We briefly step out of the “green” of Ordinary Time to celebrate the birth of the last prophet of the Old Testament, St. John the Baptist. In so doing, we not only commemorate a great prophet of history, but we also consider the office of prophet itself, one to which we are summoned by our baptism.
As we consider John the Baptist, we also learn of our own duties as prophets and as those who must be open to the proclamations of those who are appointed prophets to us. Let’s consider four aspects of the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist.
1. His PREPARING PURPOSE – In the first reading today, The Church applies these words of Isaiah to John the Baptist to describe his purpose:
The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. … You are my servant, he said to me, through whom I show my glory … to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:1-6).
The Lord wanted to save His people, to restore and raise them up. But as He had warned in the Book of Malachi, it was necessary to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, for should He come and find them unprepared, there would be doom.
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. And all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble. For the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty.
“So, remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom” (Mal 4:1-6).
In His love, God promised to send an Elijah figure to prepare the people for the great and terrible day of the Lord, so that they could not only endure it but even consider it bright and sunny with its warm and healing rays. John the Baptist was that Elijah figure. Jesus, who came to cast a fire upon the earth (cf Lk 12:49), tells us this truth:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men [also] attack it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt 11:12-15).
In other words, it’s time to get ready. Either the Lord will come to us or we will go to Him. Not wanting us to be lost, God sent Elijah and John the Baptist. He sends the Church. He sends parents, priests, and teachers. The great day of judgment dawns for each of us, and in His love, the Lord sends prophets to prepare us.
2 . His PENITENTIAL PROCLAMATION– John heralded [Jesus’] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Acts 13:24). Matthew reports John’s words: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! … Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him (Matt 3:1).
At the heart of getting ready to meet God is repentance. In recent decades, some in the Church have soft-peddled the themes of repentance, human sinfulness, and worldliness, but the true prophet cannot prescind from them. God is holy, and the holiest among us are the first to acknowledge that it is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living and holy God. He is surely rich in mercy, and the reason for that is that we are sinners.
Repentance is more than a reform of our moral behavior. The Greek word translated here as “repent” is metanoite, which means more literally to come to a new mind, to come to a new way of thinking, to have different and better priorities, to exchange worldly notions for heavenly wisdom.
A true prophet is steeped in God’s Word and the teachings of the Church. A true prophet preaches and announces what God reveals and sees everything else in the light of it. A true prophet summons God’s people to truth that He proclaims, and exposes lies and errors for what they are.
In summoning God’s people to repent, the prophet seeks not only to reform and inform them but also to transform them by God’s grace. If we are transformed, then when God summons us to His presence we will already be adjusted to the temperature of His glory, our eyes will be adjusted to the radiance of His love, and our souls will be conformed to the values of His heavenly kingdom.
Repent! That is, come to whole new mind, a new way of thinking and understanding, a new heart, a new love. Come to a new behavior and a new way to walk that makes “straight paths” for and to the Lord.
3. His PERSISTENT POINTING to Christ – John the Baptist was a kind of rock star in his own time; it is difficult to overestimate his renown. Such fame often leads to megalomania and personal disaster, but John humbly points to Christ: What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.
It was John who pointed and said, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (Jn 1:29)
The true prophet points only to Christ, only to God. John did not look to his own glory or fame, he looked to Jesus. He did not try to figure what it would cost him to follow Jesus, he just looked and pointed to Jesus. If anyone pointed out John’s glory and gifts, he simply pointed to Jesus and said, He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).
The true prophet is turned toward Christ, looks for Him, and eagerly points to Him.
4. His PRESENT PERSON– John the Baptist was a real person who ministered to the real people of his time in order to get them ready to meet Jesus Christ. Here are two questions to consider:
Who is John the Baptist for you?
