FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 10, 2019:
One of my favorite movies is the Steven Speilberg movie, Amistad. If you know it, Amistad tells the story of a group of slaves who were able to win their freedom with the help of John Quincy Adams in the Supreme Court long before slavery was abolished in this country. There is a poignant scene when the main character is given a copy of the Bible by an Abolitionist. However, he speaks no English and had never heard of Jesus Christ and so he doesn’t know what the book is. But the illustrations in this Bible fascinated him. At one point, two of the slaves are alone in their jail cell. One thinks that the other carries the book simply to impress people and he says, “No one is watching you here, you can put the book down.” But the other responds, “No, I think I have figured out the story.” Pointing to the pictures he says, “See, things were very bad for these people, it was a dark time, and they were oppressed. Worse even than us.” He flips a page to the scene at the manger in Bethlehem, “But, see here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” Referring to the drawing which depicts Christ with a halo he said, “You can see that he was very important, even the sun followed him where ever he went.”
That changed everything. When I was a young man around 22 years old, I was working as an investigative reporter here in the South Coast. I covered New Bedford Superior Court and the District Attorneys Office, and at that time in my life, I was very far from God. But, then, one night something happened to me that had never happened before. I was struck with a desire to go to Mass. That might sound like a normal desire to you, but for me at that point in my life, I had never really felt that way before. Faith was something that I appreciated in friends and members of my family, especially my Mom, but it was not something strong in my life. This desire to go to Mass was such a strong feeling that I couldn’t ignore it and the next day I went to church. The experience was unlike any other time that I had ever been before. Suddenly the readings from Scripture seemed to have impact in my life, the homily of the priest seemed like every word spoken was just for me. And, when he prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, “This is my Body given for you. This is my Blood for you,” it was as though I had never heard them before, and in this moment I knew they were true, not just in my mind but in my heart. When I returned to my pew to pray after receiving Holy Communion, I was reduced to tears, so powerfully had I experienced God in my life that day. From that moment, God’s presence in my life continued to grow until I came to the reality that I had to give God all of myself, all of my life, and I knew that I needed to become a priest. That moment, that night, when God placed in my heart a desire to go to Mass, is literally the moment in time that changed everything for me. It was a moment that defined who I am, who God wanted me to be.
This changes everything. Hopefully in all of our lives there are these singular moments that define who we are, that set our lives on their course, that change everything for us. Nothing will be the same. For some it is finding the right job, the one we’ve always dreamed about; for others it can be meeting the right person, the one you were meant to spend your life with; for still others, it can be the birth of a child and how that changes your perspective on life. These moments can also be in the negative – losing that job, finding a key relationship fractured, losing a loved one you were close to. But, how many of those life-changing moments involve God?
Our Scriptures today place before us three people - Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Each of them have an experience of God that changes everything. Isaiah sees the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne. God’s presence shakes the door of his house. His reaction, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Paul recounts his own unworthiness at having been called to be an apostle, despite his own persecution of the church. Paul’s reaction? “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace has not been ineffective.” And Peter, at Jesus’ command catches a miraculous amount of fish. His reaction? “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
This changes everything. You couldn’t ask for three people more different than Isaiah, Paul and Peter, and yet despite their very different lives, they each have a similarly life-changing encounter with God. In so many ways, that’s the story of the Bible itself over and over, the story of how God calls people to Himself and calls them to be more like His Son in the world. We see over and over again that that being in the presence of God changes everything; it changes the one who encounters God – it changes us. And that is change we can believe in!
As we come to Mass today, and every time we come, we have the opportunity to truly encounter God in so many ways. He is truly present in one another – “where two or more are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them” – so, when you look at the person on your right and left, in front and in back, God is truly here as we gather in His name. God is truly present to us today in His Word which was proclaimed in the readings which always end with the moving proclamation, “The Word of the Lord.” We mean it! Did you hear God speak to you today? God will be truly present in bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Jesus before our very eyes in the Eucharist today. And we will take that presence into our own bodies in the hopes that, as St. Augustine famously said, we will “become what we receive.” God hopes to change us by this encounter.
Hopefully, we encounter Him in many other places in our lives too – in our loving relationships, in our encounters with the poor and the marginalized, the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the needy. We encounter God in the beauty of nature, and words and music and art. He is all around us waiting to engage us in the hopes that we will be daily changed into more loving, kind, compassionate, caring, merciful, forgiving and gentle people. Just imagine what our world would look like if we so eagerly sought out those life-changing encounters with God that are all around us.
Our celebration of the Holy Mass today is asking us – how do I react to God’s presence? Am I blind to God, not even aware that He is here? Do I shy away from God because I know my sinfulness? Yet it is precisely because we are sinners that God comes to us; to transform us by His Grace. Just think of the powerful prayer we say just before receiving Communion – “Lord I am not worthy…but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” – the power of that prayer is in our trust that through God’s word we are healed and saved. Even in the moments when we feel the greatest distance from God; He is always present waiting to transform us in His love and Grace.
Let us pray to have eyes and hearts open to see our God who is present all around us, and to respond with humility. As Jesus appears on our altar, let us ask Him to enter into our hearts and transform us to become what we receive – that same presence of God, the Body of Christ, in the world.
This changes everything. “Only say the word, and we shall be healed.”
May the Lord give you peace.