
PS 51:12-13, 14-15, 18-19
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners shall return to you.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
and he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”