Monday, May 29, 2017

"Zeal for thy house will consume me"

St. Paul at the Areopagus (Raphael, c. 1515)
[Homily preached at St. Andrew's Catholic Church on May 24, 2017, at a Mass in honor of the transitional deacon candidates of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.]

“Almighty God …
You grant that the Church, his body,
adorned with manifold heavenly graces,
drawn together in the diversity of its members,
and united by a wondrous bond through the Holy Spirit, should grow and spread forth
to build up a new temple
and, as once you chose the sons of Levi
to minister in the former tabernacle,
so now you establish three ranks of ministers
in their sacred offices to serve in your name.”

This is from the Prayer of Consecration of the Rite of Ordination of a Deacon, which Archbishop Gregory will be praying over y’all, brothers, in just a few days.  

The triple rank of Holy Orders in the New Covenant is foreshadowed by the choosing of the sons of Levi to minister in the tabernacle of the old Covenant. Deacons are often referred to as Levites in the liturgical books … for instance in the Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, which perhaps some of you might be chanting next year, he calls himself an unworthy member of the tribe of Levi.
So this got me thinking – what is it about the tribe of Levi that it received this particular honor and blessing? There was already a priesthood, from Aaron … why the Levites? In Deuteronomy, when Moses is blessing the twelve tribes, of Levi he says, "Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Mer'ibah; who said of his father and mother, 'I regard them not'; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed thy word, and kept thy covenant.” (Deut. 33:8)

Levi, who regarded not his father and his mother, and disowned his brothers and ignored his children.

When Moses came down from the Mountain and found the people worshipping the Golden Calf (fashioned by his own brother Aaron!), he asked for help in carrying out God’s punishment on the people impartially, disinterestedly, without consideration of kith or kin. And it was the tribe of Levi that answered that call.

“And Moses said, "Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day.” (Ex. 32:29)

At the cost of his son and brother … ! It was zeal for the Lord that caused the sons of Levi to answer the Lord’s call, even setting aside the particularly powerful attachment of family bonds!

Zeal for the Lord. “An earnest desire for God’s honor, leading to strenuous and bold deeds on his behalf, and that in spite of every obstacle,” is how Blessed John Henry Newman describes it.

And while one can say that the heart of the virtue of religion consists in loving God above all things, it is the special quality of zeal that seeks to magnify the Lord, to defend his honor, and to love Him above all men, even one’s closest friends and relations.

We see this in the blessing bestowed on Levi. We see it in what the Lord says to Moses of Phineas, after he executes judgment on straying Israelites – it was his zeal for the Lord that gives him and his descendants an everlasting priesthood. (Numbers 25:12-13)

It seems, writes Bl. Newman, that zeal is the very consecration of ministers to their office!  And so, Our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, manifests his ministry with two acts of zeal. First, at the age of 12 He stays back in the temple, seemingly disregarding His earthly family, in order to be about the business of His Father. “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” And at the beginning of His public ministry, in the Gospel of John, He drives out the money changers from the Temple with a cord of ropes … “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” St. John says that later his apostles recall the words of Ps. 69 being enacted powerfully in front of them.

It is a zeal for the Lord that has brought you, dear brothers, to this juncture, where, forsaking family, forsaking all, you are about to give yourself away to Him, for His sake, and in that love for Him, for His Bride the Church.

We need this zeal. We so need it.

It is this zeal for the Lord that becomes a zeal for souls that we see in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, as St. Paul preaches boldly, unabashedly, in the face of curiosity, mockery and insult, the Good News, to the Areopagus in Athens.

“God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent, because he has established a day on which he will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, NAB)

The world needs this zeal for the Lord!

One just has to look at the news reports of the past few days to realize just how much the world needs zealous souls who hunger to proclaim Good News.

And I don’t have to remind y’all that your generation, the much commented upon and often derided millennials, barely engage in the life of the Church. Maybe 10 or 12% of baptized Catholics who are millennials, are involved in any way in life of the Church. One third of all baptized Catholics, if that, take part in the life of the Church. We see it very simply when we compare the number of those registered with those who show up for Sunday Mass. We have, what, some 1800 families registered here at St. Andrew’s, Fr. Dan? But we don’t see those many souls on a Sunday. Maybe 1300 or 1400 at all our Masses. May 2000 or 2200 at Easter, or a First Communion! And while many in our society profess belief in God, they might say they are spiritual and not religious – i.e. they want the comforts of belief without any of the demands, a God made in their own image --- and across the board, there is a sense of decline in Christianity in our land.

We need this zeal, brothers! A zeal for the Lord, for souls, which asks, as Fr. George Rutler, pastor of Holy Innocents in New York put it, not how many Catholics are in his parish, but how many Catholics will there be in my parish!

Zeal, however, has a bad reputation in our time. It did also over a hundred and fifty years ago in Bl John Henry Newman’s times.

“It is the present fashion to call Zeal by the name of intolerance, and to account intolerance the chief of sins; that is, any earnestness for one opinion above another concerning God’s nature, will, and dealings with man,—or, in other words, any earnestness for the Faith once delivered to the Saints, any earnestness for Revelation as such. Surely, in this sense, the Apostles were the most intolerant of men: what is it but intolerance in this sense of the word to declare, that “he that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life!”

In this sense, brothers, be intolerant.

Intolerant of bad ideas, and of error, sticking with zeal to the Word of God, in season and out, staying close to the Church, to her doctrine, and to the very Lord Himself who has called you. Love all people – none of us is free of error, or doesn’t need to learn. The Church possesses the fullness of the truth, but I don’t, and my brother priests here will eagerly tell me when I am in the wrong! But strive with all your mind to pursue truth, to accept it, and to conform your life to it, and to teach it, in love, to a people who longs for the food that fills and satisfies and leads to eternal life. For the One who sends you, His food is the will of His Heavenly Father.

Zeal, however, warns Bl. Newman, needs to be tempered. It was an intemperate zeal that led St. Peter to cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest, Malchus, when they came to arrest the Lord. It was zeal that led the sons of Zebedee to ask Him if they should call down fire from heaven on unrepentant Samaria.

Zeal must be tempered with love, with charity, that love of God that loves all people. Remember they are created in the image and likeness of God, of infinite worth, and for whom Christ shed His Most Precious Blood. But zeal also must be tempered with faith. Faith that in God’s providence, He permits on our pilgrim path, the weeds as well as the wheat. Faith that waits for God to act, and ever alert for compromise with the world, looks to the Lord attentively, like the eyes of servant on his master, of a hand maid on her mistress, looking to the Lord till He show us His mercy (Ps. 123).

Bl. Newman continues, “Christian Zeal, therefore, ever bears in mind that the Mystery of Iniquity is to continue on till the Avenger solves it once for all; it renounces all hope of hastening His coming, all desire of intruding upon His work. It has no vain imaginings about the world’s real conversion to Him, however men may acknowledge Him outwardly, knowing that “the world lies in wickedness.”

It is this obedience of faith, especially, obedience to the Lord, to His will, that tempers zeal, and leads it to serve the Gospel more perfectly.

We need this zeal.

We need this zeal to counteract the ever present temptations to mediocrity, to settling, to conforming ourselves to the world. I see this in myself, barely four years out of seminary. And the ever present desire to escape the present and imagine perfect scenarios where everything is according to my taste, when I’m finally in charge. Ignoring the Lord’s presence here and now. The Lord is present, and alive and powerful here and now, and He loves us now, and leads us, if only we trust Him, and follow Him …

This morning we laid to rest two priests, Fr. Terry Kane and Msgr. Leo Herbert, of that great generation of priests that the Emerald Isle sent out and that built up the Church in Atlanta over the past fifty years …

.. and on Saturday we’ll ordain 4 deacons. A month later, two new priests …  –and, God willing, five priests next year – and then more to come, please God!

I have often said, and my brother priests here have corroborated this, that every time I have spent time with our seminarians, I come away with a feeling of awe. Lord, how on earth do we get these men? Such good men? How do we deserve this? This is truly your gift, and I am moved to silence, and gratitude.

Your zeal, your eagerness, your love for the Lord and for the Church are a gift to me, dear brothers, to this presbyterate, and to this local Church.

May zeal for the Lord’s house consume you and me, so that forsaking all, we love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves, and continue, as He gives the grace, to lay down our lives for our Bride, the Church, to lead a great harvest of souls to that Blessed Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

No comments: