Two Great Virtues of Those Praying for Us, Presentation of the BVM, November 21, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Readings from the Tuesday of the 33rd Week of Ordinary Time, Year I
November 21, 2017
2 Mc 6:18-31, Ps 3, Lk 19:1-10

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily:

  • Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. Since 1953, this feast is the occasion on which the Church marks  Pro Orantibus Day, the annual observance begun by Pope Pius XII in 1953 and expanded by St. John Paul II in 1997, on which the whole Church prays in a special way “For Those Praying,” for all of those in convents, cloisters, monasteries and hermitages who intercede for us without ceasing before God. It’s held purposefully on the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the model of total dedication to a life of prayer and intercession in God’s service. It’s a day on which we thank God for the contemplatives’ silent, hidden, generous and beautiful vocation. It’s an occasion on which we recognize them, thank them, encourage them and commit to give the material support they need. It’s a day on which we ponder their example of consecration and of following Christ and prioritizing him through prayer. Contemplative life is a great and indispensable gift of God. All of us benefit spiritually from the orantes’ prayers and sacrifices, even if many of us are unaware of their intercession or naively think that their hidden life is being wasted. They remind us — ensnared by the frenetic, noisy and provisional — that God is truly the “pearl of great price” and the “one thing necessary.” In a world that seeks to structure itself without God, their very existence helps us to recall that God is real, provident, and worth our all. They teach us how to adore Christ with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. Today, as every day, communities of contemplatives are before God constantly praying for us, that we may long, like them and our Lady, to see the Lord’s face and give whatever we have, even if it seems small, to God and his glory. Today we pray for them, thank them and thank God for them. We’ll never know until heaven how many of the graces we’ve received — and disasters we’ve averted — have taken place on account of their incessant prayers.
  • We mark this day on the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary because we ponder Mary’s presentation and life prior to our first encounter with her in Sacred Scripture at the Annunciation. Most of the liturgical elements for today’s feast come from the Pseudogospel of St. James (and even later pseudogospels like the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary) that attest that Mary was presented as a young girl of three into the Temple in Jerusalem where she was raised until the time she was betrothed to Joseph. We read in the Pseudogospel of St. James, written about 200 years after the events and so historically useless according to the details but useful in terms of the traditions based upon it later, “And the child became three years old, and Joachim said: ‘Call for the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let every one of them take every a lamp, and let them be burning, that the child turn not backward and her heart be taken captive away from the temple of the Lord.’ And they did so until they were gone up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her and said: ‘The Lord has magnified your name among all generations: in you in the latter days shall the Lord make manifest his redemption unto the children of Israel.’ And he made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents sat down marveling, and praising the Lord God because the child did not turn away backward. And Mary was in the temple of the Lord like a dove that is nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel.” The essential point of the passage was Mary’s being consecrated to the Lord from the beginning of her life, her joy in the Lord’s presence, and the fact that she spent her early years “in the Temple” becoming herself eventually the Temple in whom God would dwell, the Ark of the New and Eternal Covenant. It’s during these years, the early Church knew, that Mary’s heart was prepared to treasure God’s word, to piece it together as tesserae in a mosaic whole, to respond to the Lord in purity of heart, and more. Mary is the model of all contemplative life and the one who more than any other is praying for us.
  • Today’s readings help us to ponder two great virtues of the contemplatives praying for us.
  • The first is their overcoming obstacles, like Zacchaeus, to see the Lord and their desire to welcome him fully into their homes. Jesus’ love for sinners was so profound that he literally went to the deepest place on earth in search of perhaps the greatest public sinner of that city, to reconcile him to the Father. Jesus went to Jericho, the lowest city on the planet — 853 feet below sea level — to find Zacchaeus, who was not just one of a bunch of tax-collectors loathsome to the Jewish authorities, but the chief tax collector of the region. Jesus had promised that he, the Good Shepherd, would leave the ninety-nine sheep in his fold to search out and save one lost sheep, and this is what he did, leaving the crowds behind and entering alone with Zacchaeus into his home and into his life. He called Zacchaeus, his lost sheep, by name and heaven rejoiced on that day more for him than for all the others. So, too, today and everyday, Jesus takes the initiative of knocking at the door of our souls, asking for entry, coming to us wherever we are, no matter the depths to which we’ve sunk, no matter the fact that perhaps everyone else around us might despise us. His calling of Zacchaeus has elements of every vocational call, including those of contemplatives. The diminutive Zacchaeus’ climbing of the tree, moreover, is more than (merely) an interesting detail. The text tells us that he was trying to see Jesus, but could not because of the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree along Jesus’ route in order to be able to see him. We, too, often cannot see the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in countless ways. We’re often too small of stature to see over such obstacles, and, unfortunately, too often others are too selfish, distracted, sinful, judgmental or out-of-it, to do anything to help us and bring us into the presence of the Lord. Like a little child, however, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see the Lord. Such an act could have led to great mockery for a middle-aged public figure. Think about if you saw the head of the IRS or some cabinet official climbing a telephone pole in order to get a better glimpse of the Pope. But Zacchaeus didn’t care. He wanted to see the Lord and none of these obstacles was going to stop him. His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll climb, in order to see Jesus more clearly. Are we capable of being accounted fools for Christ for following those means that others might consider silly if they will bring us into greater relationship with Jesus? Contemplatives are those who seek to overcome all obstacles to come to be with Jesus, to be perpetually looking at him who is passing by. Monasteries are like great tree houses in which they can be looking out for the Lord and praying for all of us. Similarly, Zacchaeus is a model of immediate receptivity. Jesus said to him, “Come down quickly,” and that’s precisely what he did. He didn’t delay. He received Jesus into his home in a consequential way, doing reparation for whatever wrong he had done in a super-compensatory way. God wants our quick response as well. And when we welcome him, we welcome the salvation that the Savior brings. Contemplatives show us the priority of this welcome!
  • The second virtue we can ponder in contemplatives is their perseverance. It’s not easy for many people to persevere a holy hour. It’s a big struggle for people to endure a retreat weekend, or eight or 30 days. Monks, nuns, hermits and other contemplatives commit themselves to life. That takes courage. That takes the grace of perseverance, seeking to grow in response to Jesus’ summons all their days. And in today’s first reading we have an extraordinary example of this type of holy, bold perseverance until death, someone who kept his eyes on God until the very end, despite so many tempters and trials. In today’s first reading, we encounter Eleazar, a nonagenarian Jew whom the Greeks in 142 BC were trying to force to eat pork in violation of the Mosaic Law. He gives us unforgettable lessons about fidelity, courage, and the importance of setting good example. The Greek authorities opened up Eleazar’s mouth and jammed it with pork, but he spat it out, knowing that the penalty for doing so was death. I’ll let the author of the Second Book of Maccabees take it from there: “Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took the man aside privately… and urged him to bring meat of his own providing… and to pretend to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice prescribed by the king; in this way he would escape the death penalty, and be treated kindly because of their old friendship with him. But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood; and so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God: ‘At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young men would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.  Should I thus dissimulate for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.  Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty.  Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.’ Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.  When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned and said: ‘The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.’  This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of courage and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation” (2 Macc 6:18-31). Eleazar hungered for the Lord and lived by God’s transient dietary decrees in the Old Covenant. He accounted the example he would leave to others as far more important than saving his life by an accommodation. I’ve always been impressed by the witness of older nuns as they prepare to die, what an extraordinary example of longing love they show for younger sisters, as they prepare for the consummation of their spousal love for God. They keep their eyes fixed on the Bridegroom who comes to them and says, “Come quickly, I want you to stay in my Father’s house!” They’re models for all of us of persevering through sometimes the intense agony of physical pain knowing that it’s nothing compared to the glory to be revealed.
  • At we come to the altar today, we can turn to the Lord and thank him for the example of Zacchaeus, Eleazar and all contemplatives. We thank the Lord for continually coming to save us, no matter how far we’ve sunk, and no matter how many times we’ve fallen, for calling us by name, and for inviting himself literally inside of us to abide in us and have us abide in him. We thank him in advance as well for the graces he’ll give us so that we can with him climb whatever sycamores or redwoods we have to in order to see him more clearly. We thank him for the witness of those who show us how to keep our eyes fixed on him. But most of all we can thank him for going one step further. When we and the whole human race were incapable of seeing him on account of the great weight of sin which was reducing our humanity to smaller and smaller images of what we are called to be, and thereby when we were incapable of climbing any tree at all, he, out of his great love for us, climbed one on our behalf, so that each of us, dying and wailing like the serpent-bit Jews in the desert, might still be able to see him, perched upon his glorious wooden throne. He invites each of us here and now in this Eucharistic participation in his death and resurrection, to be lifted up by him onto that life-giving tree. Today, with Zacchaeus, with Eleazar, with the Blessed Mother, let us pick up that Cross — our cross! — and thereby be picked up by it, so that as God’s children we might spend eternity in that celestial tree house built upon the Cross’ firm foundation.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 2 Mc 6:18-31

Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes,
a man of advanced age and noble appearance,
was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement,
he spat out the meat,
and went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
as people ought to do who have the courage to reject the food
which it is unlawful to taste even for love of life.
Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took the man aside privately,
because of their long acquaintance with him,
and urged him to bring meat of his own providing,
such as he could legitimately eat,
and to pretend to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice
prescribed by the king;
in this way he would escape the death penalty,
and be treated kindly because of their old friendship with him.
But Eleazar made up his mind in a noble manner,
worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age,
the merited distinction of his gray hair,
and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood;
and so he declared that above all
he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God.
He told them to send him at once
to the abode of the dead, explaining:
“At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense;
many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar
had gone over to an alien religion.
Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life,
they would be led astray by me,
while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.
Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men,
I shall never, whether alive or dead,
escape the hands of the Almighty.
Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now,
I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
and I will leave to the young a noble example
of how to die willingly and generously
for the revered and holy laws.”Eleazar spoke thus,
and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed,
now became hostile toward him because what he had said
seemed to them utter madness.
When he was about to die under the blows,
he groaned and said:
“The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that,
although I could have escaped death,
I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging,
but also suffering it with joy in my soul
because of my devotion to him.”
This is how he died,
leaving in his death a model of courage
and an unforgettable example of virtue
not only for the young but for the whole nation.

Responsorial Psalm PS 3:2-3, 4-5, 6-7

R. (6b) The Lord upholds me.
O LORD, how many are my adversaries!
Many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”
R. The Lord upholds me.
But you, O LORD, are my shield;
my glory, you lift up my head!
When I call out to the LORD,
he answers me from his holy mountain.
R. The Lord upholds me.
When I lie down in sleep,
I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
I fear not the myriads of people
arrayed against me on every side.
R. The Lord upholds me.

Alleluia 1 Jn 4:10b

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
God loved us, and sent his Son
as expiation for our sins.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel Lk 19:1-10

At that time Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”