4th Sunday of Lent
Preached March 11, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
On this joyful Sunday of Lent – the reason for the rose color vestments – the readings start out on a rather grim note telling us about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the exile of the people of Judah because of their sins.
The 2nd reading, though, turns this around telling us about God, who is rich in mercy. We even see the first rays of that mercy at the end of the 1st reading when we learn that the exiled people of God was allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. We also hear about the mercy of God in the famous passage from the Gospel, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. Sanctifying grace, which we first received in our baptism, which makes us to be children of God, is the beginning of eternal life in us. Through sanctifying grace we become Temples of God, Temples of the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul writes, We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Cor 2:12) Or we could say, “that we may understand how we have been ‘graced’ by God.”
Today I come to the last of my seven homilies on the basics of the Catholic faith. In these homilies I have spoken at length about the grace we have received from God with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the virtues that accompany it.
This is what St. Paul writes about also in today’s 2nd reading when he talks about how we have been brought to life with Christ … raised up with him, and seated with him in the heavens. This is the life of grace, life with Christ, life in Christ, Christ’s life in us. All of this is something that has been freely given to us by God through the power of his Holy Spirit and the Cross of Jesus Christ.
I have also spoken during these past weeks about how we receive this life of grace through faith and the sacraments, and about how we must live as children of God through prayer, the practice of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, all in obedience to the commandments of God. These are the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we might walk in them.
Today, I want to wrap all this up by speaking a little bit about the sacrament of confirmation. This series of seven homilies has been meant from the beginning as a sort of parish preparation for the Confirmation of forty or more of our youth in a little less than a month. A parish preparation because we are all responsible to work together to guide the youth of this parish in the life of faith; a parish preparation because most adults have themselves received the sacrament of confirmation and should be living from the grace of this sacrament.
Everything that God has freely given us, things we first received in baptism, was solidified, we could say, through the sacrament of confirmation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:
“Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace:
-it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, ‘Abba! Father!’;
-it unites us more firmly to Christ;
-it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
-in renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
-it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross.” (CCC 1303)
“A special strength of the Holy Spirit” – this is what is most characteristic of confirmation; it is the sacrament of strength in the Holy Spirit, strength and courage to bear witness.
Let me put it this way: I have spoken the last couple of Sundays about the new heart God wants to create within us. Everything begins inside, in the new heart. What God begins in the heart, however, is not meant to stay there. St. Paul writes, One believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the lips and so is saved. (Rm 10:10) Just as belief and profession of faith are both needed, so Baptism and Confirmation are both necessary.
What begins is baptism is meant to be revealed in the good works God has prepared for us to walk in; it is meant to be revealed in obedience to the commandments, and it is meant to be proclaimed, shared, and spread abroad by true witnesses of Christ, who confess his name boldly, unashamed of being associated with the Cross of Christ.
Baptism begins to form the new heart within us; confirmation gives us the impulse and strength of the Holy Spirit to show forth publicly the life of the new heart as witnesses of Christ. Through the sacrament of confirmation the grace of the new heart enters our words and actions giving us that strength and power to be true witnesses of Christ.
Through the sacrament of confirmation God calls us and equips us as witnesses of Christ. The sacrament of confirmation is one of the three sacraments (together with Baptism and Holy Orders) that mark the soul of the recipient with an indestructible spiritual ‘character’, the stamp of Christ. The character of confirmation orients the person to become a true witness of Christ; the sacramental character abides in the soul as a continual call to a life of witness.
To be witnesses of Christ means we must bear witness to the one who out of love, gave his life for our salvation; to be a witness to Christ means being a witness to his truth and to his love, living as he did, loving as he loved.
How do we live this out?
This is an important question for our youth. All too easily they are led to believe that confirmation is an end point, when in truth it is but a starting point.
God calls us to be his witnesses through the good works of love and mercy. The first work of love is to give oneself, to make of oneself a gift. For that reason there are three basic vocations (or calls) in the Church; three paths of witness; three paths of good works; three paths of committed love that bear witness to the love of Christ and eternal life: Marriage, religious life, and the priesthood.
Going forth from the sacrament of confirmation our youth should ask themselves, and above all ask God, “To which of these paths are you calling me?”
Now, I should mention that I am simplifying things a bit. These three paths are not altogether exclusive of each other – there are circumstances in which there can be married priests and there are also priests who are at the same time members of a religious order. Further, there may be other legitimate Christian vocations that do not fit exactly with any of these paths, but I do think that any legitimate Christian vocation can be understood in the relation to these three chief paths; these paths are like the primary colors of the Christian life.
Through the sacrament of marriage a man and a woman are called to give their whole lives to each other in love, until death, as a sign of the love of Christ for his Bride, the Church. As Christ freely laid down his life for the Church, the husband is to lay down his life freely for his wife; as the Church freely serves Christ in love and reverence, the wife is freely to serve her husband in love. (cf. Eph 5:21-33) As Christ won for us grace and eternal life through his death on the Cross, husband and wife, by their lives of mutual service assist one another in the life of grace, as pilgrims on the path to heaven.
The religious woman (or man) freely consecrates her entire life to Christ, to serve him in love. St. Paul writes, An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord … An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. (1 Cor 7:32,34) And Jesus speaks about the gift of those who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (cf. Mt 19:12) Through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the religious renounces the things of this world and consecrates her entire life to Christ and his Kingdom; her renunciation of the things of this world bears witness to the hope of the heavenly kingdom. In the religious life, the woman has a certain precedence and privilege because only the religious woman, by her consecration, is able to become an embodied symbol of the Church as the Bride of Christ.
Finally, the priest gives his entire life to Christ, the Good Shepherd and the Bridegroom of the Church. The priest places himself in the hands of Christ to become his living tool in the service of his beloved Bride, the Church. His maleness is a visible sign of the presence of Christ the Bridegroom to the Church and the celibate priesthood is a sign of the spiritual fecundity of Christ the Bridegroom who regenerated the human race to the life of grace through is death on the Cross. All this means that the priest is, above all, at the service of the salvation of souls; his task is to lead and guide men on the pilgrim road to eternal life and to minister to them the sacraments of grace, the sacraments of eternal life.
Note well that none these three paths are paths of ‘random acts of kindness’, rather they are all paths of committed service in love; that is the life to which we are called through the sacrament of confirmation.
When we truly recognize what God has freely given us, how could we want anything but to give ourselves, whole and entire, back to God in love?
When the Holy Spirit helps us to recognize the greatness of what God has given us, the greatness of the life of grace, the greatness of the new heart, the greatness of the promise of eternal life, we discover also that we have received this treasure in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity. (cf. 2 Cor 4:7) Through the gift of holy fear, the Holy Spirit guides us so that we might walk with the right balance of caution because of our own weakness and confidence because of God’s help; that balance between caution and confidence keeps the earthen vessel intact and the hidden treasure of grace pure.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, let us call upon his Immaculate Spouse, the Virgin Mary, saying, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.