March 30, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Sunday of Lent
Reading I (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23)
Reading II (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Gospel (St. John 3:14-21)
In the readings today, we see the same theme running through all three readings: the sinfulness of humanity and the mercy of God. In the first reading, we hear how the people had gone astray and they added infidelity to infidelity, and how God sent all of His prophets to the people (because He had compassion on His people, we are told). He sent them the prophets to call them back, but the people ignored them and they did worse than what they had done before. We are told in Chronicles that it got so bad that there was no alternative other than to allow His people to be destroyed. Not completely destroyed – there were some who continued to live; they were taken off captive to Babylon where they had to become servants of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. God allowed His temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed; He allowed the priest and the prophets to be destroyed; and the land lay fallow for seventy years until all of the lost Sabbaths were returned according to the word of the prophet Jeremiah.
But then, once again, we see that God raises up a pagan king, a Persian who had not heard of these people of Israel, in fulfillment of the word that God had spoken to the prophet Jeremiah, and, astoundingly, the word that was preached through the prophet Isaiah where Isaiah prophesied that there would be a king by the name of Cyrus whom God would raise up and would bring the people back to their own land. And so this pagan king has some kind of vision or locution (or whatever it was that God did for him) and he orders that the people would go back and build a temple to the Lord. In all the other nations that were part of the kingdom of the Persians, nothing like this occurred; it was only for the people of the land of Israel. So even though God allowed the temple to be destroyed and allowed the people who survived the destruction of Israel to be taken captive, He still loved His people; they still remained His chosen people. His compassion, His mercy, and His love for His people remained.
That is our great hope because when we look at what is going on in the world today and in the Church today, we would have to say it is very similar: infidelity being added to infidelity. The things that are going on in some of these places, one would not know that you were in a Catholic church. First, from the way it looks, and secondly, from what they are doing. The Holy Father has been asking and requesting and commanding for years that the infidelities would stop, and he has been ignored by both the priests and the people. But for the most part, it is not the fault of the people. God loves His people. In fact, Saint Paul tells us that God, Who is rich in mercy, had compassion. He wants to show the greatness of His mercy, and He sent His only Son so that while we were dead in sin we would be raised up with Christ; raised up even to the point, Saint Paul tells us, that we are seated with Him already in Heaven.
Now when we think about what is supposed to be going on in a church, in the Old Testament, Moses saw the worship of Heaven. He was told by God and then told the people that they were to imitate the worship of Heaven. In the New Testament, something similar happened. Saint John saw the heavens opened and he too saw the worship of Heaven. For 2,000 years, that is precisely what the Church has been doing –imitating what has been seen in Heaven. And it is preparing the souls of the faithful for what we are going to do for all eternity. We need to understand that eternity, while there are many ways that we can try to describe it, is really going to be the Mass. It is going to be the worship of God. It is going to be the Banquet of the Lamb. And that is what we already celebrate right here on this altar every single day. It is what we individually are able to unite ourselves with at this Communion rail every single day. This is merely a foretaste and a foreshadowing of the glory that God has prepared for us in eternity.
And so we realize the mercy of God, but we realize also what is required of each one of us. If we are already seated with Christ in Heaven, raised up with Him, we are called to enter into the glory of Heaven and to worship God the way we are going to do for all eternity. The Church is supposed to be a reflection of Heaven, and those of us within the Church are to be a reflection of the saints who gather around the altar of God and worship Him. But if we look at what goes on in so many places, really all that can be said is infidelity is being heaped upon infidelity, and abomination upon abomination. God has compassion on His people, yet we see the same pattern. If we ignore the call of our Holy Father, if we ignore all the messengers that God sends to call us back, the day will come when He will have no choice but to destroy all that has been built up. Not because it is ugly, not because it does not give glory to God, but because what goes on within is corrupt and it needs to be destroyed so that God will begin anew.
