3rd Sunday of Lent 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
March 11, 2012

For the last 2 weeks there have been two very strange stories in the news.
One was about a woman, a law student,
who testified before Congress
lamenting the fact that the Catholic university she attended
refused to pay for her contraception.
The other was about a woman, who was devastated because
after she had introducing her lesbian lover to a priest,
that same priest refused to give her Holy Communion at Mass.

Now there are many very strange things involved in these stories,
but let’s just focus on one right now.
In particular,
while both these women insisted they should be free to conduct their lives
in exactly the way they feel like conducting them,
they also insisted that the Catholic Church not be allowed
to conduct itself in the way it believes is morally right.
Because they demand it, we have to give it,
regardless of what we believe God has commanded.

I find this stunning….

But as I’ve thought about it this week,
it became clear to me that these two events are just symptoms of a larger,
societal problem.
That is too many Americans have adopted
a corrupted understanding of our most basic value— “love.”

Put simply, over the last few decades we’ve more and more come to believe
that love is all about first and foremost about feelings.
So that if you have strong feelings of attraction toward someone,
that must mean you love them.
Or if someone makes you feel good that must mean they love you.
And on the other hand, if someone makes you feel bad,
or uncomfortable or afraid or hurt or diminished in any way,
for whatever reason
that someone not only doesn’t love you—they must “hate” you.

Of course, this way of understanding love has always been with us,
but in the past it was always dismissed as childish and detrimental
to the true good of the person and society.
Instead, a more mature and truly human understanding of love
was held as the ideal.
That ideal of love is sometimes defined as
“willing and striving for the good of the other”
–if you love someone, you want what is truly good for them,
and you do what you can to bring that good to them.
Notice, it has nothing to do with feeling good:
it’s about being good and doing good.
Good feelings are not necessarily reflective of true and objective good:
shooting heroin in your arm every night
might make you feel good for a while,
but there in no way is it truly, objectively good for you.

And yet that kind of feeling good
is what the popular culture promotes as “love.”
And so the culture finds it almost impossible to find love
in saying “no” to something that makes you feel good.
And so the Church is unloving if they deny contraception
—after all, what college or law school student
doesn’t need contraception to feel good?
And the Church is hateful if they tell a practicing lesbian
that she shouldn’t receive Holy Communion
—after all, Holy Communion makes her feel good,
it makes her feel close to Jesus,
even if she’s chosen to separate herself
from him completely by her mortal sin,
which is not good at all…

All the while the Church is only saying,
we truly love you, and we want only what’s good for you
and we’ll do only what we understand to be truly good for you,
which has very little to do with whether or not
it makes you feel good right now.

This dichotomy of these 2 meanings of love is seen nowhere more clearly
than in that which is the object of our particular reflection throughout Lent:
the suffering and crucifixion of Christ—or simply, “The Cross.”
The Cross has never made anyone feel good:
not the Blessed Mother, or St. John or St. Mary Magdalene
standing at the foot of the cross;
not the Roman soldiers, or Pontius Pilate,
and not even the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
It certainly doesn’t make you or me feel good.
And above all, it definitely did not make Jesus feel good.
And yet, it was the most truly profound expression of the Lord’s
willing our greatest good—our salvation,
and the greatest thing he could do to bring about our greatest good,
to win our salvation.

And so 2000 years ago St. Paul wrote, as we read in today’s 2nd reading:
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
Today he might say:
“Americans demand good feelings,
but Christians proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block and foolishness to Americans.”

Now, saying all this I might appear to be talking about
some nebulous culture “out there,”
or perhaps about people who embrace that culture—but still “out there.”
And I am to some extent.
But what worries me most is how that culture “out there”
has influenced us “in here.”
Because we don’t just stay “in here” in this church–we live out there,
where we are constantly surrounded by the culture and its values
—especially it’s strange notion of love.
It’s in the books we read, the movies and shows we see,
the news we watch, the lessons we learn in school,
and even in the conversations we have with friends and family.
It’s almost in the air we breathe.
You may think you avoid it,
but it’s almost impossible for it not to effect each of us in some way.

Think of how many Catholics are embarrassed by the idea
of a priest denying someone Communion.
I mean, that must make the person feel awful.
But remember what St. Paul says elsewhere:
“Whoever…eats the bread …of the Lord in an unworthy manner
will be guilty of profaning the body …of the Lord…
and eats…judgment upon himself.”
Is it truly loving to make a person feel good,
by letting them profane the Lord’s body and bring judgment
(meaning hell) on themselves?

How many would be embarrassed by our Lord in today’s Gospel:
“He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area.”
Pretty embarrassing.
And really, hateful, by modern cultural standards.

And yet, Jesus didn’t hate the moneychangers,
anymore than he hated the scribes and Pharisees when he told them:
“…You serpents, you brood of vipers,
how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

He didn’t hate them, he loved them.
But some people are more thick-headed than others
—some can be corrected by a gentle word,
and some by an intellectual argument,
But some can only be corrected by plain, harsh criticism,
and some apparently only by a whip.

As St. Paul tells us, in his letter to the Hebrews:
“‘the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son’
…he disciplines us for our good…
For the moment all discipline seems painful;
later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness…”

“For our good.”
Not our good feelings.

I remember once when I was a just a little boy,
I ran into to the street and almost got hit by a car.
My mama, the sweetest, kindest, gentlest woman you ever met,
grabbed my arm, spun me around and slapped me right on the bottom.
It hardly hurt at all, but she definitely got my attention.
I had no doubt she loved me,
but I also had not doubt that I would never run into the street again.

In Lent, we remember all of this,
and in effect we invite the Lord to be brutally honest with us
—to show us, in whatever way is necessary, what is truly good for us.
In effect, we ask him to call out to us like he did to Pharisees
to break through our stubbornness.
And yes, we even ask him to take a whip to us if necessary,
not to drive out the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem,
but to drive out the sins and vices in our souls,
sins we act out with our bodies,
which are supposed to be the temple of the Holy Spirit.
And we even join him in this chastisement,
by figuratively taking a whip to ourselves, by our acts of penance.

Now, please, don’t write the bishop saying I told your to whip yourselves.
But by simple things like giving up chocolate or meat or coffee—whatever—
and by adding prayers and acts of charity to your daily life,
you remind yourself that love is not about feeling good,
but about being and doing good.
And in fact, we remember that in the end,
sin hurts us more than any whip or penance could.
because sin keeps us from being good—being the best we can be.

So, just as in love the Lord takes a whip to the moneychangers,
we ask him to take a whip to us, and we take a whip to ourselves.
But notice,
Scripture tells us “He made a whip out of cords.”
Doesn’t sound like a very formidable or whip
—it doesn’t sound like it would hurt very much.
Kind of like the verbal whip he took to the scribes and Pharisees
—words of truth, that stung, but did no real damage or injury.
And the whip he takes to us is the mildest of discipline:
his yoke is easy, his burden light.
And the whip we take to ourselves, honestly, they’re not that severe.

But then we remember another whip
—a whip he took to himself,
or rather a whip he allowed others to take to him,
as part of the penance he did for us on the way to the Cross:
what we call “the scourging at the pillar.”
History tells us that the whip wielded by his Roman guards
was not a harmless whip of cords,
but a vicious deadly instrument of torture.
The “flagellum” consisted of several thongs of leather,
with lead balls or pieces of bone at the end.
It was not designed to get merely your attention,
but to violently rip open the skin, down to the muscle and bone.

Our Lord would never take such a whip to us.
But out of love he gladly endured such a whip for us.
Again, not for a good feeling, but for our true good—our salvation.

During Lent we turn our eyes and minds and hearts to meditate
on the suffering and death of Jesus.
Not because it feels good to watch him suffer,
but because in his suffering we discover
the amazing depths of his love for us.
And in His love we discover the true meaning of love,
—that seeks not temporary good feelings,
but seeks and strives for the true good of the beloved,
no matter how painful it is to us, or to them.

As we move forward in Lent, by the grace of Christ scourged and crucified,
may our penances remind us of this love,
drive out all trace of sin from our lives,
and fix in their place a true abiding love for God and neighbor.

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