The Church certainly has this role of being like John the Baptist in preparing us to meet God. The Church proclaims repentance and points always to Christ. Many scoff at the Church because of her role and because of the gospel. Certain aspects of the gospel go in season and out of season. Yet, though she be a voice as of one crying in the wilderness, still she prophesies: “Repent and believe the Good News. Prepare the way for the Lord. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Seek that which is above, rather than the things of earth.” Yes, the Church is surely “The Prophet” for us.
Others such as parents, teachers, and pastors also play this role of John in our life. The Church is not an abstraction, she has members who take up her voice. The first place that most people hear of Jesus is not from a papal encyclical or even the Bible. They hear of Jesus at their mother’s knee, from their father’s voice, from a religious sister, or from a teacher. All these people together say, “This is the way; walk in it.” Yes, John the Baptist is still present in the prophetic ministry of the Church and others.
How are you John the Baptist to others?
Just as you have had the benefit of the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist from others, so are you called to take it up for others. To whom have you witnessed? To whom have you declared, “This is the way; walk in it?” To whom have you have you said, “Repent and believe the Good News?”
When you were baptized you were given the office of prophet. Have you taken up this role? Have others been made ready through you to meet God?
God had John the Baptist long ago; whom does He have now? It looks like you. You are John the Baptist!
Here’s John the Baptist, complete with a British accent!
C.S. Lewis is revered for his solid insight and for his ability to look beyond the ordinary understanding of things. Although he was not a Catholic, I would like to present several of his thoughts on sin, contrition, and repentance as part of our Lenten consideration of these matters. The quotes below are all drawn from a collection of passages from Lewis’ writings entitled The Business of Heaven. The page numbers in my citations refer to that book.
On contrition and the honest assessment of our own wretchedness:
Most of us equate the word contrition with remorse or sorrow, but Lewis reminds us that there is more to the word. He also recaptures the word miserable, which most of us take to mean terrible or despicable. He writes,
Contrite … is a word translated from the Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now, modern people complain about that …. They do not wish their hearts to be pulverized and they do not feel they can sincerely say they are “miserable offenders” [as the English prayer books of that time said] …. I do not think whether we are ‘feeling’ miserable or not matters. I think [the prayer book] is using the word miserable in the old sense—meaning an object of pity. … [p. 55].
Indeed, the word miserable comes from the Latin miserabilis, meaning “pitiable, miserable, or lamentable.” We sinners are surely pitiable in our condition, and God does show us great pity, mercy, and love in this lowly and lamentable state. For a well-formed Christian the recognition of our lowly condition and of God’s pitying love for us can bring forth gratitude and relief.
Sadly, as Lewis notes, many too easily take offense at such notions and thereby reveal their thin-skinned natures. In our pride we do not often see ourselves as pitiable or wretched. For example, some Catholic hymnals removed the phrase “that saved a wretch like me” from the hymn “Amazing Grace” because it offended modern sensibilities. While we do not accept the Protestant notion that we are utterly depraved, wretch can be understood in a very Catholic sense. We are pitiable and do not stand a chance without the Lord’s grace and mercy through Jesus. We should be careful to check our pride when we bristle at such notions, for Jesus warned the proud church of Laodicea,
You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:17-19).
C.S. Lewis goes on to observe that even if we do not feel pitiable, we are. He writes,
A person can be an object of pity when he is not feeling miserable …. Imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded passenger trains that are travelling towards one another along the same line at sixty miles and hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision … The passengers are an object of pity … though they do not feel miserable themselves [p. 55].
This is our condition, too, all the more so if we deny it. God sees our pitiable state from on high. Many of those on the imaginary trains may think of themselves as quite secure. Some may be jovial, others content. Still others may be anxious about lesser things. Not one of them is thinking of an approaching train and likely death. No, they do not feel pitiable and are not thinking about the fact that they are contingent beings, dependent on God for every beat of their hearts. They are not thinking that they are about to be summoned to judgment.
Recognizing our condition is a first step to healing. Through contrition we announce not only our sorrow but admit that our sins have crushed and pulverized us. Surrendering our pride, we realize that we are, as the Lord says, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. In our pitiable state, though, the Lord’s pity and mercy can now reach us.