For our part, we need to make sure that we are being faithful because God’s mercy, His fidelity, His compassion has not changed. God cannot change. He loves His people. He has compassion on His people. The promises of Jesus Christ remain, that God sent his only Son into the world that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. That does not mean that if you happen to believe Jesus is God or He is the Messiah then you are automatically going into Heaven. What it means is that if you proclaim to believe in Jesus Christ that you need to live your faith in Jesus Christ. It means when you come to Mass that you recognize when you walk into the church that you are already seated with Christ at God’s right hand, that you are entering into Heaven and you are entering into the worship of Heaven, and that you conduct yourselves in that manner – as priests, prophets, and kings – with the saints and angels bowing down before God and singing with the angels, “Holy, holy, holy,” and preparing the heart and the soul to receive Jesus Christ. It means when we walk out of church that the way we conduct ourselves is still as people seated at God’s right hand, as people who, even though we are out in the world, are already looking at God in a way face-to-face. We are called to be the leaven in the world, the light in the darkness. We are called to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ, Who is the Light of the world, but He has called us also to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
And so we need to ask ourselves, based upon what Our Lord told us in the Gospel reading today, about our own actions and about our own attitude. Jesus tells us that the light came into the world, but men preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. He tells us that those who are of God, they rejoice that their works are brought out into the light because everybody will be able to see them; but those who are not of God want to keep their works in the darkness because their works are not of God. So all we need to do is look at our own selves and ask ourselves, “How do we live our lives? Are we living in the light? Would it matter to us if our lives were exposed for scrutiny?” I am not saying the past sins that you have confessed and are long gone and are no longer part of your life; I am not suggesting that we should bring all of those up and show them to everybody. I am simply saying what you did yesterday, the day before, or what you plan to do tomorrow, if that were exposed to the whole world to see, would there be cause for shame? Is that something you want to keep hidden from everybody because what you are doing is wrong? Or would we be able to say, “It doesn’t matter. If that’s what God wants to do, that’s fine. There’s nothing to hide.”
We have to recognize that what we do here and what we do out there have to be connected. We cannot come to Mass on Sunday, put on nice clothes and make ourselves look real pious, and then go out from here for the next six days and completely do corrupt and despicable things, but then come back and make ourselves look real pious. We need to live the faith that we profess. We need to live in the light. The world has chosen darkness because its deeds are corrupt. We need to live in the world, but we need to be a light in the world. We are sheep among wolves, Jesus told us. He did not tell us to become a wolf just because everybody else is. We live in darkness. We cannot become dark because everybody else is; we need to be a light, like stars shining in the nighttime that can be seen by everyone. It does not matter if people do not like what we are doing – the only person who matters is God. Does God care about what we are doing? That is what we need to look at. If we are going to come here on Sunday and enter into the worship of God, which is our dignity, then we need to live it. What happens here needs to reflect what happens in Heaven. And what happens out there needs to reflect what is going on in here.
There is a hierarchy. If we have gotten the entire thing turned backwards, that is, if what has happened is that we have given into the worldliness and the darkness and the way we are living is a way of corruption so that when we come to church, instead of coming into the worship of Heaven, what we do is bring the world into the church because it is more comfortable to us – and so we destroy the worship of God and we heap infidelity upon infidelity, and we reject what God wants because our deeds are evil and we do not want them brought into the light – then we have cut ourselves off from God. We have turned the entire thing backwards. We have rejected our dignity as Christian people, and we have rejected the mercy of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. We have an obligation to accept our dignity and to live it, to recognize who we are in light of God, and to understand that we are already raised up in Christ.
God did not send His Son to condemn the world but to save it. The world is going to be condemned, but that is because people refuse to believe in Jesus. He told us whoever does not believe in Him is already condemned for not believing in God’s only Son. But again, it is not that vague kind of belief; it is not an opinion poll as if I were to ask for a raising of hands and say, “Anyone who believes that Jesus is God, please raise your hand.” That is not what we are asking. It is to say, “Do you believe in such a way that you recognize you are a member of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is to live in you and through you, and that you are to live the life of Jesus Christ?” That is what belief in Jesus Christ is all about. It is to believe in every single thing that Jesus and His Church teach, to live it, and to understand that when we come to Mass we are entering into the worship of Heaven, into the glory of God, and that the mercy and the grace of God are being offered to us so we can bring that out into the world and bring the mercy and the grace of God to others who do not know Jesus so that they will come to know Him.
Are we allowing ourselves to be transformed into God? Or are we allowing ourselves to be conformed to this society and this age? Saint Paul makes very clear that we cannot allow ourselves to be conformed to this age, but he begs us to allow ourselves to be transformed through a transformation of the mind and of the will so that we will truly be the children of God. He loves us and has compassion on us, so there is nothing lacking on His side – it is only us. We have to make the choice for Jesus Christ, to live the faith that we proclaim, to live it in Mass, and to bring the Mass out into the world so that we will be the light, and we will be able to rejoice that our works are brought out into the light so everyone will see that it is not us but it is God working in us and through us because we have recognized the proper hierarchy: that there is God and we worship God, and then we bring God into the world.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.