Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

Readings: 2 Chron 36:14-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

One theme that seems common to all three of the readings we just heard is that this world is pretty much a mess. The passage from 2nd Chronicles details the devastation of the land of Judea by foreign invaders and the subsequent deportation of the people to Babylon. The Letter to the Ephesians sees all of us as "dead in our transgressions." And the gospel teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus begins with all the world on the verge of perishing eternally. Very different ways of expressing it, but all three have the same message: this world is pretty much a mess.

But that’s not the only common theme in these readings. In each case the negative description of the world’s condition is countered and even bested by a positive view. After the exile to Babylon comes the Restoration to the land of Judah. In the midst of our transgressions unto death it is the merciful God who sends Jesus to save us from them. In the gospel Jesus is that source of eternal life who overcomes eternal damnation by his cross and resurrection. If we put those two themes together (the positive and the negative) the result is: this world is grace in the middle of a mess.

When you think about it, that’s not a bad definition of the Catholic faith itself: grace in the middle of a mess. The mess would be the assertion that the world has always stood in need of redemption. You can find that stated in religious texts that go back as far as the discovery of human writing. The cave men and women probably sat around and moaned, "Times are bad." There’s probably not much difference between them and individuals today who see the world as going to hell in a handbag. The contemporary causes for complaint are many: international war, environmental disaster, worldwide famine, biological diseases, nuclear catastrophes. The reasons go on and on. They all agree that the world is pretty much a mess.

In the Christian theological tradition one of the ways to explain this negative human situation, this "mess," was the doctrine of original sin. Original Sin has gotten a lot of bad press in the last few decades—mainly due to people being upset with St. Augustine’s explanations of original sin. You can argue a lot about different points of the doctrine (by the way, not all of Augustine’s explanations are part of Catholic teaching; they are his theological opinions), but it’s pretty hard to deny the basic insight. As far back as you can look at humanity, it’s always needed a lot of help. However, instead of talking about this in generalities, the season of Lent does offer us a time when we can focus more clearly on the ways that our own lives are affected (perhaps I should say ‘infected’) by the history of sin we find ourselves in. St. Paul called his particular failing the "thorn in his flesh." (2 Cor 12:7) Evidently it was embarrassing enough to him that he didn’t mention exactly what that failing consisted of. But it always made him remember his need for God’s grace. One of the places that Original Sin shows up in each of our lives is in our own particular "thorn of the flesh." Lent is a time for us to face it more directly—not to wallow in discouragement from having failed so many times; nor to simply give in and give up confronting our thorn; rather we are to face our thorn in the flesh and to realize our continuing need for God’s grace in everything. Recognizing the mess, recognizing our thorn, leads us back to a merciful God.

So, the world is pretty much a mess. And our Catholic faith is grace in the middle of a mess. Let’s pray that we all take the needed steps along the way to find our merciful God.

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