The 3rd Sunday of Lent
March 20, 2022
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s readings present us with two plants.
In the first reading from the Book of Exodus
we find God’s first revelation to Moses: the burning bush:
“the bush, though on fire, was not consumed.”
This is a great symbol of God, who is love:
reminding us that the love of God is like a fire that gives
light, zeal, and the warmth of his peace.
But in the Gospel we find a very different plant.
Not a burning bush, but a fig tree that has no figs, it bears no fruit,
so that, as Jesus says, it is simply “exhaust[ing] the soil.”
And so he says, “cut it down,” twice.
Elsewhere in scripture Jesus tells us what happens to bushes like this:
“Every tree that does not bear good fruit
is cut down….. and thrown into the fire.”
So we have a burning bush, and a burning fig tree.
But while the first represents the fire of Divine love,
the second represents the eternal fire of Divine damnation.
Lent is all about God’s love, especially as revealed so sublimely
by His Cross and Resurrection
But Lent is also about how we choose respond to that love.
Do we choose to accept His love and love Him in return,
or do we choose to reject His love and not love Him in return?
Or to put it another way:
do we choose the fire of His love and burn like the burning bush of Moses,
filled with life, light, and zeal,
or do we choose to reject the fire of His love,
and instead waste the good things he gives us, not bearing fruit,
eventually cut down and thrown into the fire of eternal destruction?
Inevitably then, Lent should lead us, in part, to meditate on the fires of hell.
Some would say, that in His love and mercy, Jesus could never send us to hell.
But elsewhere Jesus tells that it’s our own acts, our own choices,
that condemn us.
So He warns us today:
“if you do not repent, you will all perish.”
In His mercy he pays for our sins on the cross,
but in His justice he respects our choices:
our choices to accept that mercy and repent
—to change our lives, and love as He commands—
or choices to waist His mercy by choosing a life of sin.
Think of it.
Every day we make choices to love God or not, to accept His mercy or not.
When we choose to love God and our neighbor as Jesus teaches us
by obeying the commandments, following the teaching of His Church,
and truly placing Jesus first in everything we do,
at work, at school, at play and at home,
and in everything we think, do and say.
If we do that we are choosing
to live with Christ and His Father and the Holy Spirit and all the saints
right here and now on earth,
and the perfection of that life with Christ in the glory of heaven.
But the opposite is true if we chose not to love God and accept His mercy.
If we live lives where God isn’t first in our lives.
Where we reject the commandments or the Church’s teaching,
or pick and choose which we want to follow and how.
If we do that we’re choosing not to live with Him,
but to treat Him as a stranger, or an interesting acquaintance,
or a powerful connection we can use when we’re in trouble.
In short, were are choosing to live life without Him,
and choosing not to live the life of heaven on earth.
And when we die, that choice endures in life without Him forever.
And that, my friends is what hell is all about.
It’s like the fruitless fig tree.
During life it enjoys the sun, the soil, the rain—all the gifts God pours down on it.
But it wastes it all, because it doesn’t bear fruit,
and so in the end it loses it all, and is cut down and burned.
It’s the same with us:
during life in this world we enjoy all the good things God gives us.
Good food, health, friends, family, laughter, sports, games, sexuality….
Not to mention the consolations of the Church and turning to Christ in need.
We suck up His love and mercy just like that fig tree sucks ups the sun and soil.
Life is good.
But all of it, all of it, comes from God.
Not just the religion stuff.
Not just the commandments and the gospels.
All the good things of the earth—they come from Him and are His.
So, if on earth, we love His gifts more than we love Him,
we chose just to enjoy His stuff but not to love and live with Him,
in the end, in death we lose it all!
In hell the rejection of God and His goodness is, so to speak, perfected.
There is nothing good in hell.
No good health, only pain.
No water, no food, no sleep.
No sun, no moon, not even the stars.
Not the company of a loving family or friends,
only loneliness in the frightful company of the devil and the condemned.
No hope, no love.
Obviously it’s difficult to put into words what hell will be like
—what it will be like to have nothing from God, nothing good.
But Jesus Himself gives us a very specific notion what it will be like.
In the gospels He calls it, a
“fiery furnace…. [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He says it is:
“the unquenchable fire…where their worm does not die….”
He calls it “the outer darkness” and “eternal punishment.”
And in the book of Revelation we read that the damned in hell:
“will be tormented with fire and sulfur
…and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever,
and they have no rest, day or night…forever and ever.”
And we choose this by our sins.
Now, of course, not all sins lead to this eternal punishment.
Only sins that are “mortal sins,” lead to hell:
sins that involve a grave matter,
and a free choice made with full knowledge of what we’re doing.
But some sins are only small or venial:
sins that don’t involve something seriously important,
or where we didn’t chose completely freely, or know what we were doing.
We don’t go to hell for venial sins
—we can and do love and live with Jesus every day,
but do it imperfectly as we continue to sin venially.
But the problem with venial sins is they so easily lead to mortal sins.
For example, you get used to telling little lies,
and pretty soon the truth just isn’t that important to you
and it becomes very easy tell big lies about important things.
Venial sins are like throwing tiny marbles, one after another, on a floor:
one or two marbles don’t matter much,
but pretty soon the whole floor is covered with marbles
and you will slip on them and break your neck.
A life that embraces venial sins will surely lead to a life filled with mortal sins
—a life that leads to hell.
On the other hand, a life where God is first and foremost,
a life filled with love for God,
a life filled with striving daily to live as He created us to,
is a life filled with God and all that is good,
a life that shares in the kingdom of heaven here on earth
and leads to its perfection in the world to come
—eternal life of light, happiness, peace, joy, laughter,
and true deep abiding love with God and with the saints and angels.
As St. Paul writes elsewhere:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
This is what God made us for:
this is the fruit of accepting His love and all His gifts.
This is what we lost by our sins,
and what Christ came into the world to return to us.
He created us to be filled with the fire of His love: He created us for heaven.
And He died on the Cross to save us from the fires of hell.
This is, in the end, what good Friday and Easter are all about: heaven and hell.
So this is what Lent is all about.
What do we choose?
In a few moments we will kneel as we enter the mystery of
the real presence of our Lord Jesus Crucified,
kneeling at the foot of the Cross.
Immediately before that happens, I will pray:
“graciously accept this oblation of our service…,
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.”
Here, we offer to Jesus “this oblation of our service,” in other words,
we offer Him the sacrifice of our whole lives:
to serve Him by living and loving with Him at every moment in this world.
And as He unites our sacrifice to His own sacrifice of the Cross,
our lives are united to His,
and we begin to experience the first fruit of living with Him on earth,
a foretaste of the peace of living with Him in heaven.
But He promises more than a foretaste:
that by the grace of the Cross, if we continue to live with Him in this world,
this peace will be one day be perfected,
and we will be delivered from the eternal damnation of hell
and counted among the flock of the saints in heaven.
In ancient times God revealed Himself under the appearance of a burning bush.
Today He reveals Himself to us under the appearance of
a piece of bread and a cup of wine,
and comes to us to share the fire of His divine love.
Let us leave here today burning with that love,
filled with light, zeal and the warmth of His peace,
and committed to live life making good use of the gifts he gives,
bearing good and abundant fruit.
And throughout this Holy Lent let us keep before us
the truth that Christ loved us so much that He would both
die to give us eternal life,
and mercifully warn us:
“if you do not repent, you will all perish.”