3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached January 21, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Repent and believe the Gospel.
The Greek word that we translate as ‘Repent’ is ‘metanoeĩte’; the noun form of which is ‘metanoía’. Literally the word means ‘change your mind’. Jesus calls us to change not just some actions, but to change our whole way of looking at things. St. Paul puts it this way, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. (Rm 12:2) Repentance then involves turning away from the ‘world’s’ way of thinking and believing not just any old thing, but the Gospel.
‘Change your mind’. Change your way of thinking. This is not just a matter of the ‘heart’ but of the ‘mind’. Knowledge is not everything, but there is a definite knowledge element in the Christian faith. Faith in Jesus Christ leads to a renewal of the mind and the renewed mind is necessary to grow in our relation to Jesus Christ.
Today we tend to reduce the ‘heart’ to emotion and the ‘mind’ to science and technology. This divorce between heart and mind is actually rather characteristic of our modern world. For the world of Jesus’ time, the heart was seen not just as the seat of emotion, but even more as the seat of thought and will; emotion was more a matter of the ‘gut’. Today it is necessary to break the mind free of the chains of science and technology, which by definition considers only material reality, so as to open the mind again to the fullness of reality. This will make it possible for mind and heart to be reunited.
Now the Apostles, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, spent three years living with Jesus. Jesus was their Teacher. He taught them by his example, but also by his words. They were his disciples and the word ‘disciple’ literally means student.
Now a funny thing happened; they proved to be rather dull students. They remembered well what Jesus said and did; they knew that he was someone important and that what he taught was new and important; they even came to believe that he was the Messiah and Son of God. Nevertheless, they really didn’t get it; they didn’t understand. At least not until the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then everything became clear.
Nevertheless, it was not just a matter of the Holy Spirit. Everything they had learned and retained from what Jesus said and did was precisely what the Holy Spirit made clear to them. Or to use a different image, it was the wood that the Holy Spirit set on fire.
Now in this parish the Bishop comes to administer the sacrament of confirmation to a group of our youth every two years; he will be coming this year on April 8, Divine Mercy Sunday, to confirm more than 40 of our youth. The time a boy or girl spends preparing for confirmation is comparable to the time in which the disciples lived with Jesus and listened and watched. The sacrament of confirmation should be for them a sort of personal Pentecost, when the understanding comes.
Still, if anyone looks around at adult, confirmed Catholics, I am afraid to say that it would seem that for many the understanding never came. Consider this: on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples began speaking out, boldly proclaiming God’s wondrous works in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, when it comes to speaking about the faith, many adult Catholics seem to be pretty tongue-tied. Further, if I question people about some of the basics of their faith I very often find that they know very little. We are not giving the Holy Spirit much to work with.
For this reason I want to lead a sort of parish preparation for the Bishop’s arrival, reviewing the basics. This should also be a help to parents for them to understand what they should be teaching to their children.
If all goes well, this will require seven homilies, one for each of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Today I will start with the very heart of the Gospel in which we believe, the doctrine of grace.
Grace is the interior reality of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached; it is the chief work of the Holy Spirit within us. Where there is grace there is the Holy Spirit; where there is the Holy Spirit there is grace.
There are two basic kinds of grace: sanctifying grace and actual grace. If I use the word ‘grace’ in the singular and without qualification, I am probably referring to ‘sanctifying grace’.
Sanctifying grace is a created participation in the uncreated nature and life of God; it is God’s life within us; through the gift of sanctifying grace the Holy Spirit dwells within us and makes us to be truly the children of God. It is called ‘grace’ because it comes to us as a free gift of God that we could never in any way merit or deserve, though the presence of grace in us does make us truly worthy of our heavenly inheritance.
Actual graces are those gifts of God whereby he gives light to our mind and strength to our will to live and grow in the life of sanctifying grace – or to lead us and prepare us for the reception of that gift.
We also need a brief history of grace: Adam and Eve were created with the gift of sanctifying grace as an inheritance that was meant to be passed on to their children. When Adam disobeyed God and sinned, he lost that inheritance for himself and his descendants. Eve cooperated in Adam’s sin and in our fall. For us, original sin is nothing other than our coming into this world deprived of the sanctifying grace that we were meant to have.
The grace that Adam lost through his disobedience, Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, born of the Virgin Mary, won back for us by his obedience unto death, death on a Cross. The Virgin Mary, full of grace, the new Eve, cooperated in Christ’s obedience and in our salvation and restoration to the life of grace.
Through his death on the Cross, Christ redeemed our lost inheritance. He saves us from sin and death and redeems what was lost: he is our Redeemer and Savior.
The inheritance that Adam would have passed on to his children by means of physical generation is now passed on to us from Christ by means of a spiritual regeneration, a rebirth that takes place through faith and baptism. The other sacraments, in different ways, serve the life of grace within us.
Grace is central to the Gospel, to the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ. Grace is the beginning of eternal life within us. In other words grace prepares us for the glory of heaven: the face-to-face vision of God, which will be completed, at the end of time, by the resurrection of the body. The soul that departs from this world in a state of grace will go to heaven after being purified of any remnants of sin; the soul that departs from this world having rejected the gift of grace, will be condemned for ever in hell.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
The world today has been built up by means of a specific rejection of the reality of grace and eternal life. Instead of viewing this world as a passing reality that we must use rightly on our journey to the heavenly kingdom, the modern mentality rejects heaven altogether. It is not just a matter of failing to believe, but of not wanting to believe. It is said that all the attention on heaven has distracted people from fixing the problems on earth. As a result, modern ideologies of all kinds want us to turn our minds away from God and heavenly reality and work together to change our life on this earth; the supreme goal is to work together to make this world a better place for everyone.
It might sound good on the surface, but on this view, the supreme evils become material poverty, physical disease and every form of ill health, and finally death. The result is a technological world, a new Nineveh, devoid of meaning and with less and less place for human beings. This is why human life has, in practice, become so disposable; this is why the crime of abortion, the murder of infants, has become institutionalized in our society. The technological advancement might make men healthier, stronger, faster, and smarter, but it does not make them better. In the meantime poverty, disease, and death will be with us to the end of time.
There were two trees of significance in the garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life would have sustained the life of grace in us; the tree of knowledge meant man defining for himself, apart from God, what is good and what is evil. Our new Nineveh has built up a new technological tree of good and evil.
Through his death on the Cross Jesus Christ has opened for us anew the way to the tree of life. Through the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom, the highest of the seven gifts, we begin to taste the fruit of the tree of life, already here in this passing world. The gift of wisdom gives us to taste already the reality of God and eternal life, that taste will preserve us from all the false promise and allure this passing world.