Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Priests of the Diocese of Winona
Alverna Center, Winona, Minnesota
Mass for the Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
January 21, 2014
1 Sam 16:1-13, Ps 89, Mk 2:23-28
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The written text that guided the homily is:
In the first reading today we have the vocation story of David. God sent the prophet Samuel to Jesse’s house to anoint the one whom God would indicate he had chosen to be his king after he rejected Saul for his infidelity. Samuel had long served the Lord but he still looked too much with human eyes than God’s vision. When Samuel first saw Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, he thought “Surely the Lord’s anointed is here before him.” But the Lord said to him, “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature.” That’s precisely what had been done with Saul, who we heard on Saturday “was a handsome young man. There was no other child of Israel more handsome than Saul; he stood head and shoulders above the people.” But God as we know rejected him. The Lord told Samuel, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” And so the presentations happened of the next six sons, but none was chosen by God. Finally, Samuel asked if there were any other boys and Jesse replied that the youngest was still tending the sheep. After he was sent for, this ruddy, youthful, handsome boy approached and the Lord said, “There. Anoint him, for this is he!”
This morning in his daily Mass in the Vatican, Pope Francis commented that God “always chooses the little ones.” The Blessed Mother would say in her famous Magnificat, “the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his handmaid.” St. Paul would say in his first Letter to the Corinthians, “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.” We’ll have an echo of that thought in the preface of the Mass we’ll pray later today, that the “blood of your blessed Martyr Agnes poured out like Christ’s to glorify your name, shows forth your marvelous works, by which in our weakness you perfect your power and on the feeble bestow strength to bear you witness.”
The same Lord who saw into David’s heart and chose him in his lowliness looked into our heart and chose us in ours. The same Lord who anointed his head has anointed our head in Confirmation and our hands in ordination. The same Lord who said of him, “I have found David, my servant,” has said, “I have found Russell, my servant; Steve, my servant; John, my servant; James, my servant, Richard, my servant, Roger my servant.” He didn’t select us from 8 brothers but from about 100, something that fills us with amazement.
We need to ask: What was it in David’s heart that God saw? What was it in our heart that God saw?
- In David he great courage, the courage that would lead him to go against the fearsome Goliath armed just with a slingshot and the name of the Lord.
- He saw a sincere heart. After Samuel told Saul he had sinned, Saul made excuses. After Nathan told David he had sinned, David immediately repented.
- He saw a passionately faithful heart. David wasn’t embarrassed to dance in front of the ark of the Lord even when his loved ones taunted him for it.
- His was a heart that was humble and forgiving. He forgave Saul who was trying to kill him. He forgave his Son Absalom who tried to steal his kingdom. He forgave Shimei, who was cursing him as he was fleeing.
- It was a reconciling heart. Unlike Saul who tried to destroy enemies, David sought to unite, and did the two kingdoms.
- In this young shepherd’s heart, God the Father ultimately saw an image of the heart of his 28th generation grandson, the Son of David who would become the Good Shepherd.
The Lord likewise sees things in us. He sees everything that’s in the heart, the good and the bad, the virtues and the bad habits, and he chose us. And he wants us grow to become ever more priests after his own heart. A retreat is an opportunity to recognize that and to advance that enlargening of the heart.
The grace of a retreat is alluded to today in the Gospel in the dispute about the Sabbath. The Sabbath, Jesus tells us, was made for man. The commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day was the only one that was given with a reason: “for you were once slaves in Egypt” (Deut 5:15). It was a gift to free us from slavery, slavery to work, slavery to the daily grind. It was a gift of God to restore us precisely to who we were, a reset to give us an opportunity to give ourselves anew to God and to give ourselves to others. A retreat is like an annual extended Sabbath day, given as a gift to restore and refresh us in our relationship with God and others, to get our priorities straight once again. It’s an opportunity to restore our heart.
The restoration of our heart is precisely a purification. It’s only with purity of heart, as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, that we can see God and see others and others as who we really are in God’s image. Today we have a great teacher in purity of heart in the 12 year old virgin-martyr St. Agnes. Today as with David’s vocation we recall our vocation to the priesthood, so with St. Agnes we recall our vocation to apostolic chaste celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. We’ve received both callings, and both gifts. We’re called to grow each retreat in our understanding and gratitude for the gift of our vocation to chaste celibacy for the kingdom. St. Agnes’ feast can remind us of the virginal meaning of our existence, that our love must be first for God, that we are called — as everyone will do in heaven — to give our bodies, our blood, our sweat, our souls first to God and in him to others.
1637 years ago today St. Ambrose wrote a book on virginity at the request of his sister, St. Marcellina. He noted that he was propitiously writing it on the feast of St. Agnes about 70 years earlier. He marveled, as all the ancients did, at the incredible courage of this young girl. Women weren’t known for this type of bravery and when it was shown in a young girl, it was something even more spectacular. That bravery is meant to inspire every woman and every man. It should be particularly inspirational to us as priests. I’d like to read a passage that the great Milanese doctor of the Church wrote about here, some of which is in this morning’s breviary lesson:
“She is said to have suffered martyrdom when twelve years old,” St. Ambrose writes. “Maidens of that age are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents and are wont to cry at the pricks of a needle as though they were wounds. She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it. Or if she were unwillingly hurried to the altars, she was ready to stretch forth her hands to Christ at the sacrificial fires, and at the sacrilegious altars themselves, to make the sign of the Lord the Conqueror, or again to place her neck and both her hands in the iron bands, but no band could enclose such slender limbs. A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valor while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the bed, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. All wept, she alone was without a tear. All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it. Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself. And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God, whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted. For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature. What threats the executioner used to make her fear him, what allurements to persuade her, how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered: ‘It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one as likely to please me. He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner? Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not.'”
We must ask, what gave her this courage? St. Ambrose is very clear: it was her virginal love for the Lord. He said, “Virginity is not praiseworthy because it is found in martyrs, but because itself makes martyrs.” The type of love that leads one to consecrate herself totally to God in response to his love is what makes a person strong in loving him to the end, loving him despite suffering, torture and even execution. When virginity, when consecrated celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, is assumed and lived to the full, it leads to loving fidelity in little and big things, it leads to a daily martyrdom, a witness, of the love we’ve first received and can’t help but radiate. The larger application of this truth pointed to by St. Ambrose is that chastity leads to holiness, that chastity makes saints.
The Lord has given us this vocation to chastity, but how have we responded to it? In many places, it’s not appreciated adequately, we accept it as the cost of ordination, but don’t embrace it, don’t grow in it, and it emasculates our priestly fruitfulness. We know the many sexual scandals that have brought so many priests down and injured the reputation of the entire Church. But there’s a great scandal, of how many don’t live their priesthood as a vocation of burning love for God and others, who might not commit sin against the sixth commandment but who seem to live a loveless life, but don’t really give of themselves unselfishly to the kingdom. They give no sign of the union between philia, eros and agape present in Jesus, the passion that would get him to leave heaven to hunt down the one lost sheep, the passion that would give his life for his beloved, the passion that would forgive our manifold betrayals.
Virginity makes martyrs. Chastity makes saints. This is a truth we need to grasp, live and thank God for. The way we live out our chastity will say a lot about the way we’re growing in perseverance until the end, come what may.
Some are saying that the reform of the Church must involve throwing away the incredible treasure of chastity and virginity for the kingdom in order to accommodate ourselves with our lustful times. It involves rather exactly the opposite. The reform of the Church and of the priesthood must help restore us, and through our celibate chastity for the kingdom the Church and the world, to truly unselfish love for God and others. That’s precisely what the virtue and vocation of chastity make possible. Virginity makes martyrs. Chastity makes spiritual heroes.
The Lord sees the heart. He sees our need for mercy and help. He also sees our capacity for this. And God wants to renew us on this day. Let’s let him renew us from the inside by entering into communion with his body and blood, his chaste, virginal, spousal love given for us.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 SM 16:1-13
“How long will you grieve for Saul,
whom I have rejected as king of Israel?
Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way.
I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem,
for I have chosen my king from among his sons.”
But Samuel replied:
“How can I go?
Saul will hear of it and kill me.”
To this the LORD answered:
“Take a heifer along and say,
‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’
Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I myself will tell you what to do;
you are to anoint for me the one I point out to you.”Samuel did as the LORD had commanded him.
When he entered Bethlehem,
the elders of the city came trembling to meet him and inquired,
“Is your visit peaceful, O seer?”
“Yes! I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.
So cleanse yourselves and join me today for the banquet.”
He also had Jesse and his sons cleanse themselves
and invited them to the sacrifice.
As they came, he looked at Eliab and thought,
“Surely the LORD’s anointed is here before him.”
But the LORD said to Samuel:
“Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature,
because I have rejected him.
Not as man sees does God see,
because he sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart.”
Then Jesse called Abinadab and presented him before Samuel,
who said, “The LORD has not chosen him.”
Next Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said,
“The LORD has not chosen this one either.”
In the same way Jesse presented seven sons before Samuel,
but Samuel said to Jesse,
“The LORD has not chosen any one of these.”
Then Samuel asked Jesse,
“Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said to Jesse,
“Send for him;
we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.”
Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them.
He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold
and making a splendid appearance.
The LORD said,
“There–anoint him, for this is he!”
Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand,
anointed him in the midst of his brothers;
and from that day on, the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.
When Samuel took his leave, he went to Ramah.
PS 89:20, 21-22, 27-28
Once you spoke in a vision,
and to your faithful ones you said:
“On a champion I have placed a crown;
over the people I have set a youth.”
R. I have found David, my servant.
“I have found David, my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him,
That my hand may be always with him,
and that my arm may make him strong.”
R. I have found David, my servant.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.’
And I will make him the first-born,
highest of the kings of the earth.”
R. I have found David, my servant.
his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.
At this the Pharisees said to him,
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
He said to them,
“Have you never read what David did
when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?
How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest
and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat,
and shared it with his companions?”
Then he said to them,
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.
That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”