Sunday, February 16, 2014

6th Sunday Ordinary Time Year A: Blessed Are They Who Follow the Law of the Lord


A more succinct version, outside of YouTube, here:


My Canon Law professor at the seminary, Msgr. Fulton, had a way of teaching Church law that made us actually enjoy learning it; he made it a joy to know the law and to help others to know it too. In his great sense of humor he helped us realize that the law of the Church, which is a reflection of the law of the Lord, should be taught and learned and followed with joy and from the heart. The law is not intended to be something that embitters us. The law is not meant to be followed with white-knuckled anxiety or with demands that are impossible to meet. Laws, when they are just, do not bind up… they set free.

Now, we all bristle under the law every now and then – whether it’s that speeding ticket for going 5 miles over the speed limit or that sudden realization that it’s a Friday in Lent right before you bite into a steak. This is nothing though compared to what the Israelites felt in Biblical times under scrutiny of the scribes and Pharisees. The 10 commandments, as awesome as they are, were ultimately national laws for public observance. Breaking one of the 10 commandments brought grave punishments. And on top of these were the hundreds of other laws that governed almost every aspect of their way of life. But, these laws were ultimately good because they separated the Israelites from the influences of their pagan neighbors, they set the standard for exhibiting a right relationship with God, and they defined them as God’s chosen people. Through their many laws, God prepared them for a New Covenant in Jesus Christ that would inscribe the law of God on their hearts and give them deeper meaning.

But, the scribes and Pharisees missed the point. Rather than accept Jesus who fulfilled, completed, perfected, and transformed the law into the means of their salvation, they held on to the old laws and based their salvation on strictly observing their “smallest letter.” Thank God we don’t have the same burdens placed on us. With Jesus and his grace, the law can be light and heartfelt. “My yoke is easy,” He said, “my burden light” (Mt 11:30).

The law is easy and light if we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just with our external observances. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever” (Jn 14:15). We are given grace and the Holy Spirit to help us even to love the law. Through what else but the spirit of God was the psalmist able to pray, “Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law. Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them. Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps 119). We have to believe that this is possible for us too.

Let’s take for a couple of examples, the 5th and 6th commandments, “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery”. None of us personally needs the law “You shall not kill.” We can say we are free of the demands of that law. But Jesus wants us to go deeper. What about the anger in our hearts that kills our relationship with our parents, or our siblings, or our coworkers? What about the lack of patience with ourselves that we cannot let go of or the revenge that we secretly desire every time we are offended?

“You shall not commit adultery” – now that one is particularly challenging. “Whoever looks at a woman with lust,” Jesus says today, “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And “whoever divorces his wife,” he continues, “causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:27, 32). Still, most of you who are married do not need that law either – when you exchanged your consent on your wedding day you intended fully to be exclusively faithful to each other for the rest of your lives and to be open to children. You should be very proud of the covenant you have kept in your marriage.

But, let’s go deeper. Perhaps for some, this hasn’t been so easy. Perhaps through a build-up of small and bad choices along the way, what was a good and valid marriage has become broken and torn asunder. Perhaps there are some that have chosen divorce or that have followed that with remarriage outside of the Church. Perhaps there are some that have had divorce inflicted on them, through no fault of their own. It is in these situations that the law can be hard, that the yoke is not easy, and the burden is not light. But, even in these situations, as unbelievable as it may seem, God is offering the help needed to do the right thing or to receive healing. Come to me and let me help you sort through the many layers of the problem. I can also help you to receive the advice of the Archdiocese’s tribunal to help you understand exactly where you stand. There are a lot of myths about annulments that I can help you to expel. Or I can refer you to a marriage healing retreat or a good Catholic marriage counselor.

Before I conclude, allow me to address a common misconception: divorce in and of itself doesn’t bar one from Communion. Divorce and remarriage outside of the Church does make one unable to receive Communion because of the persistent sinfulness of that second union. But, it is important to remember that neither of these makes one excommunicated from the Church. Furthermore, the Sunday obligation is to the Mass, not necessarily to Holy Communion. There are all sorts of reasons why someone may not be able to receive Communion, either from having committed a mortal sin between the time of his last confession and this Mass or from simply having broken the one hour fast before Communion.

The point is, divorced and remarried Catholics can still benefit greatly from the prayers of the Mass, from the readings and the homily, and from having companions in prayer. These along with fellowship in the myriad of activities in the life of the parish can be the help they need toward advancing to a more perfect obedience of the Lord’s commands, to a more perfect love and to healing. This is something, frankly, that we should all work toward together, reaching out and helping each other along the way. Even the most difficult laws of the Church can be followed with ease if we take the risk of giving our hearts to each other and to God and allowing Him to place in us His Sacred Heart, a heart that beats with love, mercy, forgiveness, purity, and strength. Today, let us all take courage from the wisdom of Sirach: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water [life and death, good and evil]; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand” (Sir 15:15-16).

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