The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in Arlington.
As we reflect on today's scripture readings, especially today's Gospel account, two questions are crucial for both our fuller understanding and our fundamental response. (For both these questions, I credit Bishop Robert Barron, who included them in his own reflection printed in the September issue of Magnificat, p. 59).
In today's Gospel account, the words which Jesus addresses to His original audience, those “great crowds…traveling with [Him],” and now to us, gathered here this morning, the words are very stark and demanding. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is stating unequivocally that He must be first in the life of His disciples, in your life and in mine, before anyone else, no matter how dear they are to us, and before anything else. I suspect most of us think that surely this is an exaggeration, hyperbole, perhaps.
If Jesus were just a renowned prophet, or a famed religious leader, or an acclaimed guru, or a brilliant philosopher, or a captivating orator, would not our question be: “Who do you think you are?”
However, Jesus Christ is far more than all those people I have just named. He is the Only Son of the Living God, Who became one like us in all things except sin, Who was sent by His Father and ours to redeem us from the permanent effects of evil, sin, suffering and death, so that we can live here with a new life within us - His, with real purpose and meaning, and one day inherit eternal life when we have passed beyond the gates of human death. Jesus Christ must be first, the center of our life, the core of our hearts. He must be the One in Whom we alone can truly live!
He came and remains among us so that each one of us can be freely drawn into a personal and deeply intimate relationship with Him within the Community of His Disciples, the Church. He awaits our “yes!” He is present among us in His Living Word in the Scriptures; in those privileged meetings with Him through the outward signs called Sacraments, especially in the Sacrament of Penance where He forgives us of every sin, and in the Holy Eucharist, both Sacrament and Sacrifice, wherein He is truly present and wherein He unites us to Himself in a union that is truly most intimate, life-giving and strengthening. He is also present within the Community of His Disciples, the Church, and in every human person, created in God's image and likeness, regardless of their state or condition in this life.
So, what Jesus is telling us is that He must be the center of our lives and the core of our hearts, because He is our very life. The second question, then, is His to us: “Who do you say that I am?” When we grasp the central place Jesus holds in our lives, the reason why He is at the core of our hearts, then, in response to this second question: “Who do you say that I am?” we can only echo with Saint Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
Does making Jesus first mean that we cannot love our parents, our spouse or children, our brothers and sisters, our friends? Of course not! We must love Jesus first and love these others in Him and through Him and with Him. No one of them can take the place of Jesus. As for our possessions, of course, we need to earn a living, to have a suitable place to live, to have adequate food, to prepare for retirement, but no thing can become a “god” to us, something that so captivates our attention and energy that we neglect those we love and cease doing what is our duty. We need to be vigilant and alert because the results of technology, that is, computers, iPhones, iPads, etcetera, and the availability of instant pornography can so easily become substitutes for Jesus Christ the Lord.
We need to be reminded daily that Jesus stands before us, asking that second question: “Who do you say that I am?” And daily we need to respond. One concrete and tangible way is to make a Morning Offering as soon as we are fully awake and begin our day. Such a morning offering helps us offer to the Lord all that we shall think, say and do during the day just beginning for us: all of it, however ordinary and mundane it may seem. Such an offering affirms that Jesus Christ is first and that all we are and have are given over to Him as a lived prayer. We can make such a morning offering using our own words, or words proposed to us, like the text given us by the Apostleship of Prayer.
Today, earlier in Rome, Pope Francis officially proclaimed as a saint a women who knew that Jesus was first, who was unofficially proclaimed “saint” for many years, even during her life: Mother Teresa of Calcutta now Saint Teresa of Calcutta - the name has been changed to Kolkata. For many among us, her life story is already known. Born in Macedonia in 1910, she entered the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, professing first vows in 1931, while she was missioned in India and where she was both teacher and principal. In 1946, she heard an inner call from Jesus to go to the poorest of the poor: “My little one, come - come - carry Me into the holes of the poor - Come be my light - I cannot go alone - they don't know Me - so they don't want Me - you come - go amongst them, carry Me with you into them - How I long to enter their holes - therein dark unhappy homes” (cf. Jesus Is My All In All, p. 1 and 2). Sister Teresa soon founded the Missionaries of Charity dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor. On June 1, 1982, Mother Teresa stood at this very pulpit briefly addressing the congregation, and then, downstairs in Burke Hall, she addressed religious sisters, permanent deacons and their wives, and priests.
Mother Teresa grasped Who Jesus Christ is, the center of her life, the core of her heart, her very life. Indeed, she often said: “Jesus is my all in all.” Yes, she left family and friends to bring Jesus to people in India, first through education, and then through works of charity. She heard: “Who do you say that I am?” Her entire life was a response to Him in daily prayer and adoration; she clung to Him, even in long periods of interior darkness when she no longer felt His presence. In reaching out to the most needy, she embraced Him: disfigured, wounded, at times unrecognizable, but still she knew that He had identified with each and He was present before her in them. As her health declined, she continued clinging to Him, Jesus, even to her death. Perhaps, her most memorable quote is: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one's neighbor who lives at the roadside, assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty, and disease.”
Yes, Mother - now Saint Teresa of Kolkata - is a model of God's mercy, which she experienced even in the darkness, when His mercy was her unseen support, and which she made tangible and felt by her embracing the poorest of the poor, whatever their condition.
Are we open to God's mercy made visible in Jesus Christ, who asks us daily: “Who do you say that I am?” Are we transmitting His mercy to others, beginning with our family?
Our question is not: “Who do you think you are?” but rather - in response to His: “Who do you say that I am?” we pray with Saint Teresa, “Jesus, You are my all in all. Jesus I trust in You. Amen!”