Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.
If we look careful at today’s Gospel story of the transfiguration
we see a story marked by stark contrasts:
We have first of all, the change Christ’s appearance, as we read:
“And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.”
And then we see the radical contrast between the transfigured Christ
and the ordinary human appearance of Peter, James, and John
And we also see the apparently contrasting attitudes of the apostles:
on the one hand Peter says: “it is good that we are here”,
and on the hand the text tells us:
“they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.”
This Gospel really is a window into the meaning of Lent.
“Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”
Like the 3 apostles, we also go away with Christ during Lent to be alone with him,
and in the mystery of contrast we begin to
discover more about who he really is
and who we really are.
That’s what the apostle did.
They saw His glory, but they also saw how different he was from them
—and not just in appearances:
they saw the infinitely stark contrast between his holiness,
and their own sinfulness..
They saw him standing and talking to the Moses
—the giver of the Commandments of God.
And they saw Christ standing with the prophet Elijah
and remembered how all the prophets had called Israel to repent their sins
and promised a Redeemer who would save them from their sins.
And then they heard the voice from heaven say:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And suddenly, in presence of the perfection
of the eternal God the Father and His only Son,
and reproached by the giver of the Law of God
and the warnings of all the Prophets of God,
as “good as it [was] to be there,”
they “were very much afraid,”
as they came face to face with their sinfulness.
Sometimes it is said that Lent is a season of joy.
But it can only be a season of true joy to the extent
that we allow it to first be a season of true sorrow.
A season of recognizing that, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold of Jesus:
“it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured,….
he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.”
The joy and glory of the resurrection
comes only through his suffering and death on the cross,
and the cross comes only because of our sins.
In short, what joy can be there if we don’t first feel sorrow for our sins?
Conversely, though…for a Christian, sorrow for sins
should never be a slippery slope to hopelessness or despair,
but the first step on the road to glory and the joy
of sharing in the love of Christ.
What is a sin, after all?
St. Augustine tells us that sin
is a turning away from the Creator toward the creature,
loving the things God created more than we love God himself.
To put it another way, sin is about not loving God the way we should.
Think about this:
God loves us so much, and yet we fail to love him so often,
or we love other things more than him.
That’s why the very first commandment is
“I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”
But we do this all the time.
Sometimes we put things before God: money, power, being popular.
Sometimes we put people before God,
particularly by letting people tell us what’s right or wrong.
The most common person we put before God is ourselves.
We say, I know the commandments or the Bible or the Church
says I shouldn’t do this,
but I think in this case I can make an exception:
I know better…THAN GOD.
Sometimes we hear people say, I love Jesus and my neighbor,
so the commandments aren’t that important.
As if there was some sort of dichotomy between love and the commandments.
But the thing is, Moses himself summed up the 10 Commandments by saying,
in the old Testament:
“You shall love the LORD your God
with all your heart, …soul, and …strength..”
And on the night before he died, out of love for us, Jesus himself said:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments….”
The commandments can never be opposed to love,
they are God’s explanation of how to love.
Some say, but father I keep the commandments.
I’m sure you do, most of the time.
But I’m also sure that everyday most of us break the commandments,
in large ways or small.
Remember, for example, how Jesus explained the 5th commandment:
“You have heard …it …said …., ‘You shall not kill…’
…But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother
shall be liable to judgment…
… and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire..”
That person cuts you off in traffic, you don’t get angry?
Your friend somehow unknowingly hurts your feelings,
and you don’t think, “that fool” or worse,
or go to someone else to gossip about what a fool he is?
We do this all the time—we fail to love: we sin.
Most of the time it’s in small ways.
Sometimes though we sin in more serious ways.
Children yell and scream at their parents,
or pick on or spread ugly rumors
about the weak or different kid at school,
Teenagers lie to their parents about where they’re going at night,
or use alcohol or drugs or other people’s bodies for entertainment;
Parents spoil their children with every material thing they can afford,
or they neglect them by not showing them affection, or correction,
or failing to give them the Catholic faith,
sometimes even failing
to simply bring them to Mass on Sundays.
Spouses act like they’re married to their careers or hobbies,
they abuse each other with ugly words or actions,
or by perverting their conjugal love with contraception.
And single adults honor their parents by graciously calling them….once a year;
career replaces commitment,
ambition replaces charity,
lust replaces love.
Older folks also…
some allow loneliness to turn to bitterness or fear,
physical disability to lead them to selfishness or despair.
some spend more time working on their golf game than their homilies.
They preach more about things that make parishioners feel good,
than the truth of the Gospel—including things like the reality of sin.
Not to mention, of course, the other terrible sins we’ve read about.
Small or large, venial or mortal, we all sin.
And that’s why Lent is so great:
in the light of the Cross and Resurrection
we’re recognize the truth about Christ and about ourselves,
about his love and our failure to love.
Again, not to drag us into despair,
but lead us to love.
Now, inevitably when we talk about sin during Lent,
the subject of “doing penance” comes up.
There are, of course, 3 basic forms of Penance:
prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving.
But the question is: what do acts of penance actually have to do with sin?
Or put another way: how does giving up chocolate help me love God.
Before we get to chocolate, though, let’s begin with the penance of prayer.
Prayer is essentially a conversation with God,
or with someone who loves God so much she or he is in heaven
—a saint or angel.
Prayer makes us realize that God and our heavenly family
are actually and really there: always with us, always loving us.
And how do you come to love someone if you don’t talk to them?
If you ignore them?
So we pray.
In prayer we go to God for his help, for ourselves or others.
We go to praise and thank him, and to tell him we’re sorry.
Prayer is the first essential step in knowing God’s love,
loving him back, and growing in love.
The Last few Sundays we spent some time at each Mass
talking about how we can give alms to the Diocesan Church this Lent,
and today I encourage you to give alms to the people of Japan
in the second collection.
But as noble as that is, there are a million other ways we do this:
because “almsgiving” is just another word for “giving to those in need.”
So it’s not just giving money to worthy organizations,
or even to individual people who come to you in financial need.
Every day people come to you in need that has nothing to do with money.
Children, your parents come home from work tired:
they need you to help set the table,
and not to fight with each other.
Parents, I know you try hard to meet all your children’s needs,
but maybe sometimes you overlook the simplest things:
maybe sometimes they just need you to take time to talk to them.
And your spouses need you, your adult parents need you,
and your friends at work need you—in large ways or small.
And think of all the people you know
who desperately need to know about the love of Christ.
Who might even need you to point out that sins are not loving.
When you respond to any these genuine needs you are giving alms.
And you are replacing sin with love,
you are saying loving God and neighbor
are more important than my money or my time and effort,
or even my pride.
And you developing habits of love—you move toward true holiness.
And finally, sacrifices.
This is probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated
form of penance—yet it’s so important.
But how does giving up chocolate help you love God?
First, like almsgiving, it helps us to love God by recognizing that nothing
is more important than God.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:
every time I look at that piece of chocolate in Lent I say
“I love God more than this chocolate.”
Small thing, but concrete, and effective.
Also, like almsgiving, sacrifice helps you recognize the sufferings of others:
every time your stomach rumbles or you crave that piece of cake,
you remember all the people who go hungry every day,
or suffer in any way:
the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the ignorant.
And you hear the voice of Christ saying:
“whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”
Beyond that is the aspect of self-discipline:
in the same way an athlete practices and exercises over and over again,
we practice self-denial we exercise our will, to strengthen our ability
to choose and do good even when it’s so hard,
and to persevere against evil even when it’d be so easy to give in.
Also sacrifice helps us to recognize that our sins
are in fact worthy of punishment.
We could never begin to repay the Lord for our transgressions,
but our willingness to accept self-punishment helps us to
express our sorrow and our deepest desire to make atonement,
and to recognize the depth of the wrong we have done.
Finally, and most importantly,
the penance of sacrifice helps us to identify with the sufferings of Christ.
Every small pain or hardship coming from our sacrifices
reminds us how much he loved us,
that he would endure so much more for us.
And so, again, we return to the core of Lent:
the glory of his love for us,
a love that lifts us up even when we have freely chosen to fall.
But in the end, no matter what we do, it’s all straw if we don’t
allow our penance to open our hearts to the power of his love.
As St. Paul reminds us:
“He …called us to a holy life, not according to our works
but according to …the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus.”
So in Lent we seek his grace because we know that
what is impossible for man is not impossible for God.
And we find his grace in so many ways and moments of Lent,
but most clearly and powerfully in the sacraments
of the Eucharist and Penance.
As all of Lent looks to the Cross of Christ,
the Eucharist is the sacrament of his Cross.
At every Mass we go up the mountain with all the saints and angels
to see the glory of the Lord Jesus
giving up his body and shedding his blood,
so that sins may be forgiven—your sins and my sins.
And as the Cross points to the Resurrection,
we remember that on the evening of that first Easter
Jesus appeared to his apostles, breathed on them, and said:
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
So in the sacrament of Penance,
where we confess and express sorrow for our sins
before God and the Church, in the person of the priest,
we believe and know that the power of Christ’s merciful love
pours out on us, and every single sin is washed away.
And we receive the grace of that love,
the power to love him and one another just as he has loved us.
During Lent we go away to be with the Lord
just as Peter, James and John once did.
And here, in the light of his glory,
we are stunned by the contrast between
the magnificence of his love for us,
and our own miserable failure to love him in return.
In this holy season the Lord calls us to recognize our sinfulness,
not so that we will wallow in self-loathing,
but to move us to change our hearts
and open our lives to his infinite grace.
Today, in the presence of our Eucharist Lord,
we imitate the apostles and fall prostrate before his glory.
Be afraid of what your sinful choices have done to you,
but see the Lord coming to you and saying
“be not afraid” to accept and return his love.
And let us thank the Lord
for the gift of this Holy Season of Lent,
saying with St. Peter: “it is good that we are here.”