Tuesday April 1, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week of Lent
Reading (Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12) Gospel (St. John 5:1-16)
We see, in the first reading today, this river that Ezekiel talks about which comes out from underneath the altar and flows out from under the temple. As we have seen before, this is precisely what happened in ancient Israel, and that little river went down to the Pool of Bethesda. That is why the Church has these two readings connected. But again, I think what is important for us to be able to see is how what begins by looking as just a trickle coming out from underneath the altar suddenly becomes a river that is only able to be crossed by swimming and how it continues to grow and to get deeper. That is precisely what happens with the grace of God. It starts out in us as not looking like a whole lot. How many times, after prayer, do we walk away and think that nothing has happened? We come to Mass and receive Holy Communion and we think that nothing has happened inside of us. Even though we know we have received the Lord, we do not see any major change. One would think, after all, if we received Jesus into ourselves that there should be an immediate change, sort of like the man who picked up his mat and walked: He was paralyzed at one moment and the next moment he was walking around carrying his mat. And one would say, “Well, shouldn’t that be the way it works? If we’ve received Our Lord into ourselves, there should be profound things happening.” There really are profound things happening; it is just that we are not aware of them, just as this river that Ezekiel talks about started out as a trickle, and then he could get up to his ankles, and then to his knees, and then to his waist, and so on. It just grew very slowly but very steadily.
That is the way God’s grace is going to work within each one of us. As we continue to pray and as we continue to come to Mass and to grow in holiness, the grace of God grows steadily and slowly within each one of us. That grace (again, I think it is very important to recognize) flows from the altar of God. It is not something that we are doing on our own. It is purely from God and it is not anything that we can make happen; it is not anything that we have any control over. All the grace flows from the altar because it is on the altar that Jesus Christ is sacrificed, and it is there that Our Lord gives Himself to us. So every single grace is going to flow from the altar. And it just begins appearing very small and very slight to us. Our Lord is not even recognized. You cannot see Him; you cannot feel Him; you cannot taste Him; you cannot sense Him; but He is there. And what begins to happen within us is that as we begin to recognize more and more clearly the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, as we begin to recognize what is happening within us, suddenly we realize there are changes that are happening. The river is now up to the ankle, and then to the knee, and then to the waist. So it continues to grow. This is the fountain that Our Lord spoke of, the river that will well up, spring up, to eternal life. It is the grace that is given and the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
God can do this in any way He chooses, but normally it is going to be exactly in the way that it is shown. It starts out very slight because God is not going to do something that is going to violate us. If God shifted us so quickly, like He did with this man who was lying crippled for all of these years, many of us probably would not be able to handle it very well. We would probably become so proud that we had gotten rid of so many of our sins all at once and we are doing so well that we would find ourselves in exactly the situation Jesus warned this man against in the Gospel when He said to him that he needed to make sure he did not sin anymore so that things did not get worse. Remember, Our Lord told us when He kicked out a demon that they would go into the arid places and when they would find anyplace to come back to they found seven demons worse than themselves – and then they come back and take up residence once again. And so what the Lord does, because most of us could not handle the way it would work if it was very swift and radical, is that He works it very slowly. The grace builds and develops within us; we grow in holiness; and finally we find– in a way we did not even realize was happening – that now there is a river of grace within us that can only be crossed by swimming. Our Lord wants us to be able to recognize that that is the way it works so that we keep going, so that we do not give up, because sometimes when we look and we do not see the progress that we think ought to be there, we get frustrated and we wonder if this is worth it or if anything is happening at all.
Notice that it is every 1,000 cubits that Ezekiel has to wade through. It was not “take another step and look at the difference” because in one more step he would not have noticed the difference. That is the same with us. It is like looking in the mirror everyday: You do not notice that there is a difference, but if every 1,000 days you looked in the mirror, you would notice quite a difference. So too with God’s grace: On a day-to-day basis, we do not notice much difference, but if we went every thousand days and looked back, we would notice a huge difference. That is what Our Lord wants us to understand. So continue along that journey; continue walking with the Lord; continue coming to His altar and allowing that grace to fill you. Recognize that what is happening is that what started out a long time ago – or, perhaps in some of us, it has just begun – as a little trickle of grace within, is growing to become a torrent, to become a huge river, a river of God’s grace in which we can immerse ourselves. That is the way God wants it to be. Do not give up because you do not see the progress that you think ought to be there. It is happening slowly and imperceptibly, but very real. And that river of grace is growing within you.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.