5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, February 9, 2014
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
While that is a great feast to celebrate on a Sunday,
one of the things we lost by doing that was that
we interrupted our normal sequence of readings from Scripture.
In particular we missed the a Gospel reading that sets the groundwork for understanding today’s Gospel reading:
we didn’t get to read the very first part of the famous
“Sermon on the Mount”:
we missed the Gospel of the “Beatitudes” of Jesus.
As I said, that Gospel sets the stage for today’s reading,
because as beautiful as the Beatitudes of Jesus are,
they are in essence a re-presentation of the requirements
of the 10 commandments,
only taken to the next and even more demanding level.
And today’s Gospel literally picks up from there,
as we continue to read the Sermon on the Mount,
again with the beautiful images
that we “are the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.”
But again, these beautiful images and promises
also reveal an even more moral demanding moral standard for Christians.
In today’s 1st reading, we find the prophet Isaiah speaking to the people of Israel
after they’ve come back from their great exile into Babylon
about 500 years before the birth of Christ.
For centuries God had given them tremendous gifts:
land, prosperity, wealth and great military victories.
But of course, the greatest gift he’d given them
was their unique relationship with him, a relationship of love,
which included his teaching on how to love him and each other,
a teaching summarized in the 10 Commandments.
But because of those many gifts, they began to have pride in themselves,
and to forget that all these gifts were from God, and for God.
And in that pride they failed to love God and neighbor,
failed to keep the commandments.
And so God took away all the material gifts,
allowing them to be conquered by their enemies and taken into exile.
Now, returning from the Babylonian exile, that had lost almost everything.
But not the most important thing: the love of God, and his law of love.
And so now Isaiah tells them that God hasn’t abandoned them:
rather, he’s used the exile to cleanse them
of the haughty pride and arrogance that led them to fail to love.
In essence, to live the fullness of the law of love, to keep the commandments well,
they had to become poor in spirit, they had to mourn, and be meek,
and be persecuted for the sake of their God,
before they could inherit the kingdom of God.
So now Isaiah tells them, now that you are humbled,
you are ready to live as God intended,
to live the commandments not just as arbitrary rules of a contract,
but as the law of love.
And so he commands them to love, even to the point of
humbly sharing whatever they have with those who are in need:
the hungry, the naked, the oppressed and the homeless.
And if you do that, he says:
“then light shall rise for you in the darkness.”
Elsewhere in this same book, Isaiah prophesies that:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
….For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”
In today’s Gospel we encounter that child all grown up,
that light now shining on a hill in Galilee–Jesus Christ.
The light has come into the world, and the promises made to Israel are fulfilled.
The light that is the fire of the love of God lived out in the life of Jesus,
as he teaches them the higher demands
behind the minimum requirements of the commandments,
calling us to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and clean of heart;
and to patiently endure persecution because of him.
And he reveals that the light isn’t just for the small nation of Israel,
or for those first Jewish Christians, but for “all”:
“do [not] light [the] lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
….set it on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house.”
By drawing closer to Christ by loving as he loves,
by imitating him, who is meek and humble of heart,
and in leading a life of good works,
the light of Christ shines through us out onto the world
so that the whole world can see
what it could never see in the darkness
–they will see the love of God himself.
Now, it’s interesting, Jesus says here that we “are the light of the world.”
Yet, in the rest of Scripture it’s absolutely clear that
Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the light of the world.
But the thing is, by our Baptism Christ-our-light has entered in to us,
and so like a the lamp bearing the light of fire,
we do, in sense, become a light,
but only because of the fire, the light, of Christ within us.
Sometimes we forget this, and we fall into the trap of pride,
just like Israel did before the Babylonian exile.
Even with all good intentions, we can sometimes begin to think
that we are a light all by ourselves.
And we try to live in the light of merely our own human wisdom and reason.
But St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading:
“When I came to you, ….I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling.”
–sounds a lot like the Beatitudes: humility, meekness, etc..
And Paul continues, warning us not to focus on
“persuasive words” or “human wisdom, but on the power of God.”
The power that is the powerful light of Christ.
We can also begin to think that good works in themselves
are the most important thing
–regardless of whether those good works are connected to Christ,
or work to reveal Christ to the world.
But good works are not enough if they are stripped from their inherent connection
to Jesus Christ, and his love.
They are like “salt that loses its taste…
It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out.”
Good works which are not humbly rooted in Christ and in his true love,
will always leave us unsatisfied:
they pass away, while Christ never passes away.
On the other hand, we could also begin to think that good works
are not important at all.
Some Christians think all we need to do is believe and that’s enough for Jesus.
And I’m not just talking about Protestants who say we’re saved. “by faith alone”
–a lot of Catholics seem to think our good behavior
—either in keeping the commandments or doing good works—
isn’t necessary for salvation.
In other words, you don’t need to be good or do good to go to heaven.
I’m always amazed by this thinking,
since it ignores most of the teachings of the Bible.
I mean, practically the whole Sermon on the Mount is about doing good works
and being good by living according to the commandments.
Unfortunately, this false doctrine is not new.
That’s exactly the mistake Israel made when they took for granted
God’s love and his law of love.
And so Isaiah told them, and us, as we read today:
“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,…”
Works without faith are meaningless,
but faith without works is useless:
like a body without life or like life without love!
Or like a lamp without a fire within.
Because it’s only through our works that we can live our faith and love,
and it’s only in the light of Jesus’ love shining through our good works,
that others are can see and come to share the infinite love of God.
God gave the Israelites many wonderful gifts
but they had to be conquered and humbled
in order to appreciate the gift of God’s love
and to receive the light that would drive all darkness:
the incarnation of God’s love in Christ.
Today, that light shines on in the Catholic Church
and we, the members of his Church,
must not hide that light of Christ under a bushel basket,
but we shine it into every corner of the world,
beginning right here in our parish and in our families.
Not shining our own dim light of clever words, or human reason,
or doing good works because they make us feel good,
or professing an empty and lifeless faith.
But instead, going into the world,
filled with the fire of love that is the light of Christ
and live the life of love and faith
by being good through keeping the commandments
and living the beatitudes
and by doing good, through performing the good works of charity.
And in this, leading others to the fire of God’s love,
the true light shining in a very dark world.