Friday, March 6, 2009

Lenten Program

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Stella Maris Parish, 4 March 2009, Kingston, Jamaica

The preaching of Jonah and the wisdom of Solomon: today’s Lenten readings challenge us to follow the example of the people of Nineveh from the least to the greatest and repent; to follow the example of the Queen of the South, who took on an arduous pilgrimage to be able to hear King Solomon. Today’s liturgy clearly invites us to do like them and allow those words/that preaching to bear fruits of repentance in our hearts and in our daily lives. Lent is about change of heart; it’s about hearing God’s Word and keeping it faithfully.

Now some of the more perceptive among you may have noticed that I said “those words/that preaching”. In expressing myself this way, it was not my intention to withdraw myself from my responsibility as a preacher here today. I said “those words/that preaching” simply to underline that I’m not preaching myself; I’m preaching Jesus; I’m preaching God’s Word. Although I am not worthy and I dare not say of myself, as Jesus did of Himself in today’s Gospel, “there is something greater than Jonah here”, I cannot excuse myself from going right to the heart of the matter and giving you Jesus in the splendor of the fullness of His Gospel. To my brother bishops, priests and deacons, I say: Sweat it out, preachers! Give the people only the best! The salvation of your listeners depends upon you preaching the Gospel of Repentance.

Today’s liturgy presents us, one and all, with a double challenge. The primary one is that we be attentive, that we listen, and that we allow God’s Word to find a home in our hearts. It is not that we hear and keep the Word as if buried or smothered within us, but that we respond to that word in us by really changing and thereby letting God’s Word shine forth for others to see and appreciate. The classic example of what we are called to do will always be provided by St. Anthony the Great, St. Anthony the Hermit, who as a young man on hearing the words of the Gospel on a Sunday, “go and sell all you have and give to the poor” did just that. He took God’s Word at face value and changed. So must we! So must we!

The other side of the coin is this: each and every one of us, not just the priest or the deacon from the pulpit, must preach; we must be prophets like Jonah. This is not to say we must be preachy preachers or pretentious prophets. Let me understate the case a bit and say our duty is simply not to withhold the Word. We cannot remain dumb or silent about sharing the reason for our hope. The wisdom from on high which is ours, we dare not withhold first and foremost from our loved ones, family and friends. Although we may freely leave the high-profile preaching to the professionals, we dare not keep Jesus to ourselves.

You would think I was saying the obvious, wouldn’t you? Why then are there so many lost souls around today chasing after New Age or motivational speakers? Even more worrisome for me, I cannot figure out why children today grow up so ignorant of the faith. Don’t people have a crucifix and a picture of the Blessed Mother in their homes? Don’t mommies today, walking a crying baby or trying to settle an infant in arms, ever take them up close to look at Jesus on the Cross? When they go to church during the Christmas season don’t they have that small child visit Baby Jesus in the Crib? I have fond memories of my Dad holding younger brothers and sisters still babies and taking them by the right hand, helping them make a Sign of the Cross which always ended with a tickle. Is Jesus, the One greater than Jonah born for us and for us given, present as a loving member of our families today, or is the Word being withheld?
Jonah tried to escape his responsibilities as a prophet and God went to extraordinary lengths to bring him back and put him to work for love of Nineveh and for love of Jonah. You might say that Jonah was drug kicking and screaming to his prophetic mission. And just as Jonah was a sign for the Ninevites so he should teach us the way to go out of ourselves for others, out of love for others.

Back to our first point ever so briefly! Open wide your hearts, St. Paul says! There is indeed something greater than Jonah here. On Judgment Day we want you on the same side of the great divide as the Queen of the South and the Ninevites. Don’t risk condemnation through dullness or distraction, as if someone owed you more of a sign than the Word itself which gives life. Change! Change! Which of your many faults are you working on this Lent?

One of the private jokes I shared with the Nuncio I served the longest in Germany had to do with an evening with priests where we as guests were offered a choice between a local white wine and a classic French red wine. As guests in a strange place we accepted the local white, all the local priests around the table took the French wine except for two who seemed to feel obliged to keep us company. After a very solemn toast the two tasted the local white, nodded profoundly and announced together that it had character. It was horrible. Thereafter the Nuncio and I could always joke about things with character as being horrible or worthless. Some people kid themselves into believing that their unruliness or stubbornness is a sign of character. Such signs of character would have led Nineveh to ruin and a headstrong or stubborn Queen of the South would have stayed home in her ignorance and be lost as well.

There is something greater than Jonah here. Change! Let everyone know the reason for your hope!

No comments: