Twenty years since Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints got a Grammy nomination. One-hundred fifty since Grant and the Union occupied Nashville, Tennessee. Multiple millennia since Jonah preached in Nineveh…
The people of Nineveh repented. (Luke 11:32)
The people of Nineveh repented. What sins had they committed?
The king was not a real Jew. The high priests had no faith. The Pharisees did not practice what they preached. The Romans ruled as careerist bureaucrats. You couldn’t pray in the Temple because the animal-traders made too much noise. You couldn’t save for the future because the taxmen gouged you. You couldn’t travel because the highways were crawling with bandits.
Dishonesty grew like a sickening weed everywhere, choking the life out of religion and the common life, leaving the nation on the brink of violent despair.
Then people began to hear about a man who lived down in the desert wilderness by the mouth of the Jordan River. He lived on a hillside that looked out on the brilliant sunrise from the quiet, holy east.
This man had no angle. He owed allegiance to no party. He had no designs on any advancement in this world. His life consisted solely in patiently waiting for all the prophecies of old to come true.
Is it any wonder that they came by the hundreds? Down the mountain from Jerusalem and Judea, down the river from Samaria, Galilee, Syria. Is it any wonder that people suffocating in a society canopied with craven selfishness came for a breath of John the Baptist’s fresh air?
He opened up the sky for them. He unlocked the hidden mystery of the sacred page. He made the faith of Abraham live. The work of God had not been exhausted by the many centuries of strife. No: it had all been a matter of careful divine preparation.
Make straight the paths of the Providence of God. Be cleansed for refreshment and renewal. A great day of truth, of justice, of peace and light—the day of Christ—is coming.
Let us imagine ourselves to be Jewish converts to Christianity, living at the time of the Apostles. We find ourselves confronted with a difficult question.
The ancient law of our forefathers demanded a life of rigorous honesty, piety, justice, and self-discipline.
In fact, the Law of Moses demanded such intense religion and morality that generation after generation of Jews found it impossible to comply with the Law.
Then the long-expected Messiah came–and it was the God of Moses Himself, made man. He offered the perfect sacrifice which atones for all the countless sins of the past, and He mercifully reconciles us with the Creator—in spite of our hopeless unworthiness. Our religion now follows Christ Himself; He has established the definitive covenant.
But: Christ does not immediately transport us to heaven and eternal life. His Church baptizes us into His mystery, but we still live here on earth, confronted with the same temptations and evil that we faced before Christ came.
Here, then, we find the difficult question: What kind of behavior does God expect of us now?
He came to save those who were not able to follow the moral law which He had previously laid down. His Precious Blood washes away all sin. No human being could ever commit a sin which God will not forgive. This is gospel truth.
Does this mean we can do whatever we want? Can I now have my cake and eat it, too? Can I act immorally, indulge myself, play fast and loose? God will forgive, so does it matter?
This would be the distorted, funhouse-mirror image of the Gospel. Can we be surprised that, in certain corners of the ancient world, a lot of new Christians went ahead and embraced it?
St. Jude dedicated his apostolate to combating this error. Being redeemed by Christ and having our sins forgiven calls us to a higher moral standard than the Ten Commandments, not a lower one.
Christ did not reveal an indulgent God Who doesn’t care about our sins. Rather, He revealed God’s zealous love. We meet this love not with selfishness, but with selfless love in return. God patiently forgives. We love Him back not by continuing to try His patience, but by being patient and forgiving ourselves.
The heretics taught that Christ’s cross meant that we could forget about the Law. Christ’s cross does mean that we can forget about the Law, like someone walking on the sidewalk can forget about the speed limit.
Going 85 miles an hour doesn’t stop being dangerous and illegal. Neither does impiety, profanity, malice, lust, greed, sloth, vengeful anger, or envy. They all still violate God’s law, and are punishable with a kind of justice that we definitely do not want to have to face.
But if we live for God, we may find ourselves distracted from deadly sins by things like praying and taking care of our neighbors.
Last week our Holy Father Pope Benedict visited the monastery where Martin Luther studied for the priesthood and was ordained.
The Pope spoke with admiration about the depth of Luther’s desire for God:
‘How do I receive the grace of God?’ The fact that this question was the driving force behind Luther’s whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me.
The Holy Father went on to outline how different we are now. The contemporary attitude effectively declares: ‘God doesn’t care about my foibles. If He actually does judge me, He magnanimously overlooks all my small failings.’
But, the Pope asked, are our failings really so small? “Is not the world laid waste by the corruption of great and small alike? No, evil is no small matter.”
The Pope went on to say:
We need God; we were created to have a relationship with Him. The more the world withdraws from God, the clearer it becomes that man, in the hubris of his power, in his emptiness of heart and his longing for satisfaction and happiness, increasingly loses his life.
Luther asked himself, “Where do I stand before God?” We must ask ourselves the same question. And when we do, Scripture provides us with the perfect prayer to make:
Justice is with the Lord, our God, and we are filled with shame…
We have been only too ready to disregard the Lord’s voice…
and each of us went after the desires of his own wicked heart.
Luther found himself paralyzed by his own inadequacy before the glory of God. But we need not so find ourselves. We believe in the forgiveness of sins ministered by the Church. God has plans for us involving happiness and not woe. A perfectly fresh start is never more than a good Confession away.
God became man to gather His scattered people. The Creator became a shepherd of men, a pastor. He summoned the wandering sheep by the sweet, true sound of His voice.
The sheep heard the call and came to Him. He taught them His unique heavenly doctrine.
“Your Father provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, who neither sew nor reap nor toil or spin. You are worth more than many sparrows… Forgive seventy times seven times… There is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come… If someone strikes you on the left cheek, offer him the right cheek as well…”
The sheep heard His words and took note. But they did not understand.
As late as Holy Thursday night, the lambs who had walked closest to the divine pastor still had no idea what valley they were about to walk through.
“Lord, why do you reveal yourself to us and not to the world? Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Lord, show us the Father, then we will be satisfied. Lord, even though I have to die with you, I will not deny you!”
Deep into the night, Christ spoke to them about the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Spirit. They listened and took note, but they did not understand.
In his gospel book, St. John has narrated some conversations which the Lord Jesus had with scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem prior to His bitter Passion. These passages illuminate the tension and controversy that eventually led to Jesus’ arrest on Holy Thursday night and His summary execution on Good Friday.
The decisive moment came when the Lord answered the High Priest’s question about being the Son of God. On the level of the human drama, the unforgivable act which Christ committed was this: He bore witness to the truth about Himself.
John 8 puts us in the middle of one of the conversations which led up to the events of Holy Week. Perhaps we can consider this conversation as a debate about the basic identity of the people involved. In our own way, we are involved in this discussion, too.
Jonah went to the enormous city of Nineveh and informed the people that the Lord intended to destroy the place in forty days. In other words, the prophet presented himself as a sign to the Ninevites, a sign of the transcendent justice of Almighty God.
The king of Nineveh saw the sign and believed. Speaking on behalf of the whole city, the king repented of his injustice and declared that all the Ninevites would lay aside the violence that each had in hand.
The king took for granted that he and all his people had violence in hand. This was a fair assumption. One does not like to generalize, but we can safely say of ourselves that we sinners generally have some kind of violence in hand. Maybe not shedding blood. But violence to someone’s good name, or violence to someone’s vulnerable feelings, or violence to good order and someone’s rightful place. Our egos are voracious; they make us do violence, often under-cover.
So, talk about a good thing to do for Lent: to recognize the violence I have in hand for what it is, and lay it aside. Because look at what happened next in the Book of Jonah: When the Ninevites laid aside the violence they had in hand, the Lord laid aside the violence He had in hand.
We know the Lord is meek and gentle. But we also know that He is unfailingly righteous. He is perfect peace in Himself. But His omnipotent truth and justice destroys evil and deceit. Do we think the tsunami in Japan was a formidable force? The truth of God will roll like a tsunami over all lies, and it will make the north of Japan look like a kiddie pool. God does not will violence, but His willing of peace does violence to disorder, selfishness, and pride.
So, dear brothers and sisters, let us lay aside the violence we have in hand—the jealousy, grudges, turf wars, one-upmanship, gossip, selfishness, pettiness, meanness—let’s lay it all aside and beg God with desperate hearts:
Lord, we know that in justice we deserve condemnation, but have mercy on us anyway, forgive us, and help us!
…In the first game of the NCAA tournament, four players fouled out. Sportscaster lingo: “DQ” for disqualified. Five fouls? Dairy Queen.
By the by, the Dairy Queen density of southwest Virginny crushes the DQ density of metro Washington. Not even close. At this moment, there are 16 DQs within twenty miles. (Total number of Dairy Queen in the Archdiocese of Washington? Five.) Cannot wait for Lent to be over.
The other day, beads of sweat dripped from my elbow when I finished my morning run. The sheer joy of it moved me to compose this little rhapsody:
Come, long hot Washington summer!
Come and enfold your people in your torrid embrace.
We will take every sweaty minute of your grimy kiss.
We hardly know ourselves without your bleary fog surrounding us.
Come and wrap us in your dank blanket!
…Here is a Trinity Sunday homily for you:
Lord, what is man that you care for him? Mortal man, that you keep him in mind? Yet You have made him little less than a god. (Psalm Eight)
In Sacred Scripture, the Wisdom of God testifies that He brought about the making of all things with the Almighty Father:
When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep; when he made firm the skies above, when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth; when he set for the sea its limit, so that the waters should not transgress his command; then was I beside him as his craftsman. (Proverbs 8:27-30)
This is the Word of God speaking, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. All three Persons of the Trinity brought about creation. Of all the works of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the greatest is man. Divine Wisdom says, “I found delight in the human race.” The Lord crowned the world by making us “with glory and honor, putting all things under our feet” (Psalm Eight).