Forgiving is not excusing:
We often conflate the idea of forgiving and excusing, but they are not the same. C.S. Lewis points out,
There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiving says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology and will not hold it against you … But excusing says, “I see you couldn’t help it, or didn’t mean it. You weren’t really to blame.”
[But] If one was not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense, forgiving and excusing are almost opposites.
This is an important insight because it is a very different thing to say to someone, “I did something wrong. I admit it and ask for your forgiveness,” than it is to say, “I didn’t really mean it. I’d had a long day and was upset. Please excuse me.” The second option in effect is saying this: “I have an excuse and want you to accept it. Because I have an excuse I didn’t really do anything wrong, or at least I didn’t mean to.”
How rare it is for someone to think, let alone say, “I did it. I will not excuse what I did or ask you to excuse it. I will not try to explain away what I did. I simply and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
Our good qualities do not simply do away with what is wrong in us:
We have a tendency to minimize our sins by focusing on our better qualities. Surely, we have good qualities, but this does not eliminate the fact that we have sins and they must be attended to. Lewis makes this simple observation:
When you go to the doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs, and eyes, and throat are all right [p. 60].
Looking to our sins does not mean that there is nothing good in us, but neither will the good in us simply make the sins of no account. Using our virtues to make light of our sins betrays the virtues by turning them to pride.
The forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving; it is about giving as well:
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin? If so, you do well. But do you also believe in forgiving the sins of others? C.S. Lewis makes the following interesting observation:
We say in the creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” … The people who compiled the creed apparently thought this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of each time we went to church [pp. 57-58].
But why? It is not widely disputed that God forgives sins. As Lewis next observes, believing in the forgiveness of my sins by God may seem easy, but in saying “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” I am also stating that I believe that I must forgive the sins of others. This is harder, and often we’d like to forget that part. Thus, the creed has us mention it every Sunday. Lewis says,
We [easily] believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us [pp. 57-58].
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?
On the easy substitution of communal sin for our own sin:
We live in times when it is popular and often demanded that we apologize for the sins of our ancestors or of our nation. Of itself, this is not always wrong, but it has many pitfalls. Lewis notes,
The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the [more] congenial one of … denouncing others … [by this] you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition [pp. 56-57].
Yes, indeed! How quickly we congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened than our ancestors. How easy it is to claim the we are not part of any collective problem in our nation. There is a lot of “virtue signaling” going on today rather than personal repentance or action. Surely there are times when it is appropriate to point to our collective and communal sins, but strangely enough, the collective is made up of individuals—like you and me. Denouncing communal sin, as Lewis notes, is too easily a substitute for looking in the mirror.
These are just a few thoughts on sin, repentance and contrition.
We continue to read from the Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. That is, it tells us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. An inspired text, it traces out not only the current time, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church, and exercising care, to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.
With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider Romans 1, wherein St. Paul describes the grave condition of the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he prophetically interpreted the times of the first century A.D. Although the text speaks specifically to those times, it is clear that our modern times are becoming nearly identical to what was described.
St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in grave crisis; it was in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.
Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation of those days and apply it to our own. The text opens without any niceties and the words rain down on us almost like lead pellets.
I. The Root of the Ruin – The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring lights of judgment and the fearsome word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is called a revelation. That is to say, it is a word of truth that reveals and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!
It’s quite astonishing, really. It directly contradicts to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love for us is understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists on what is right and true, on what we need rather than what we want.
What is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure His presence, His holiness. For such a one, there is wailing and grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by the existence of God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God’s wrath does not mean that He is in some simplistic sense angry, emotionally worked up. God is not moody or unstable. He is not subject to temper tantrums as we are. Rather, it is that God is holy and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness; the sinner experiences it as wrath.
To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. God is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but his justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on a person, culture, civilization, or epoch, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath to the unrepentant.
What was the central sin of St. Paul’s (and our own) time? They suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is the sin that leads to every other problem.
Note this well: those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).
St. Paul wrote this to St. Timothy:
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).
Isaiah described this:
They say to the seers, “See no more visions”; to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right; tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10).
Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, there is a widespread tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to go on calling good, or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.
When we do this, we suppress the truth. Now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. On account of the sin of repeated, collective, obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.
II. The Revelation that is Refused – The text goes on to say, … and since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).
Note that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful; it is not merely ignorance. While the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are still “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation. Creation reveals God and speaks not only to His existence, but also to his attributes, to His justice and power, to His will and the good order He instills in us and thus expects of us.
All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”
The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth in the existence of something called the conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … Moral conscience … bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. …. [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (CCC #1776-1778).
Because of the witness and revelation of the Created order, and on account of the conscience present and operative in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse. They are suppressing what they know to be true.
It has been my experience in my many years as a pastor working with sinners (and as a sinner myself) that those I must confront about sin know full well what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still, small voice of God; they may have sought to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization; they may have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep down, though, they know that what they do is wrong. At the end of the day they are without excuse.
Some lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for suppressing the truth.
So there is also the revelation of creation, the Word of God (which has been heard by most people today), and the conscience. Many people today, as in St. Paul’s time, refuse revelation. They do so willfully in order to justify wickedness; they are without excuse.
III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).
This should seem very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture has set aside God, whether through explicit atheism and militant secularism or through neglect and willful tepidity. Today, God has been pushed to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image and any reminders of Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many people even mock His Holy Name, mentioning His truth only to scorn it as a vestige of the “dark ages.”
Faith and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it has been scoffed at as a relic from times less scientific than our own much more “enlightened” age.
Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic “anti-culture,” which has systematically put into the shredder every bit of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self-control, moderation, and nearly all other virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must go.
As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: … they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21).
Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, smart, advanced, we have collectively speaking become foolish and vain; our intellects grow darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing things knows little bounds today. Yet the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot seem to exercise the least bit of self-control. Our debts continue to grow but we cannot curb our spending. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is increasingly widespread. All of the most basic indicators indicate that we have grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates. The numbers that should be going up are down and the numbers that should be going down are up.
Although we claim to be so wise and smart today, we have become collectively foolish. Even our ability to think of solutions and to have intelligent conversations has decreased, since we cannot seem to agree on even the most basic points. We simply talk past one other, living in our own smaller and increasingly self-defined worlds.
If you think that the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, you’re kidding yourself. People are fascinated by stones and rocks, and by all sorts of syncretistic combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God,” when people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but believe instead in a reinvented one—who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in this age of the personal sort of hand-carved idol that can be invoked over and against the true God of the Scriptures.
And people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental! It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.
Our culture is in the very grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much for which we should be rightfully concerned.
IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:24-27).
In this passage the “wrath” is revealed. The text simply says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath; this is the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.
In effect, God is saying, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It’s all yours. You’ll experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion, the full fury of your own sinful choices. Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.
It seems that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires today.
Note that the first and most prominent effect is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts, and the shameful acts of homosexual relations. The text also speaks of “due” penalty for such actions, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from using the body for purposes for which it is not designed.
Welcome to the 21st century decaying West.
Many misunderstand what Romans 1 is saying. They point to this text as a warning that God will punish us for condoning and celebrating homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say that God will punish us for this; it says that the widespread condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of wrath. It is the first and chief indication that God has given us over to our stubborn sinfulness and to our lusts.
Let us be careful to make a distinction here. The text does not say that homosexuals are being punished; some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. Rather, it is saying that we are all being punished.
Why? For over 60 years now the decadent West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDs, single motherhood, absent fathers, poverty, and emotionally damaged children does not seem to have been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have only become wilder and more debased.
Through the use of contraception, we severed the connection between sex, procreation, and marriage. Sex has been reduced to two adults doing what they please in order to have fun or share love (really, lust). This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.
Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. The wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend the obvious: that homosexual acts are contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own confusion about sex and now an increasing diet of ever-baser pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, has had no answer to the challenge.
We have gone out of our minds. Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath. This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally has to say to a culture, if you want sin you can have it—until it comes out of your ears!
How many tens of millions of babies have been aborted, sacrificed to our wild lusts? How deep has been the pain caused by rampant divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and STDs? Yet none of this has caused us to repent.
In all of this, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again, homosexuals are not being singled out; The wrath is against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally says, enough, and gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effects. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that as a culture we now “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (The word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts is paraphysin, meaning “contrary to nature.”) Elsewhere, Scripture speaks of these as acts of grave depravity that cry to Heaven for vengeance.
But as the text says, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32). This is darkness; this is wrath.
This is the result of being given over to our sins: a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts is God’s punishment and it demonstrates that He has given us over.
V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:28-31).
The text states clearly and in very familiar terms the truth that when sex, marriage, and family go into the shredder, an enormous number of social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The word “bastard” in its common informal usage refers to a despicable person, but its more “technical” definition is an illegitimate child. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that when God gives us over to our sinful desires, we start to act like bastards.
Large numbers of children raised outside the best setting of a father and a mother in a stable traditional family is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. I will not comment on them any further; they speak for themselves.
VI. The Refusal to Repent – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).
Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them and we will feel their full effects.
Somewhere God is saying,
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).
Given our brief sampling of the Book of Ruth in daily Mass, perhaps a reflection is in order.
The detailed background to the text is too lengthy to go into here, but a few points will help. The story features three main characters: Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. Boaz is clearly a picture (or “type”) of Christ. He was born and lives in Bethlehem; he ultimately acts as Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” by rescuing her from poverty and paying the price so as to cancel her debt. This, of course, is just what Christ does for us: He redeems us by His blood, canceling our poverty and debt. Ruth is a picture of the individual soul in need of Christ’s redemption and mercy. Naomi plays several roles in the book, but in the passage we will consider here she is a picture of the Church; she advises Ruth in what to do and draws her to Boaz, her redeemer.
Consider the following text and then let us see how Naomi symbolizes the Church.
Naomi said to Ruth, “Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered (Ruth 3:2-5).
The advice that Naomi gives to Ruth is very much in line with the instruction that our Mother the Church gives us. In our poverty and under the debt of our sin, we are exhorted by the Church to seek our “Boaz,” who is Christ. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for supplying the alliterative headings below. They are his; the rest of the text is mine).
Be Firmly Convinced – Naomi says, Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Ruth knows her poverty, her pain, and her debt; so does Naomi. She exhorts Ruth to seek Boaz because he is near and can help. Boaz is wealthy and thus has the power to save Ruth, to draw her out of her overwhelming poverty; he has the capacity to cancel Ruth’s debt. She is to seek him at the threshing floor, where he is preparing and providing the bread that will sustain her. She must go, firmly convinced that Boaz will love her and save her.
So, too, does the Church exhort us: Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Is. 55:6). Yes, there is one among us, a near kinsman, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11); His name is Jesus. As God, He has the power to save us and to cancel our debt. Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus is at the threshing floor of His Church, preparing a banquet for you in the sight of your foe (Psalm 23:5). The grain He is winnowing is the Eucharistic Bread of His own flesh. Yes, says the Church, come to Jesus, firmly convinced of His love and His power to save.
Be Freshly Cleansed – Next, Naomi simply says, “Wash.” In other words, the first step in finding help from Boaz is to be freshly cleansed.
So, too, does the Church draw us to Christ with the exhortation to wash. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Yes, the love of God will be poured forth on us and the cancellation of our debt will take place as we are cleansed of our sins.
Here are some other texts in which the Church—our Naomi, our Mother—exhorts us to be washed:
● Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8). ● Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor 7:1). ● Wash and make yourselves clean (Is 1:15). ● Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD (Is 52:11). ● And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16). ● Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:22).
