This homily was given at Saint Mary, Mother of God, Washington, D.C.
Between the feast of Our Lady’s purification and the start of the pre-Lenten season, with Septuagesima next Sunday, the Church today keeps this fifth Sunday after the Epiphany of the Lord. In the ordinary form of the Roman rite, these ‘green Sundays’ are known as Sundays per annum or Sundays of ‘ordinary time’. They are marked by a return to normality after the festal celebrations of Christmas or of Easter, and they seek to return the faithful to the normal course of events in the liturgical year. In the extraordinary form (and in the ordinariates), the kalendar orientates these Sundays by two significant feasts – the Epiphany of the Lord and Pentecost (or Trinity) – giving a specific point of reference for these otherwise wayward days.
Today, as we celebrate this Mass on this Sunday after Epiphany, we are reminded of the events of Epiphany and the extended season of Christmas, and are given its primary theme – the incarnation – as the context within which we hear the lections and orations of the sacred liturgy which we come to offer. This means that, when we hear the words of the epistle to the Colossians, the Church in her wisdom is calling us to consider the message of the apostle Paul through the lens of the central message of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the incarnation; the enfleshment of our Lord and God, the second person of the most blessed Trinity.
In this reading, Saint Paul summons us to a life of virtue, of ‘mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience’ and calls us to ‘let the peace of Christ dwell in [our] hearts’. As a result of God’s condescension and coming-amongst us, to take on our human nature, this is a fitting response. The great liturgical commentator, Dom Prosper Gueranger, says of today’s Epistle, “The Christian, trained as he has been in the school of the Man-God who deigned to dwell upon this earth, should ever show mercy towards his fellow-men”. In other words, what Saint Paul encourages us to do is none other than the logical and natural result of that for which, by our celebration of the extended season of Christmas, we have been preparing. Our thoughts, we might say, now turn to actions.
As we recalled in the season of Advent, the prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the prince of peace whom we see incarnate in Christ himself, born in the Bethlehem stable. So, too, we can understand the peace that is to dwell in our hearts as that which comes from knowing the reality of the incarnation, and encountering the incarnation for ourselves as we experience the radical effect of God taking on man’s nature in order to redeem it and bring us to salvation.
That peace, far from soporific or superficial sentiment, is a peace which comes with true Christian joy. The knowledge of a real and personal relationship with Christ, resting in his love in the communion of his Church, brings about a sense of rest and contentment – a sense of peace – which in turn produces a profound encounter with joy. Our salvation has been won for us, and the gate of heaven is flung open to receive us. Indeed, in this admirable Eucharistic sacrifice the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, allowing us to participate at this earthly altar in the eternal worship of the altar of heaven. As we pray in the Canon of the Mass, “We humbly beseech thee, Almighty God, command these offerings to be brought by the hands of thy holy Angel to thine altar on high, in sight of thy divine majesty; that all we who at this partaking of the altar shall receive the most sacred Body and Blood of thy Son, may be fulfilled with all heavenly benediction and grace”. Can this conjure anything but the greatest joy within us?
Such joy is vital to the Christian life. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Jerome, writing of today’s passage from the gospel according to Saint Matthew, see the cockle or weeds, sown amongst the wheat, as heresy and error planted in the midst of the Church’s life to cause confusion and to strangle the good wheat of truth. This weed is even known in some cultures as ‘false wheat’ because – like the false doctrine it symbolises – it looks and grows in such a similar manner, as camouflage against its own destruction, that it can trick many into believing it is the real thing.
Certainly we can accept this patristic interpretation. God the Father will surely gather up all falsehood and fallacy, and separate the faithful from those who have been caught-up in error. But we can also say that this weed is the scandal with which the faithful followers of Christ have contended in their essential work of evangelization. As with false teaching, so also action which detracts or deters those from the faith will surely be cast aside in the fullness of time.
The ongoing effects of the horrific child abuse crisis, which raised its ugly head once more in a report of the United Nations this week, is one example of such a scandal. Although (thanks be to God) the experience of the evil actions of certain individuals is limited to the newspapers for most of us, the collateral damage of these horrors is certainly felt by us all. The mission of the Church and, if not her authority then her credibility, is severely damaged. If ever there was an appropriate use of the word ‘scandal’ – a stumbling-block to the faith – this is it.
But as this course and deadly weed is sown around us, even in the life of the Church, it is our own individual joy – the result of allowing the peace of Christ to truly dwell in our hearts – which marks us out as authentically rooted in the life of Christ, and so allows others to see unhindered the Evangelii Gaudium, the joy of the gospel within us. Just as the heresies of the first millennium have been condemned to the annals of history, so it will be with subsequent error and scandal, not least by the living-out of their antithesis: the fullness of faith and the proclamation of the gospel.
As we turn, then, from the festal celebrations of the Lord’s incarnation toward the subdued and solemn season of Lent, let this joy be undimmed. May the peace that has come to us in the infant Christ be renewed in our hearts and souls at this time, in order that our penance and sorrow may be all the more genuine as we come once more to the foot of the cross. And may this peace be expressed and authenticated by a holy joy which, through lives lived in fidelity to the Word made Flesh, will allow our sceptical world to see beyond the errors and scandals that beset us, and come to know the kingdom of God in the communion of the Church, and come one day to that kingdom in the fullness of peace and joy in the heavenly Jerusalem.