27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
In a homily delivered in Assisi, Italy on the feast of St. Francis, the Holy Father asks, “Where did [St.] Francis’s journey to Christ begin?” His answer to this question is frightening. His answer shows us why Paul must encourage Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” And why the apostles beg the Lord: “Increase our faith.” His answer even shines light on why the prophet Habakkuk wails at God: “How long, O Lord?. . .Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?” Where did St. Francis begin his journey to Christ? The Holy Father answers: “It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself.” To look and see such misery and knowing all the while that Christ's ruin is our repair. . .no one possessed by the spirit of cowardice could watch this. No one lacking in faith would be pulled into his gaze from the cross. Accepting and living the Good News of Jesus Christ is one life-long act of courage, one small act of faith after another. But neither Christian courage nor faith in God deserves applause or gratitude. Why? B/c we are drawn to Christ. . .by Christ.
Our Holy Father says that our journey to Christ begins “with letting [the crucified] Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself.” What does he mean by “letting Jesus look at us”? No one needs my permission to look at me. They just look at me and here I am, being looked at. All of us are seen everyday without even knowing it. We look at others all the time w/o their permission. But couldn't we say that the difference btw Looking and Seeing is the same as the difference btw Hearing and Listening? What's that difference? Attentiveness, intention? I can hear but do not listen; I can look but do not see. Does this sound familiar? Jesus teaches his students that they will meet people along the Way who hear and look but do not listen or see. These people will hear with mistrustful ears and look through cowardly eyes. Attentiveness and intention make a difference, of course, but the difference that makes The Difference is faith. Jesus doesn't just look at us from the cross; he gazes at us. He looks with intent, with purpose, and if we let him gaze at us, we return his gaze in kind. We are drawn to him and our looking becomes seeing with faith.
Notice why the apostles suddenly beg the Lord to increase their faith. They ask him how many times they should forgive a brother who sins. Jesus says, “. . .if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” The apostles immediately see the connection btw forgiveness and faith, and they immediately recognize the weakness of their faith. To forgive someone who sins against you over and over again requires a great deal of confidence in the power of mercy to correct error. It also requires a strong sense of one's own sinfulness. But the purpose of forgiving others is to draw us back to the Cross and the merciful, dying gaze of Christ, the one who makes all forgiveness possible. When you forgive someone who sins against you, you bring the merciful gaze of Christ to them. You become Christ for them in that moment. That takes courage. It takes courage and a deep trust in the fact that not only are their sins forgiven but so are yours. The apostles know this, so they beg Jesus to increase their faith, to add to their ability to trust. Unfortunately, the apostles don't yet quite grasp how faith works. They still see faith as a quantity, a measurable amount of something that can be increased or decreased. Jesus, as usual, reveals the truth.
He says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith isn't measured in quantities; it's measured in acts of courage and obedience. As the good habit of trusting in God's loving-care, faith—even the size of a mustard seed—can accomplish the seemingly impossible. If this seems improbable, then consider the strength it would take to forgive someone who sinned against you seven times, or seventy-seven times. That's not a feat of brute physical strength but rather a feat of spiritual strength. What does it say about you and your relationship with God that you can show mercy to a person who's hurt you seventy-seven times? It says that you are painfully aware of your own sinfulness and your own need for mercy. That you can forgive them—even just once—is an act of courage, an act done in fear despite that fear. If you trust that Christ died on the Cross for you and even now draws you into a life of holiness with his dying, merciful gaze, then that trust must be shared, given out. We cannot follow Christ unless we are ready to become Christ. And that kind of trust can be large or small so long as it is also strong.
You might be thinking right now: I'm not THAT strong. Lord, give me strength! Excellent prayer. Paul writes to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice. . .So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord. . .but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” The spirit that God gives us is His Holy Spirit, the spirit of love. When we call upon the strength we need to endure and thrive, we are not calling upon any created power, any merely human reserve of energy or vigor. We call upon the gift of God Himself, the freely given presence of Love Who is God. Like faith and hope, this love is bound to us in our human nature; that is, wired into each of us from the moment of our conception. There is never a question of whether or not we “have faith” or whether or not we “have love.” We do, by nature. The question is whether or not we will use God's gift of freedom to love freely, forgive extravagantly, and bear witness to His mercy! Any and every strength we have is from God, but it is only with our cooperation, our permission that faith, love, and hope mature. IOW, we allow the crucified Jesus to see us. And we look back at him, seeing, trusting.
What do we do when our trust is weak? What do we do when, like Habakkuk, we hear ourselves crying out to God, “Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?” In that same homily in Assisi, our Holy Father says, “The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure. . .When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become 'a new creation.' Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own. . .” Being loved for no other reason than that God is Love is the transforming grace—the life-changing gift—we need to endure, and not only endure but prevail. When your trust in God is weak, invite Christ to look at you and to see you and to gaze into your heart and mind. Let him see—truly see—your weakness. Let him take it to the Cross for you. And let him make it holy in sacrifice, give it to his Father as an offering. Return his gaze; let yourself see—truly see—what he did for you on the Cross and all that his death and rising again accomplished. Then, remember Paul's words to Timothy: “Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord. . .”
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