Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Priests of the Diocese of Winona
Alverna Center, Winona, Minnesota
Mass for the Memorial of St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr
January 20, 2014
1 Sam 15:16-23, Ps 50:8-9.16-17.21.23, Mk 2:18-22
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
This is the written text that guided the homily:
On Saturday morning, in the scene immediately before today’s Gospel, we confronted the scandal Jesus caused for the Scribes and Pharisees for his mercy toward sinners, particularly Matthew and all of his friends. Jesus ate with them and would become known as a friend of sinners. Today, we have a different type of scandal. The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees approached Jesus and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?” It seemed that Jesus was a laxist not just toward sinners individually but also toward the Mosaic Law. It seemed that Jesus not only was encouraging a lack of discipline but that he himself was guilty of it. Jesus used the scene to teach a few very important lessons, lessons that are still ever valid for us today.
The first is about the motivation in our religious life. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were fasting out of religious duty and discipline, seeking to draw God’s attention to the prayers they were making with their body. Jesus wanted to teach them a whole different source of motivation and give them a much deeper way of relating to God. He asked them whether the groomsmen at a wedding can fast while the Bridegroom is with them. This pointed to the fact that Jesus was the long-prophesied Groom of people Israel and they were called to relate to God fundamentally out of love. Fasting is good, he was indicating, but there’s an even higher good at stake, which is recognizing and celebrating the presence of God in their midst. Just as something would be off if at a wedding reception we refused to eat the wedding cake or drink a toast in order to keep a fast — especially if we were the bride! — so, as good as fasting is, it would be inappropriate to fast rather than celebrate in the presence of Jesus. The joy of his presence should trump the good of spiritual ascesis. His presence transforms at its root our discipline, our motivation and our whole life. The Church maintains this distinction during our Lenten fasting and penances. From the time of St. Augustine, we have said that the celebratory character of the Lord’s Day is more important than the penitential aspect of the entire season. That’s why we don’t even number the Sundays of Lent among the 40 days and that’s why we don’t break our fasts or penance when we have desserts or wine or other things we’ve given up for Lent on the Lord’s Day.
The second lesson Jesus gives today is about the purpose of fasting. He said that while the Bridegroom is with us, we shouldn’t fast, but when he is ripped away from our presence, then we fast. The verb that he uses points to how the Bridegroom was ripped away by the guard of the chief priests in the Garden of Gethsemane and manhandled by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate. Then we fast, not principally as a penance in reparation, but fast out of a hunger to be reunited with him. This principle remains today. After his Resurrection and before his Ascension, the Bridegroom promised to remain with us until the end of time, as he is really with us in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. But the truth is that we’re not fully with him. Our desires aren’t all for his kingdom, his glory, his will. Most of us aren’t striving to be his saintly disciple full-time. That’s why we fast, to grow in that hunger for him. That’s the purpose behind the Eucharistic fast and the Lenten fast before Easter, so that we may hunger more and more for a life changing communion with him every Mass, so that we may live a new life with him because of his Resurrection. It’s also the reason why we’ll be fasting on Wednesday as part of he day of prayer and penance called for by our bishops, so that we may hunger to see him more and more in his face in every younger brother and sister in the womb.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all Jesus gave in response to the Pharisee’s and John’s disciples’ objection was to indicate that he had come not just to put a “new patch” on the old garment of Judaism, as if all that was needed was a little fix to Jewish practices and mentality, but that he was coming to renew it totally from the inside. Just like a new patch of unshrunken cloth on an old garment would tear the old garment once the stronger, new patch shrunk after it was washed, so Jesus was communicating that unless they let him replace their clothing entirely with the new baptismal garment he was bringing into the world, they would never be able to assimilate the new with the old. They needed new wineskins to be able to receive — and not be overwhelmed — by the novelty of the new wine. Just as new wine that hasn’t fully fermented would burst the taut old wineskins, so we can’t really receive what Jesus wants to do in us with hardened old skins. We need constantly to be asking of him the grace of new wineskins to receive what he wishes to give us. We need that openness to what he wants to do.
With regard to Pope Francis and the reform of the Church that we were discussing this morning, the Pope said in a homily in July, “The newness of the Gospel is a newness in the law itself which is inherent in the history of salvation”. It is a newness that goes beyond us and “renews structures. That is why Jesus said new wine needs new skins.” The Church, the Pope continued, has always gone in this direction, letting the Holy Spirit renew structures. And she teaches people “to not be afraid of the newness of the Gospel, of the newness the Holy Spirit works within us.” There are many who are nervous at what Pope Francis, led by the Holy Spirit, is seeking to do in his reform of the Church to make us truly an evangelizing community. There are many with old wine skins who are saying, “We’ve never done it that way before.” He’s planning a reorganization of the Vatican Curia and many are resisting, as if the various dicasteries were dictated by Jesus himself in the Gospel. We need those new wineskins in order to receive the new wine!
