Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 3-14-2004 Lent III
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Sunday Lent 3(C): Read Ex 3,1-8a,13-15; 1 Cor 10,1-6,10-12; Lk 13,1-9

 

                Bitter-sweet describes well the taste of hard, personal decisions. Decisions always seem to be dilemmas since a “yes” to one option inevitably means a “no” to others, and those others are often not easy to give up. Although I should always choose what is truly good, what I know to be truly bad can also appear incredibly good. It is easy to fall gradually in love with evil, not because it is evil, but because it appears to be so good. Conversely, it can be difficult to fall in love with what is truly good, not because it is truly good, but because it can appear hard, arduous and downright bad. I see the sweetness of evil in the deceptive beauty it displays, but once I bite it the honey turns to acid inside me. I see the bitterness of the good in the real toil and effort it demands of me, but once I taste it I savor the mature richness of life and love and the deep peace of knowing I have not struggled in vain.

                As human beings, pilgrims in time and space, life spreads before us a banquet of choices. A right conscience commands us: “choose good and avoid evil!”, but not all consciences are always right, at least not in all things. Of themselves, human beings do not have a clear and definitive picture of what is good and what is evil. Of itself, conscience does not guarantee infallibly what is right, what is good or what is to be done. Human beings and moral conscience need the light of divine truth to know what is right and good. It is that truth which forms and informs right conscience; without it there is no universally valid right and wrong, but only what human beings want and want to justify on the convenient, but questionable, basis of the shifting sands of their personal or collective preferences. Every human being has a deep desire to be rid of a truth which impinges upon their freedom of choice, yet paradoxically he or she thirsts for that very truth. We want to be uninhibited, unrestricted and immune from responsibility to anyone but ourselves, yet deep down we also want to surrender to an unnameable Other, albeit our own immortalized self. When it comes to the crunch, however, freedom is sweet, truth bitter. Yet, it is the truth which makes us free, while freedom alone cannot make us true. Truth is a given, to be revealed or discovered; while freedom is also a given, it remains like a wild animal or a tornado without a path if its strength is not tamed, formed and directed towards choosing and loving the truth.

                To learn the truth, to learn to love and to do the truth, is the meaning of discipline as it is the meaning of discipleship. Freedom without truth turns our soul into a fruitless fig-tree. A person who shouts “freedom! freedom!”, but does not root that freedom in the truth, becomes sterile. They waste not only their own freedom but also the truth, the ground in which they stand. Rights and freedoms are neither right nor free if they are not rooted in the truth. No amount of indignation or self-invented justification or clever, cosmetic argumentation, can make true what is only make-believe. Just as sterile fig-trees would render an orchard fruitless and “exhaust the soil”, so all who proclaim freedom without the truth can lay waste an entire community and, indeed, civilization itself. It will be too late if, having uselessly destroyed the soil, they then remonstrate with it for not feeding them. If the gardener waits too long before trying to save them, they will all have to be cut down, the soil will be wasted and the gardener himself dismissed.

                Pilate asked Jesus: The truth? What is that? Although he did not see it, Pilate had the Truth Himself standing before him in silence. Through all the arts and sciences human beings gradually discover the truth about the creation committed to their care. But the Truth of God is not discovered by arts or sciences: it is revealed to us, it is given to us – He is given to us. Since God is the ultimate destiny of mankind, then it follows that Jesus the Lord, the Truth in person to whom the Father bids us listen, reveals to us the meaning of our own destiny and, therefore, the purpose of our freedom.  We are surely free to accept or reject that destiny, but who among us would love someone in order to be rejected by them? We are made free in order to choose the Truth, in order to choose Christ, so as to channel the energies of our desires and freedoms towards the desires and freedom of God. In God alone can we, must we, shall we be forever free! Jesus is the Truth that sets us free, but we are free only if we remain in that Truth. By definition, the Truth of Jesus is unfailingly faithful: this is what we mean by the infallible authority of the Truth. No man, however holy, no community, however great, can claim of itself to know the Truth of God. Christ cannot be parceled out, dissected by us on our own personal authority to mean what we say He must mean. It is a mockery of Christ for any human being to give himself or herself the authority willfully to distort, cut out, exaggerate, reduce or edit His Words, His meaning or His love to suit our own version of reality. To do this is to lie most grievously and to associate ourselves, as Jesus said, with Satan, the father of lies. To do this is morally to crucify and to kill Jesus over and over again. But when men are invested by the Truth itself with the power and authority of Christ’s own saving and unfailing faithfulness, then they must interpret for us the truth and the will of Christ, for they cannot not be His spokesmen.

