On Saturday, March 31, approximately 900 men from our diocese attended the 11th annual IGNITE Conference at the SRC Arena and Events Center. It was a fine day that nourished the hearts and minds of the dedicated, faith-filled men who participated. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
Your theme for this year’s conference immediately caught my attention. “Exalt” is derived from Latin exaltare, meaning to raise or to elevate. Glorify, laud, magnify, and acclaim are fitting synonyms. How happy I am to be with you today for the 11th annual IGNITE Conference, where together we acclaim God’s mercy: “O, God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The readings today give us insight into human nature and the divine nature. We learn something about ourselves and something about God. In the first reading, the prophet Hosea refers to Israel’s inclination to be lackadaisical or halfhearted in their fidelity to the covenant. “Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that passes away” (Ho 6:4).
The Gospel draws our attention to the Pharisee who glories in his goodness. In his self-righteousness he is self-satisfied, haughty, and hypocritical. Admittedly the Pharisee follows the Jewish Law and does good things. He fasts twice a week, pays tithes on his income, and avoids greed, dishonesty, and adultery. However, he gives himself all the credit for his good actions and harshly judges the publican, a tax collector and supposed sinner. In his prayer, the Pharisee exalts himself: “Thank God I am not like the rest of humanity” (Lk 18:11).
What do the readings tell us about God? Hosea calls the Chosen People to “return to the Lord.” He tells them God will “heal them,” He will “bind up their wounds” and “raise them up to live in his presence” (Cf. Ho 6:1-3). In the face of the peoples’ “on again, off again” approach to their covenant responsibilities, God is consistent. If the people repent, He welcomes them back from their sinful ways. “As certain as the dawn is coming… He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth” (Ho 6:3). As the spring rains give life to barren, thirsty land, God restores life to Israel when she is truly repentant.
God’s judgments are not ours. They often are unexpected and a surprise to our way of judging. “What might be the most challenging part of today’s parable is that Jesus makes the despised tax collector the good, humble guy. He is one in a long line of unexpected heroes in the Gospels” (Give us This Day, Michael Jordan Laskey, March 30, 2019).
Lent is time for each of us to do a “reality check.” Are we lackadaisical or halfhearted in our efforts to follow Christ? Are we consistent in our efforts to imitate Christ and follow the pattern of His life? Are we “on again and off again” in our efforts to know our faith, live it, and share it with others? To whom do we attribute our good actions? Are they the fruit solely of our efforts? Do we fall into the trap of self-righteousness, “using the moral bankruptcy of celebrities or politicians to excuse our not-as-bad habits” (Give us This Day, March 30, 2019)?
All of us stray from the Lord from time to time. Rather than walking at His side we may lag a bit here and there and the distance between the Lord and us widens. Lent is a time for conversion. We need to turn away from what distracts us and takes us away from the Lord. We need to refresh our spirit, to rekindle our desire to be a faithful disciple. But there is more. This turning away, this rekindling of desire must be followed with actions that demonstrate that we have had a change of mind and heart. When we are truly Christ-centered and Christ-focused we live differently.
One of my favorite Gospel parables is the Prodigal Son. Both sons and the father have something to teach us. But let’s think about the father for a moment. Picture him every day looking down the road, hoping to see the wayward son and eager to welcome him home. This is what God does for us. He waits for us to return to the warm embrace of His love. He waits to give us His mercy and the peace that flows from it.
“God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (Cf. Ez 37:1-14). . . . Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish” (Pope Francis, Urbi et Orbi Message, March 31, 2013). God never tires of waiting for us to return to Him.
In your efforts to return to the Lord, it is important to accept the truth of who you are and this includes your need always for God’s grace. It is He who will stir your heart to return to Him, to reach out for and accept His mercy. Take the publican as your model. He lingers a distance from the temple and recognizes the truth of who he is: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). Following this admission the Gospel says, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). Ignited by the fire of God’s mercy, let us go forth proclaiming God’s everlasting mercy. We are grateful that in return Jesus’ words to the publican apply to us as well: “Oh God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you the latter went home justified… for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14).
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.