King Saul, whom we encounter in the first reading, didn’t have the elasticity that Jesus was trying to form in his disciples. He had been given through Samuel a command with regard to the Amalekites, to fight for God rather than for personal spoils. Yet after with God’s help defeating the opposing armies, he allowed his soldiers to pounce on the spoils. He thought it was fine, since he sacrificed some of them to the Lord. He had his own firm ideas about what was right and wrong, what ought to be pleasing to God. That’s why Samuel said to him, “Does the Lord so delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the Lord? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams.” He had a stubbornness that didn’t allow him to grasp what God was asking and why.
Many times we have a similar stubbornness. We structure our relationship with the Lord according to our categories rather than God’s. Many times we’ll obey what we’ve always obeyed and demand a consistency of the Lord such that he won’t ask us anything different, especially when we’ve gotten into firm habits obeying what he’s said in the past. We miss the whole point of obedience, however, much like the Pharisees once did. Our obedience isn’t to a bunch of rules, or laws, or divine dictates. It’s fundamentally to a Ruler, to a Legislator, to a Living Lord, who constantly is asking us to follow him in the present. Obedience comes from the Latin word ob-audire, which means to listen so attentively as to eavesdrop. And we don’t listen once and for all. We’re called to listen, to discern, each day and to obey with loving adhesion as things around us change.
The saints we celebrate are models of this. St. Fabian was a Christian layman who came to Rome to see what would happen after the death of Pope Anteros in 236. The electors were deadlocked. They looked for divine inspiration and saw a white dove flying, which helped them to open themselves up to who the Holy Spirit would want. The dove descended, passed over the heads of various of the leading candidates and then settled on this spectator, Fabian. They took it as a sign that this good man, from a noble family, was the one God wanted, and they chose him, ordained him a deacon, priest and bishop and he served through 250. At the beginning of his pontificate, he had decent relations with the Roman authorities and was even able to arrange with them for the return of the relics of Saints Pontus and Hippolytus. It was peaceful enough to build an organization to care for the poor and he was the one who arranged the sections of the city into diakonia, to care for the poor in an organized way, adapting to what the Lord wanted even though obviously there had been no such structures before him. In the year 250, however, the emperor Decius turned on the Christians and Fabian was the first one martyred. The lesson he teaches us is of the elasticity of obeying the Lord always in changing circumstances, a lesson he taught to help guide the Christians of his time along that same path.
We see a similar lesson in the life of St. Sebastian. He was a guard very much in the favor of the emperor Diocletian who was able to remain faithful to the Lord while serving in the Roman army. He used his office as the head of the guards in order to support Christians who were being rounded up as martyrs and to console and, on some occasions, convert their pagan parents, friends and family members who had come to try to talk them out of “wasting” their lives in martyrdom. But when word eventually got to Diocletian about what Sebastian was doing for the Christians — and that he himself was a Christian too — Diocletian responded by rage as if Sebastian had betrayed him. And, as the early Christians said, he was martyred twice. The first time he was shot seemingly to death with arrows and they brought him for burial, but there they recognized he wasn’t dead and nursed him back to health. He went back to try to talk sense into Diocletian who would have none of it and had him beaten to death by clubs. No matter what his changing circumstances, he sought to obey what the Lord was asking of him, he sought to receive the new wine of each day, as he purified his baptismal garment in the blood of Christ to which he joined his own blood.
Today as we begin our retreat, we seek to learn from their example how to be faithful to the Lord, obedient to the Lord, receptive to him, amid the changing circumstances of each day, week and priestly assignment. The greatest way we receive the help we need is here at Mass, as the Lord, through our ministry, takes wine and changes it totally into himself to pour himself into us. The same Lord who works that dramatic transformation of bread and wine has the power and the desire to work a similar miracle in us, transforming us into new wineskins to receive that great outpouring, which renews us in the our baptismal graces. That’s the way renewal happens. The Lord wants to renew us; through our renewal he wants to reform the priesthood; through the renewal of the priesthood he wants to renew the Church; and through the renewed Church, the Holy Spirit wants to renew the face of the earth.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 SM 15:16-23
“Stop! Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.”
Saul replied, “Speak!”
Samuel then said: “Though little in your own esteem,
are you not leader of the tribes of Israel?
The LORD anointed you king of Israel and sent you on a mission, saying,
‘Go and put the sinful Amalekites under a ban of destruction.
Fight against them until you have exterminated them.’
Why then have you disobeyed the LORD?
You have pounced on the spoil, thus displeasing the LORD.”
Saul answered Samuel: “I did indeed obey the LORD
and fulfill the mission on which the LORD sent me.
I have brought back Agag, and I have destroyed Amalek under the ban.
But from the spoil the men took sheep and oxen,
the best of what had been banned,
to sacrifice to the LORD their God in Gilgal.”
But Samuel said:
“Does the LORD so delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as in obedience to the command of the LORD?
Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission than the fat of rams.
For a sin like divination is rebellion,
and presumption is the crime of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the command of the LORD,
he, too, has rejected you as ruler.”
PS 50:8-9, 16BC-17, 21 AND 23
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,
for your burnt offerings are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats out of your fold.”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
People came to Jesus and objected,
“Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them,
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast on that day.
No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.
If he does, its fullness pulls away,
the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,
and both the wine and the skins are ruined.
Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”