                For our salvation’s sake, it is of fundamental and urgent importance today that we keep continually and clearly in our minds the following doctrine of the Catholic faith: when our Holy Father the Pope, and the Bishops who are in communion with him (no matter how discredited some of them may be), teach us the bitter-sweet truth of what is right and wrong, good and bad, in matters of faith and morality relating to our salvation, it is Christ Himself who teaches us. All Catholics are therefore obviously obliged in conscience to receive such teaching with religious respect of both mind and will; even if they do not understand it from a purely intellectual or cultural perspective, it commands their obedience because Christ commands their obedience. The truth is often bitter, and freedom in matters we do not understand, or towards which we feel culturally hostile, is particularly sweet. But the gardener would be failing to fertilize the soil if he failed to teach the will of Christ above all in matters where the soul is in danger of sterility.

                The Church’s magisterial authority does not teach unthinkingly as if intending to cut us off from the rich soil of Christ’s truth. She does not teach to condemn, but to call to repentance, something that sometimes requires strong and unapologetic statements. She does not teach in order to conserve some imaginary fašade of feudalistic power over the faithful, but to serve their consciences with the tools to unmask the deceptive beauty of evil and to discern the true beauty of the good behind the appearances of difficulty or suffering. She does not teach in order to be counter-cultural or to make a name for Herself or to gain influence over political opinion nationally or internationally. No, She teaches at Christ the Lord’s own bidding to be “light to the earth”, to shine His light on the nations presently enveloped in the suffocating darkness of “respectable immorality”, terrorism, war, injustice, poverty, famine and disease. The Church is not the mistress of doom and gloom, but the Mother of light and hope to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Those who do not want to listen to Christ’s truth will not listen to the Church; indeed, even among Her own children, She will be ridiculed and falsely accused of infidelity to Christ; and we should not be surprised if, or –perhaps better- when, in the persons of Her faithful members, She is persecuted both subtly and blatantly for defending the doctrine of the Lord Jesus. If the world hated Him, it will hate us no less. We must be vigilant, strong in faith and stronger still in loving and forgiving those who hate us.

                It seems, however, that, more and more, the Church must put the message of Christ in the warning terms which Christ Himself uses in today’s Gospel, and which St. Paul reiterates in his second Letter to the Corinthians. Were we to apply the spirit of these texts to modern times we might well ask: were the some 200 people killed in Madrid a few days ago more sinful than the rest of us? Were the 3,000 people annihilated at Ground Zero more guilty than the rest of us? Were the tens of thousands killed in the earthquake in Bam in Iran more guilty than the rest of us? Are the millions of innocent children suffering from HIV/AIDS more guilty than the rest of us? Are not these horrific tragedies warnings also to us? Or do we live thinking that death will never come to us? Do the sweetness of freedom without responsibility, rights without truth and the unspoken dread of changing our lives to live righteously and piously before God lull us into moral and religious oblivion? Do we insist all the more on our freedoms because we smart all the more at admitting the truth? Do we want more freedom to compensate for the pressures, demands and unbearable tedium and stress of our daily existence? Are we angry at God for being God and at ourselves for being ourselves, that is, not God?

                I ask many questions and offer few answers; I seem to focus on the shadows and forget the bright signs of hope around us and among us. I know. But not everything can be said in one go: I hope you understand that I take my cue from the Gospel of today in which Jesus, our Hope and our Light, demands of us to consider the bitter shadows in order to stir ourselves to sweet repentance, which is nothing other than the discipline of falling in love with Him. If I recall one doctrine above, I do so inseparably with another: it is the unfailing mercy of Christ given through His Church to those who seek to obey, but fail on the way. Mercy is not an excuse to justify disobedience, but a remedy to strengthen us to seek and find the freedom of obedience.

                Like Yahweh in the book of Exodus, Jesus sees the affliction of His people and knows well what we are suffering in the individual and collective slavery of freedom without truth. He asks us only to turn to Him and to cry out with sincerity upon His help. If He so willingly and meekly forgave the repentant thief, our hope is indeed great; but how greater still will be the joy we can bring to His merciful Heart if we can willingly bear now the bitter yoke of repentance and stumble, shoulder to shoulder, with Him to taste the sweet and everlasting fruit of the Tree of Salvation.

 

Msgr. Peter Magee

Sunday, March 14th, 2004” St. Matthew’s Cathedral, DC – 10.00 am