We have here a most important Gospel reading: important, that is, for our right understanding of the vocation and spiritual life of a committed Christian; and it is prefaced by two remarkable readings from the prophet Ezekiel and St. Paul.
Let us, first of all, listen once again to our reading from the prophet Ezekiel:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against Me…. You shall say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God!’ And whether they head or resist --- for they are a rebellious house --- they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
Things were apparently so bad with the Chosen People in those days, that the prophet was not being sent to comfort God’s people like Isaiah, not even being sent to convert delinquents since it was doubtful whether any would be converted -- whether they head or resist -- but simply to proclaim God’s word, and thus impress upon the people that there was a prophet in their midst, and force Israel to recognize that though they had often failed Him, He would never fail them.
Witness to the truth, to God’s truth! That is the prophet’s – and a Catholic priest’s -- first and supreme function, as Our Blessed Lord said of Himself and His mission when being questioned by Pilate:
For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the Truth. (John 18:37)
Not to convert, first of all, but to bear witness to God’s truth; conversions will come later, as Jesus went on to say:
Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice. (ibid.)
In the reading from St. Paul, we heard again about this contradictory aspect of God’s word … be it God’s activity or His spoken message. Paul had received an abundance of revelations and was in danger of becoming too proud, and therefore a thorn in the flesh was given him. That was God’s word in action, you might say a word of contradiction indeed, which Paul most certainly did not like, but – as ever with God – it was a word to save him. And so, although Paul pleaded earnestly with God that the thorn might leave him, God’s reply was something which, initially, he found hard to understand because it was so much at variance with his own way of thinking …
My grace is sufficient for you, My power is made perfect in weakness.
Paul wanted to do great things for God, but he had to learn that God alone does great things, for Himself and for us. Consequently, He would only allow Paul to do great things for His holy name in such a way that, at the same time, Paul would be learning – unforgettably – the truth that, of himself, he could do nothing for salvation. And so Paul eventually came to rejoice, for example, in his own inability to make great literary sermons, because experience gradually taught him that when he went forward in faith – obeying God’s call and trusting in God’s help -- then, despite his own inability, God would work wonders through him and for him.
Jesus, the Word-of-God-made-flesh, Himself came among us as Lord and Saviour and -- in accord with God’s message to Ezekiel -- both His Person and His spoken words proved unacceptable to sectarian pride and less than pleasing to human hopes, with the result that, as you heard in our Gospel today, Jesus did not convert many at Nazareth because His fellow townspeople had no faith in His Person and were not impressed by the wisdom of His words. Nevertheless, Jesus successfully carried out His mission and fulfilled His Father’s purposes in Nazareth for He bore witness to the truth and exemplified those sublime and prophetic words given to Isaiah:
My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8)
People of God, so often today great things are desired of the priests of Mother Church: they are exhorted at times by bishops and frequently expected by Catholic people to somehow make Jesus popular and His teaching acceptable to all who hear them. That, however, is not their primary function: they must first of all bear witness to God’s truth, learnt first of all from Mother Church and then vivified by their own faithful awareness of God’s Personal activity and goodness in their lives. Conversions will, in God’s mercy and great goodness, follow, for:
Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.
There is something here for all in God’s flock … something to help us live our faith more fruitfully. For we must recognize that God’s word will be – at times – a contradiction to us, or it will seem so: creating a decisive tension within us, or simply jolting us out of our complacency. And that is its essential purpose and function: to touch and sound new depths in, to open up the very roots of, our God-given being to the influence of His grace, and thus lead us to a richer, fuller, and more authentic human life and Christian fulfilment as witnesses to God’s truth.
For, left to ourselves, we tend to spend so much of our lives in superficial pleasures and distractions which empty us of character; and these God-given contradictions, where God can seem, at times, so absent, are not necessarily meant to make us more noticeably holy or religious, more obviously ‘good’, but simply, at times, to help us realize that we are needy individuals, and to make us look below the surface, deeper than the obvious, in order to find the true meaning and purpose, beauty and truth, of our experience of life. Now, faith is the Christian faculty that enables us to believe, recognize, and to respond to God’s presence in and throughout the whole of life; and we respond to His presence by doing what is true, loving what is beautiful, and dedicating ourselves to life in all its fullness -- spiritual as well as bodily, eternal a well as natural -- because of His imprint which they bear and His call they express for us.
For example, how often good Catholic parents experience anguish and anxiety as they see their young people wandering away from religious practice and the Faith itself. And yet, if they will embrace it aright, this experience can be a great opportunity for them, as with Saint Paul, to glorify God and to draw even closer to those they love despite the sorrow and suffering involved. As good Catholic and Christian parents -- despite finding themselves in such a situation – they can yet persist in loving and trusting: trying to draw God to their children by constant prayer and trust, and their children to God by ever deeper (and more costly!) love and patience. As silent witnesses to God where words of exhortation and instruction cannot be given because they will not be accepted, such parents who continue to unite God and their children through their own love and suffering for both are then, themselves being conformed very closely indeed to Christ on the Cross with one arm outstretched to men and the other to His Father, uniting them both in the great love of His most Sacred Heart.
Again, young people growing up can encounter for the first time what have been called the ‘frontier experiences’ of sex, when their growing sexual awareness opens up frontiers of life hitherto unknown, instilling a zest and adventure into life, and discovering vast, exciting, new areas of sensibility. On the other hand though, these ‘frontier experiences’ can also bring tension and intense anxiety, fear, and disillusionment into sincere young hearts. Nevertheless, these trials and sufferings are not situations, experiences, where God is absent; no! for those who have faith, who seek life’s golden nugget of worthwhileness, these experiences can also be recognized as God’s word, meant to make them more humble and patient in and with themselves, more loving and trustful of His Spirit gradually leading them to the depths of human maturity that they may then be made more truly and fully divine in Christ.
Let us then, People of God, take confidence; because life’s most bitter moments, its most searching trials, when met with faith and embraced with trust in God, can be experienced as encounters with His holy word, His saving will; indeed as His self-revelation to you for a personal fellowship with Him throughout your life. They are contradictions like the Cross, meant to result in our resurrection as newer and fuller human beings and more authentic Christians … men and women all the more capable of joy and fulfilment for having lived through such troughs of sorrow and trial. For that to happen one thing is absolutely necessary: faith in the teaching of Mother Church and in our personal awareness and experience of God’s goodness.
Seek true humanity, full and free; seek confidently and unswervingly the meaning of life: its true beauty, worthwhileness, and purpose. Seek, in a word, God, revealing Himself in His Son, through His Church, unique and universal, and in you by His Spirit.
May this Holy Mass bring about for us who participate in it with faith the great miracle of our resurrection from the shallows to the fullness of all our possibilities, human and divine; the fullness for which He created us and towards which He ever guides and ‘upgrades’ us through sorrow and joy, in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.