Be Fragrantly Consecrated – Naomi says to Ruth, “and perfume yourself.” In other words, make yourself nice to be near; Come with an aroma that is sweet and pure.
So, too, does the Church, our Naomi, exhort us to be fragrantly consecrated. The fragrance we are called to is that of a holy life, which we receive in baptism. Our life in God should be like a sweet incense or perfume. Consider some of the following texts that the Church gives us:
● Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2). ● For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:15). ● [The groom (Christ) speaks to his beloved:] You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices (Song 4:12). ● Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps (Ex 30:7).
Be Fitly Clothed – Naomi says to Ruth, “and put on your best clothes.”
Our Mother the Church also advises us to be fitly clothed. For a Christian, this means to be adorned in the righteousness that comes to us in Christ by baptism. In the baptismal liturgy, the Church says to the newly baptized of the white garment that he or she wears, You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment, and bring it unstained to the Judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may have everlasting life.
In other words, be fitly clothed. Wear well the garment of righteousness that Christ died to give you. Scripture, too, speaks of the garment in which we are to be fitly clothed:
● I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10). ● Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7).
Be Fully Committed – Naomi continues, Then go down to the threshing floor, … until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.
In other words, she is telling Ruth to place herself at the feet of her redeemer. This action of Ruth’s was a way of saying to Boaz, I put myself under your protection; I am fully committed to you.
The Church bids us to do the same: go to the threshing floor, to that place where the threshed and winnowed bread becomes the Eucharist.
Beneath or near every Catholic altar is the cross; on that cross are the uncovered feet of Jesus Christ.
The most sacred place on earth is at the feet of Jesus Christ. The Church, our Naomi, bids us to gather each Sunday at the altar, beneath the uncovered feet of Christ. The Church says to us just what Naomi said to Ruth: Place yourself at the feet of your Redeemer.
Be Faithfully Compliant – Naomi says to Ruth, confidently and succinctly, He will tell you what to do.
Here, too, the voice of the Church echoes what Mother Mary said long ago regarding her Son: Do whatever he tells you (Jn 2:5). How can our Naomi, the Church, say anything less or anything else? The Church has one message: Do whatever Christ, your redeemer, tells you.
So Naomi is a picture of the Church, Boaz a picture of Christ, and Ruth a picture of the soul in need of salvation.
How does the story end? I’m tempted to tell you to read it for yourself, but since Boaz is a picture of Christ you already know the ending. Ruth, firmly convinced, freshly cleansed, fragrantly consecrated, and fitly clothed, fully commits herself to Boaz and is at his feet. Boaz, who saw and loved Ruth before she ever saw or loved him (cf Ruth 2:5), arises and takes her as his bride, paying off all her debt and giving her a new life. Sound familiar? It is the story of salvation, if we but have eyes to see it.
This animated short contrasts the consuming quality of envy, anger, and hate with the overwhelming power of love and forgiveness. It also depicts the possibility of repentance upon recognizing the damage caused.
In the video, a little girl’s written resentments of her older sister spring forth from her diary to wreak their havoc. Witnessing the frightening result and trying to halt the damage, the young girl tears the passages from her journal. She then attempts to create a repentant, loving message from the shredded remnants. It is a very creative illustration of how God puts our sins behind Him and remembers them no more. Enjoy!
We live in difficult times for the Church; from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic on this blog to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.
The Gospel this Sunday, however, featuring the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.
This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts call for it as well. But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.
We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.
Let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.
I. WAKE UP.Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”
Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.
Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly share plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children are doing: what they watch, what they listen to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.
Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, debating about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.
We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. We who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.
It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.
Blaming one side of the Church or the other, faulting this kind of liturgy or that, is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.
It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.
Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.
II. WISE UP.When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”
Part of the sobriety we have to regain is the understanding that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates us. He hates our children. He hates the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.
We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we do need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. Once we can recognize him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.
Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics, but it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly ways. The Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not typically mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle against pride, love to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.
To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. The Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some reformers propose to be. It is fine to be appropriately zealous for reform and to want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).
Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.
III. WAIT UP. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest …”
We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, ne’er-do-well, and bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for a severe clampdown by bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.
There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does, too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet these texts need to be balanced by texts such as today’s Gospel. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity but it must be conducted with patience and love.
The Lord is patient. In today’s Gospel, He directs us to be prepared to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).
So while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions. Leave it be; wait. Place this in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.
We have had many discussions here on the blog about whether and how bishops should discipline Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible voting patterns, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through their support of abortion and euthanasia.
While I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined, it remains a judgment for the bishop to make as to who, how, and when.
There are Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord Himself speaks to different situations in different ways.
In today’s Gospel the Lord says that we should wait. Generally, this is good advice to follow. After all, how do we know that we don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2; Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming? (Mal 3:2)
Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.
IV. WASH UP.Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”
So you see there is a harvest. Those who have sinned or led others to sin, and have not repented, are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.
The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me; everyone will have to render an account.”
That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.
Step four in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wash up,” to get ready.
So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”
Here is a great exposition on this Gospel by Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!
Sometimes things get so familiar to us that we stop understanding or reflecting on their deeper meaning. Each year in RCIA (adult conversion) classes I get some puzzled looks as we discuss the ritual. “What’s that all about?” some will say. There is even some revulsion expressed at having dirty ashes smeared on your forehead. I remember as a kid wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their forehead. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today I’ll admit I still don’t like it much, though I behave myself and do not rub them off!
Please forgive me, I don’t want to seem impious yet I still marvel, as a priest at how many people pack into Church to get ashes on their forehead. Even sadder, many of them don’t seem to want communion as much. In fact significant numbers walk out the door after ashes are given and do not stay for communion. I remember a certain pastor of mine responding to that by not giving Ashes until after Communion.
Most people of course who come to Mass are faithful and have their priorities straight but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems to me to unappealing and also challenging, if we really come to terms with what we are saying in receiving them. I wonder if large numbers would flock for ashes if they really knew that they were saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.
What, really do ashes signify? Perhaps a brief tour of Scripture is in order:
Humility – Job said, You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:3-6 Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense here. But, having encountered God he realizes that God is God and he is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God who is Being itself, who is All in All. Yes he is a son in the presence of a Father but he is not God’s equal that he might question God or put him on trial. Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance, but humility. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility when she quotes Gen 3:19 “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as she places ashes on the individual.
A Sacramental that points to the Sacrament – A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin….For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. Number 19:9,17) This text sees ashes obtained from a burned sin offering and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13) but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin. In the same way ashes on Ash Wednesday, mixed with holy water cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament. To get ashes on Ash Wednesday and not go to confession during Lent is really to miss the point. If one’s desire to repent and to be clean, free of sin, is real then from the sacramental to the sacrament they go. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pretty pointless.
A sign of a true change – When the news[of Ninevah’s possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:6) Here too repentance is symbolized. But the symbol is not enough. Actual repentance is required. Hence the King does not just “do ashes,” he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9) Hence another option for the priest to say as he places ashes is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is what is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.
A summons to faith and a new mind – Jesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes(Matt 11:21). Here Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith in what he said. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan) which more literally means to come to a new mind or way of thinking. The fact is that there are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our on-going challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by his grace working through Scripture and Church teaching. It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. We are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” (Romans 12:2) Hence another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he places the ashes.
So, how real are your ashes? Do you and I intend these things as we go forth or is it just a ritual, something to do because it’s “sorta neat.” Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of ashes.
I celebrate just over 50 funerals a year; about one a week. (People are dying to come to church here). And most of these funerals feature large numbers of fallen away Catholics and unchurched individuals. Most of these people I see ONLY at funerals and sometimes weddings. For this reason, in recent years, I have altered my approach at funerals and direct almost half of the sermon to the unchurched and call them to repent and return home. Surely in the first part I speak of the deceased, offer thanks to God for their life, entrust them to God and ask the congregation to pray for the repose of the deceased soul. I never fail to menton judgment and purgatory as reasons for this prayer. That is too often not mentioned at Catholic funerals, a terrible oversight if you ask me. But the bottom line is that I spend the first half of the sermon commending the deceased person to God’s benevolent mercy and care.
But given the terribly high loss in the practice of faith and the consequent grave condition of many of the souls at any given funeral I cannot allow (any longer) an omission to be made of summoning them to Christ. How can it be that God has led them to my parish and I would say nothing to them to dissuade them from their path away from God and his sacraments? So many souls today are not only unchurched and backslidden (fallen away), but they are often locked in serious, mortal sin. I cannot know this about any particular individual but it is clear that many are lost like sheep without a shepherd. While conscious of my own sin, I cannot remain silent (any longer) and fail to call the unchurched and fallen away back. And trust me, even at the funeral of strong Catholic families there are MANY who are fallen away. Add to that the fact that many funerals I celebrate are for people who themselves were not always fervent in the practice of the faith. Families of such as these have even more members in need of a sobering wake up call.
In the video below is an excerpt from a funeral I preached some time ago for a man named Henry who practiced his own faith quite well but whose children and grandchildren largely did not. No more details about this funeral are necessary or appropriate. But with approval of a family member and since the passage of time is significant and the venue undisclosed I do not think any of you readers would have any idea who this individual is or his family. I will not even indicate the city in which this funeral took place. But in it is a good example of what I do at most every funeral in recent years in terms of the second half of the funeral wherein I turn my attention to the unchurched and fallen away.
I will admit that some of the things I say are tough. But remember, I only have them once and I have to come right to the point. No one will follow an uncertain trumpet. A very few have criticized my approach by insisting that funerals are sensitive times and we ought just to console the grieving family and say pleasant and encouraging things. Others, especially the older ones come to me and say, “Thanks Father, there are people in my family that needed to hear it!” But in the end I cannot preach either to please or displease man. Rather, I have a conviction that this is what God would have me do. I cannot waste an opportunity to clearly warn, as Jesus often did, that judgment day is coming, and maybe sooner than you or I expect. We have to be ready for, at an hour that we do not expect the Son of Man will come (eg Mat 24:44). For those who do not have the time to listen to the video the fundamental points are these:
I hope you will not forget to pray also for yourself today because you are going to die.
What are you doing to get ready to meet God?
There are too many people today who are not serious about their spiritual life. They are goofing off, playing around and laughing their way through life as if it were all some big joke. They do not pray, go to Church or read Scripture. They are committing serious sin and not repenting of it.
If this is you, you are not going to be ready to meet God.
I exhort you to get ready now, delay not your conversion. Be serious about your walk with God by praying every day; reading scripture every day, Church every Sunday.
If you are in serious and unrepented sin, get on your knees today and beg God’s mercy and help. You may not even know how to stop, but tell God you’re sorry and need his help to stop. But do not go on calling good what God has called sinful.
Be serious about it.
Hold to God’s unchanging hand!
I think that without some exhortation of this sort the funeral service can be worse than a missed opportunity, it can be downright harmful. Why do I say this? Because our silence speaks volumes. To many who are locked in serious sin, or fallen away, never to hear a work of exhortation becomes a kind of affirmation, a tacit approval that every thing is fine when it is not. This is harmful silence. To those who say funerals are not good times to speak in strong language, then I say, “When?” When will I get a similar opportunity to speak to so many unchurched? When will they hear the “come to Jesus” talk if not then? When?
Here’s the sermon excerpt. I’ve included pictures related to funerals this is really just an audio recording of my sermon with a slide show attached. Remember it is only the second half of a sermon. The first half was largely a commending of Henry to God’s mercy and acknowledgment of his strong faith and love of God; a joyful acknowledgment of his being a gift to us from God. I also reminded the congregation to pray for him since he goes to judgment wherein God may need to purge him of any remaining sorrows, sins or pains brought from this world. And then comes this second half: