The words of St. Paul in our second reading:
Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect,
are as pertinent and necessary today as they were at the very beginning of Christianity. Then, many Christians were tempted, or driven by fear of the persecuting might of the Roman Empire, to conform to expected state-worship and thus save themselves from being reported as refusing to join in sacrifices to the traditional gods for the well-being of the Empire and the Emperor himself.
Likewise today, many wavering or nominal Catholics strive earnestly to keep in tune with the currently acceptable opinions and attitudes of society around them and today’s first reading from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah was one that would not have been comfortable hearing for them, since the impressions of ordinary non-religious people these days with regard the prophet Jeremiah – if, indeed, such people have any awareness of the prophet at all – derive from the cloud which hovers over his very name: for they regard a ‘Jeremiah’ as one who always looks on the dark side of things, a harbinger of evil whose legacy is an ancient book called ‘Lamentations’, the like of which are now frequently termed as ‘Jeremiads’.
Occasional Catholics dare not resist such talk because it is so very easy for people who decry the prophet to then turn round and mock any who show him or his writings respect or reverence as being as weak personalities, fragile characters, unable to share and rub shoulders with others in the normal joys of life, unwilling to echo what others proclaim as being so very good in current thought and practices; and of being – to put it bluntly – real Jeremiah’s, full of despondency and complaints concerning modern society!
And so, although neither Jeremiah’s personal courage nor his fidelity to the office of prophet-in-Israel can ever be questioned let alone denied, nevertheless he seems condemned to permanently suffer under the common misapprehension that he was ‘a bit of a moaner’ even though today’s short first reading shows how far he was, in fact, from being such ‘a moaner’. For, moaners are always complaining to others, constantly soliciting the sympathy of those around them, whereas Jeremiah only gave expression to his anxieties and fears in the secrecy of personal prayer to God. Far from being public cries for human sympathy, his words were private and most humble acknowledgements before God alone about his deep fear of being personally unfit for the divine task being asked of him.
Before men, as I have just said, Jeremiah showed himself as most courageous, one called to suffer much over many years as a servant of the Lord. It is true that he publicly and frequently forecasted disaster, but that was the task given him by the Lord; the words and the warnings were of the Lord's commissioning not of Jeremiah’s choosing.
In one passage of his book he tells us (Jeremiah 15:16) just how much he loved the word of God:
Your words were found, and I ate them, Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name, O LORD God of hosts.
But, rejoicing so whole-heartedly in God's word, and having sincerely tried to fulfil the Lord’s command, Jeremiah was both puzzled at the reception given to his proclamation of the word of the Lord, and alarmed at the outcry it stirred up against him personally. And so, in his private prayer to God he says:
Why is my pain perpetual and my wound incurable? Will You surely be to me like an unreliable stream, as waters that fail? (15:18)
You will get a true idea and real awareness of his courage if you appreciate that what was happening to him was that which most people today fear above all: he was being mocked by his friends and acquaintances, opposed and rejected by the generality of his own people, and even hated by the religious authorities; all because he was proclaiming -- in the name of the Lord -- a message they refused to listen to and would not accept:
Whenever I speak, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day.
Foreshadowing somewhat in that way the loneliness of our Blessed Lord on Calvary, he cried:
Woe is me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! (15:10)
Surely you will appreciate that only a man of strong spirit and great courage would have dared to repeatedly proclaim a message everyone considered unpatriotic and defeatist, a message no one wanted to hear and which brought down so great a measure of public opprobrium and personal contempt upon his head.
In his prayers he told the Lord how he had thought of keeping his mouth shut: why keep on shouting out what no one will accept; proclaiming what only brings public derision, and provokes -- what is much worse -- official suspicion and opposition bordering on hatred?
And yet, when he tried to keep silent he found that:
(His word) becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in, I cannot endure it.
He was in a dilemma: for though he dreaded speaking out, yet he was finding it impossible to keep quiet. He did indeed need to pray, to seek God's help and guidance, for only the Lord could appreciate and alleviate his situation.
Listen carefully to what the Lord said to him, however, because it may well surprise you, since it clearly shows that commiseration and sympathy are not always the true expression of divine love; being very human words indeed, they can easily be uttered for public hearing and the enhancement of the speaker’s personal reputation:
If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve Me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be My spokesman. Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them. (15:19)
Notice those words “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve Me”. In other words: repent, because at present you are not showing yourself as one worthy to serve Me; for, to serve Me -- even if it involves earthly suffering -- is a privilege.
We should also notice those other words:
Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.”
You must not try to make your preaching acceptable to them: My Word is My Word; it alone – in its full integrity -- is good for My people; don't you dare change or adapt it to their liking.
Yes, People of God, how important it is for Catholic Christians today to realise that God's message is not to be evaluated in accordance with its popularity: it is not to be adapted and changed in order to accommodate modern fancies, opinions, or desires. Moreover, how necessary it is for us to calmly appreciate that it is always a supreme gift and privilege to serve God, and any suffering it might involve calls for a measure of divine strength and wisdom, gifts that God can give, and will give to those who turn to Him with a confidence and patience that Jeremiah had to learn, not, indeed, only for himself but also for our example and encouragement.
Sadly, the heroism of Jeremiah is confirmed today by too many Catholics who never stand up for Jesus and the Church, who shun all that calls for active involvement and personal risk on behalf of the Gospel in its confrontation with the world.
However, today I want not so much to reprove bad Catholics as to encourage good ones, and in the Gospel reading there is much help for all who want to give of their best for God’s purposes.
There, Jesus began to speak to His disciples about His forthcoming condemnation and crucifixion, and we are told that:
Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, "God forbid Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to You.”
Whereupon Jesus turned sharply on Peter saying:
Get behind Me, Satan! You are an obstacle to Me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
To shake Peter out of his popular and comforting expectations He had to use harsh words, insisting most firmly that He Himself, and consequently His Church and His disciples, could in no way expect to live untroubled, peaceful, lives here in this wicked world:
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
Consequently, we who love Mother Church should not, must never, allow ourselves to be alarmed or become despondent when our Faith is attacked, mocked, denied, or simply ignored by the majority, for it happened to Jesus Himself (John 15:20s.):
Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.
In our present trials here in the West, and in the repeated persecutions and murders of Catholics and Christians all over the world, we must always bear in mind Jesus' clear admonition:
Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with His angels in His Father’s glory, and then He will repay everyone according to his conduct.
People of God: have quiet confidence and firm trust in God, for you have all been personally called by the Father to serve His Son and to find salvation through Him and in Mother Church. You have divine strength available to you, for you are in the Church where the full truth about Jesus, and all the grace and power of His Spirit, are at your disposal in her teaching, and through her sacraments and fellowship. However, you need to realize that you yourself have something to bring for the celebration and enjoyment of the inaugural feast of God’s glorious Kingdom … the wedding garment of faith. Strength is not to be felt first; first comes your commitment of faith, in response to which is given such strength, joy, and peace as will enable you to bear up under your cross. Try to realize and appreciate just how close you are to those very earliest Christians who suffered for the Faith in the pagan atmosphere of the all-conquering Roman Empire to whom Peter wrote words (1 Peter 4:12-14) which apply personally to all of us today:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.