The Orientation of our Faces, Backs, Necks and Hearts, Third Thursday of Lent, March 27, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thursday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time
March 27, 2014
Jer 7:23-28, Ps 95, Lk 11:14-23

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Yesterday we pondered how great a gift is what God has spoken to us in his word and his commandments. Moses exclaimed, “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law that I am setting before you today?” He added that the Israelites should rejoice in that gift and pass that gift on to their children and grandchildren as a means by which to grow closer to the God who through his word and commandments has drawn near to us. Jesus himself in the Gospel said he came to fulfill that law and said that the greatest in his Kingdom would be those who put that word into practice and taught others to do the same.
  • How did the Israelites do with response to the gift God had given them? The Lord himself summarizes it through the Prophet Jeremiah at the beginning of today’s first reading: “This is what I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper. But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed.” Then he uses four body parts to describe their response. “They turned their backs, not their faces, to me.” This was a sign of betrayal and abandonment. “They have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers.” They wouldn’t heed the Lord when he sent the prophets toward them. They would simply and resolutely keep doing what they wanted to do. “They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts.” Their hearts, which were meant to be sponges for God’s words, had become sclerotic, impenetrable even to God.
  • We see an illustration of this type of resistance in the Gospel reading. Jesus had just exorcised a boy, one in a long line of deliverances from the devil, but those Scribes and Pharisees who had already hardened their hearts, stiffened their necks and turned their backs toward Jesus refused to accept that any of the incontestable exorcisms happened by the finger of God. They accused him of working exorcisms by the power of the prince of devils. Their hardened hearts had led them to a hardening of the brain. Jesus exposes their foolishness in two ways. First, since they admitted that some of their own number were exorcising, if he cast out by the devil, then they were saying that their own number were exorcising by Beelzebul, too, something of course they would never say. Second, since the devil is trying to win not forfeit the possession our hearts, necks and faces, it would make no sense for him to defeating himself through exorcism. But their response to Jesus’ liberation of the boy from the devil shows what God was describing about the Israelites and their treatment of the prophets sent in God’s name. They didn’t want to turn back to God. No matter how often they had prayed Psalm 95, “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts,” that’s precisely what they did when they heard the voice of God through Jeremiah, and it’s precisely what the Scribes and Pharisees did when they heard Jesus’ voice.
  • Now we turn to us. If we want to prevent what happened to them from happening to us, we need to hearken to the voice of the Lord. Rather than turning our backs toward Him, we need to turn our faces in prayer and in adoration. Rather than hardening our hearts, we need to soften them, by responding to his help to love ever more all that he teaches us, listening to his words as words to be done. Rather than stiffening our necks, he wants us to turn with him when he turns to the Father, when he turns to the poor that he wants us to help, when he turns toward our family members that we need to forgive, when he turns toward Sacred Scripture in order to instruct us in his ways. The word “convert” comes from the Latin con-vertere, which means to turn with the Lord, and that’s precisely what God wants to help us to do.
  • I mentioned on Saturday and Monday that the Third through Fifth Weeks of Lent are all centered on the annual catechumenate, preparing not only unbaptized elect for the saving waters of baptism, but renewing in each of us our baptismal promises and identity. Today’s readings are a powerful reminder to us of what happens in baptism and how we’re supposed to correspond.
  • Early in the baptismal rite, the priest exorcised our hearts, taking the oil of catechumens and anointing our heart, casting out the devil and preparing us for the infusion of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did for us what he did for those possessed by demons, to soften and prepare our hearts for his presence. The priest prays in today’s baptismal rite, “Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son in to the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him free from original sin, make him a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” If you were baptized before 1970, the language was even stronger: “Go forth from him (her), unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father + and of the Son, + and of the Holy + Spirit, that thou goest out and depart from this servant of God, N. For He commands Thee, accursed one, Who walked upon the sea, and stretched out His right hand to Peter about to sink. Therefore, accursed devil, acknowledge thy sentence, and give honor to the living and true God: give honor to Jesus Christ His Son, and to the Holy Spirit; and depart from this servant of God, N. because God and our Lord Jesus Christ hath vouchsafed to call him (her) to His holy grace and benediction and to the font of Baptism. And this sign of the holy Cross, which we make upon his (her) forehead, do thou, accursed devil, never dare to violate. Through the same Christ our Lord. I exorcise thee, every unclean spirit, in the name of God the Father + Almighty, in the name of Jesus + Christ, His Son, our Lord and Judge, and in the power of the Holy + Spirit, that thou be depart from this creature of God N, which our Lord hath deigned to call unto His holy temple, that it may be made the temple of the living God, and that the Holy Spirit may dwell therein. Through the same Christ our Lord, who shall come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire!” Later in the baptismal rite, our parents and godparents for us, or in our own words if we were baptized after we had reached the age of reason, we performed, in a sense, a ratification of that exorcism, proclaiming that we reject Satan, all his evil works and all his empty promises. Then we professed our faith in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and eternal life. We announced that the devil is real but that Jesus is the stronger man who liberates us. We renew that prayer for deliverance every time we pray the Our Father, begging the Lord to “deliver us from the Evil One.” We also proclaimed that we had turned our faces, hearts, and necks toward God.
  • Also in the Baptismal rite, the Priest made a sign of the Cross in each of our ears and put his thumb on our lips or tongue and said, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith to the praise and glory of God the Father.” He gave us his own grace to listen to his Word. He gave his own divine help to proclaim it to others, to our children, our grandchildren and others. If we live by our baptism, we will keep our baptismal garments clean, keep our baptismal candles burning with love for God as we walk in the light and go on mission to help others walk in the light. Our baptism helps us to keep our faces, hearts and necks all turned toward God.
  • But there’s a warning at the end of today’s Gospel that we need to take seriously. Very often we can be tempted to think that if we’re not harming anyone, then we’re living in accordance with our baptism. But Jesus says otherwise. He proclaims, “He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters.” This points to the truth that we cannot be neutral in our life with respect to Jesus and what he’s asking. We’re either actively turning ourselves toward him, or we’re turning our back on him and helping others to turn their back on him. Pope Francis said this last March 14 in his first homily as Pope, that we’re either praying to the Lord or praying to the devil. I remember one man many years ago who told me, “I don’t harm no one, I don’t speak ill of no one, I don’t look bad at no one,” but when I asked him if he ever told his wife that he loved her was stupefied like a deer in headlights. It’s not enough not to do evil. It’s not enough not formally to turn our back on God or give him a gesture of defiance. If we’re not actively turning toward him, if we’re not receiving his word with good soil, then objectively we’re against him and scattering.
  • We have observed this in the process of secularization in the west. The greatest cause for people losing their faith, the Second Vatican Council taught, are not the terrible scandals of those in the Church in positions of greater authority. The corruption of the best is always worst of all, but it’s not the most harmful. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council said that the greatest cause for losing faith is the bad example of Catholics. It’s the type of “ordinary scandal” that so many give off of a lack of correspondence between what we say we believe and how we actually live. For example, if we believe that it’s truly Jesus who comes to meet us in the celebration of the Holy Mass, but come to pray like the “frozen chosen,” others are scandalized, particularly the young. If we really believe that the Eucharist is Jesus and Jesus is God, then we should be far more enthusiastic for Mass than the most rabid Red Sox fan is on Opening Day or the triumphal game of the World Series. If we really believe that God speaks to us in the Word of God, we would spend far more time reading the Bible than we do the newspaper or websites. If we really believe that Jesus is present in the Monstrance, then we would seek to spend far more time turning our face toward him rather than toward the television. If we really believe in Jesus when he says that he personally identifies with the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, ill or imprisoned, then we will treat our needy neighbor with the love with which we would treat Jesus himself. But most don’t see Catholics behaving in this way. They see lukewarm people who say that they believe in all of these things but then go live like everyone else lives. And that’s the greatest scandal, the worst cause of scattering.
  • Today, on this 20th day of the 40 days of Lent, Jesus wants to help cast out from us whatever is in the grip of the evil one. He wants to cure our hearts, faces, and necks so that they, and our entire body and soul, may turn toward the Lord, rejoice in his word and his gifts, and through, with and in Him, gather all people to share the Communion Jesus came into the world to give us. He is the Stronger Man who wants to fill us with his strength in our weakness. As we prepare now to receive him, let us ask him for the grace to love him with all our hearts, faces, necks, minds, soul and strength! Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JER 7:23-28

Thus says the LORD:
This is what I commanded my people:
Listen to my voice;
then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
Walk in all the ways that I command you,
so that you may prosper.But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed.
They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts
and turned their backs, not their faces, to me.
From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day,
I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets.
Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed;
they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers.
When you speak all these words to them,
they will not listen to you either;
when you call to them, they will not answer you.
Say to them:
This is the nation that does not listen
to the voice of the LORD, its God,
or take correction.
Faithfulness has disappeared;
the word itself is banished from their speech.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9

R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Gospel
LK 11:14-23

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute,
and when the demon had gone out,
the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed.
Some of them said, “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons,
he drives out demons.”
Others, to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven.
But he knew their thoughts and said to them,
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself,
how will his kingdom stand?
For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons.
If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul,
by whom do your own people drive them out?
Therefore they will be your judges.
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.
When a strong man fully armed guards his palace,
his possessions are safe.
But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him,
he takes away the armor on which he relied
and distributes the spoils.
Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”