Homily: 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Rediscovering Catholic Identity
Ezra the priest, from our first reading, was a descendant of those Israelites who had been carried away into exile by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. For over a hundred years, Jews had lived and worked in Babylon, cut off from their traditions, their history, their rituals, their stories, and their worship. A generation of Jews was growing up without knowing about God freeing their people from slavery in Egypt, they grew up without known the promises God made to Abraham, without the knowledge of the ten commandments or the promised land. They grew up only knowing the gods and practices of Babylon– a culture which practiced child sacrifice, polygamy, and other behaviors condemned by Jewish law.
Imagine if your children or grandchildren knew nothing about their family histories, knew nothing about their heritage, in fact, they had adopted practices which were exactly opposite of the truths of their faith. In a way, not knowing their history, not knowing their faith, you would say, that they did not know themselves.
While in captivity, some like Ezra the priest strove to keep alive knowledge of the Jewish faith and culture—but most of his fellow Jews had become assimilated by the surrounding culture.
The Babylonian King Artaxerxes allowed Ezra and Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and what they found broke their hearts. They found Jerusalem, the once great capital, a wreck–her walls breached and knocked down, the great temple destroyed. They wept.
Their hearts had been broken by this terrible falling away, so they endeavored to rebuild. Nehemiah launched a campaign to rebuild the temple and Ezra the priest endeavored to reeducate the people who had grown ignorant of their history, of their traditions, rituals and practices to teach the people who they were, their identity, and the laws of the faith which enabled them to be the people God had chosen them to be.
So as we heard, Ezra gathered the men, and women, and children, and read to them from the Torah. He stood, on a raised platform in the rebuilt Temple, and from morning until midday read the Torah, from beginning to end: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Levitcus, and Deuteronomy. Hours and hours the men, women, and children listened to their story, their family history, the laws which God had given them; they discovered who there were. They raised their hands in the air, and proclaimed, “Amen, Amen”.
They were hungry for meaning. They were hungry for an identity, and God, through the priest Ezra, taught them, once again, their identity. And they bowed down to the ground and wept discovering who they were for the first time. They were not captives, they were not Babylonians, they were the people chosen by God to manifest his greatness.
Now, that’s some nice ancient history, isn’t it? Yet, is this really just a story about freed Jewish captives twenty-five hundred years ago?
This dramatic scene reminds us of our mission to drill into our children who they are, to form them according to the laws of Jesus Christ lest they be formed in the laws and ways of the culture. And we our reminded of our mission to reach out to those who have become captivated by entertainment-on-demand, pleasure-on-demand, culture, with its materialism and selfishness and self-concern, those who have fallen into ignorance of their faith, and to call them home.
What a unique and wonderful mission to work for the spread of the Gospel and building up of the Church in a such a challenging time in human history. God chose you and me to spread the Gospel in this 21stChristian century with all of its challenges and obstacles. Spreading the Gospel is not somebody else’s job, it’s not just the job of bishops and missionaries, it’s your job, your mission, to reeducate, to reinstill, to re-conciliate—to reconcile—the ignorant to God and to remind the fallen away who they are meant to be.
So many of our own families have drifted into a sort of Babylonian exile, largely assimilating themselves to the surrounding secular culture. In meeting with couples for marriage preparation I am a little heartbroken that people who had attended 12 years of Catholic school or more are now living with each other before marriage and haven’t been to Mass since their Confirmation, and disagree with the Church’s moral teachings. But, marriage preparation can also be a blessing for rediscovering faith and how God is working in their lives to prepare them for forming a holy and happy family.
But I emphasize to them the importance of Sunday Mass. For over 75% of Catholics are not coming to Mass every week. The great rituals of our Catholic faith are meant to shape us. The hear of the Word of God proclaimed in the community of faith, and celebrating the Eucharist is meant to shape us. And when we don’t come to Mass, you can be sure that the forces of our culture are filling that empty space. The values of Hollywood and the morality of pop music fill the emptiness, and malform entire generations. Mass is so important. Not just because we give God the worship that is owed to Him, but because this is where he forms us, and feeds us, and sends us out.
Sadder yet, I’ve even been to some Catholic parishes where the Mass was barely recognizable as Roman Catholic ritual, and sacred music had been replaced by childish and theologically deficient rock music. I think one of the errors of the 70s and 80s which still has some effect was the belief that the Church had to make itself look like the world, in order to attract the world to the Church. Rather, the opposite is true, the Mass celebrated according to the mind of the Church including sacred music of a timeless nature, offers a peace and an encounter with the Lord, a peace which the world cannot give . And so even the Church continues to reform herself, that she can strive to be faithful to her liturgical heritage—in continuity with the way the she has worshiped for two thousand years.
Saint Paul said “conform yourself not to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind and by the knowledge of what is good and pleasing” to the Lord.
What a perfect message for this Year of Faith, and what a perfect message as we begin Catholic Schools week. That the purpose of all Catholic education is not to form young minds in conformity with the world, but to shape according to the mind of the Church.
In the end it was never the noisy distractions of the culture which could satisfy our deepest longings, but the encounter with Christ through his word, through his sacraments, through prayer, through service of the poor. May we continue to be renewed in spirit, that we may be equipped for the work of building up the Church, instructing the ignorant, reconciling the fallen away, for the glory of God and salvation of souls.