Third Sunday of Lent (A)
Psalm 94: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8
March 15, 2009
Cathedral of the Holy Family
Mercies Ever New
Today’s Mass offers such a richness of images that a preacher hardly knows where to begin. This is one reason why the Church, in her wisdom, repeats the same texts and exposes our souls to the same images, year after year. The liturgy, even when it repeats the same words and gestures, is always new. The prophet Jeremiah says that, “the mercies of the Lord are new every morning” (Lam 3:23). And where do we receive those mercies ever-new most abundantly, if not from the altar in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
In the First Reading we hear of a people grown weary and irritable: delivered out of oppression in Egypt, they found themselves trudging through the wilderness, a desolate place without water. Three things make people irritable: lack of sleep, lack of food, and lack of drink. In this case, their irritation turns to hostility. They murmur against Moses, their hero, their leader, their liberator. His approval ratings plunge. He is blamed for everything that has gone wrong.
Moses, the Friend of God
Moses, for his part, was only doing what God had told him to do. Moses, in spite of a checkered past — you will recall that, as a young man, he murdered an Egyptian and then hid his body in the sand — has become God’s obedient servant. Even more, he has become God’s friend. We read in Exodus 33:11 that “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man is wont to speak to his friend.” And Moses — in spite of his ongoing struggle with anger management — has become, according to Numbers 12:3, “exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth.”
Moses Cries to God
Moses turns to God in prayer. Note that the passage in question says that he “cried to the Lord” (Ex 17:4). This gives us an idea of the honesty and intensity of his prayer. The Lord answered his cry: He instructed Moses to strike the rock with his rod (the symbol of his authority). Thus were the people give an abundance of living water gushing from the rock.
Contention and Fault-Finding
Moses, nonetheless, wanted to mark the spot as a place of contention and fault-finding. And so he called it Massah and Meribah because there the people put God to the test by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The Passion of Christ and the Priest
There is not a single priest, from the Holy Father himself down to the lowliest pastor of souls in the poorest and most obscure of parishes, who has not, in some way, experienced what Moses did. When one represents Christ, one must expect to be blamed for the things that go wrong. One becomes a scapegoat, the target of bitter criticisms, and the object of all sorts of hostilities. This kind of suffering is intrinsic to the priestly vocation. How can the priest act “in the person of Christ” without sharing in His Passion, without being forced to cry to the Father, saying as did Moses, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Ex 17:4).
The Holy Father’s Letter
Last Tuesday, March 10th, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a letter to the Bishops of the world in which he expressed, with profound humility, the suffering caused him by the criticisms, hostility, and murmuring directed at him from all sides in the wake of his decision to reconcile four illicitly consecrated bishops to the Church. I can almost see the Holy Father kneeling in his private chapel, asking the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Ex 17:4). In our day, of course, stoning assumes a more sophisticated but no less lethal form. The projectiles are launched primarily by the media.
Allow me, for a moment, to quote from the Holy Father’s letter: “At times,” he says, “one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.”
Unity in Charity
In the prevailing social and political climate, it is more than ever necessary to remain united in charity to the leaders set over us by God: the lay faithful to their deacons and priests; deacons and priests to their bishops; and bishops to the Holy Father. Those who shepherd us in the name of Christ and with His Heart will always experience weariness, rejection, and moral suffering, but these things become easier to bear when the family of the Church is a reconciled family, one in which pardon is readily given and received, one in which unity is the fruit of sacrificial love.
The Weariness of Jesus
Moving now to the Gospel, I should like to call your attention to the weariness of Our Lord. Saint John makes a point of saying that, “Jesus, wearied as He was with His journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (Jn 4:6). The image is profoundly moving: the weariness of a wayfaring Jesus. Not for nothing does the liturgy present us with it on the Third Sunday of Lent. We are at the midpoint of our own Lenten journey and susceptible, all of us, to a certain weariness.
This particular Gospel of the weary, wayfaring Christ reminds us that the journey of God towards us precedes even our first step towards Him. God desires us before we begin to desire Him. God looks for us before we begin to look for Him. God thirsts for us before we begin to thirst for Him.
The Sixth Hour
Saint John adds a significant detail to his description of the weary, wayfaring Jesus, seated by the well. He says, “It was about the sixth hour” (Jn 4:6). For us to hear the full resonance of this little phrase, we have to turn the pages of Saint John’s Gospel until we come to the crucifixion of Jesus in Chapter 19. There we read, “Now it was the Day of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour.” The sixth hour sees Jesus “lifted up from the earth to draw all men to Himself” (Jn 12:32). After a three hour agony, the crucified Jesus reveals the thirst of man for God, and the thirst of God for man. “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), ‘I thirst'” (Jn 19:28).
Thirst Divine and Human
This mystery too — God’s thirst for man, and man’s thirst for God — is integral to the life of every priest, to the life of our own Bishop, and to the life of the Holy Father. When the priest stands at the altar facing God, he bears within himself the spiritual thirst of every soul entrusted to his care. He presents that thirst to God; he offers his own heart as an empty chalice waiting to be filled by a spring of living water. And when the priest, turns from the altar to face the people, he bears within himself God’s thirst for each one of you. So often as the priest turns to face you, he represents the Eternal High Priest who, from the Cross, said, “I thirst.” And the thirst of the Crucified is for you: for your faith, for your hope, and above all, for your love.
The Sacrament That Quenches Every Thirst
Every Mass is a singular opportunity for you to quench the thirst of God. And every Mass is the mystery of Moses’ striking the rock fulfilled, for in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the side of Jesus is opened by the soldier’s lance. A torrent of Blood and of Water gush out to fill the chalice . . . and you, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion taste of that living stream that alone can quench the heart’s most burning thirsts.
A word to those of you who are here for the Scrutinies, preparing to be received into the Church in the holy and glorious night of Pascha: live well these remaining weeks of Lent. Meditate the thirst of the Crucified. He thirsts for a drink that only you can give him, a drink drawn not out of a well, but out of the depths of your soul. And thirst for God. Feel that thirst; it is a blessing. You will be given to drink in proportion to your thirst. Pray with the psalmist the very words that we will sing at the Easter Vigil: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. As a deer longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, O God” (Ps 41:2-3).
God’s Desire From the Beginning
And to those here who were baptized and confirmed and received their First Holy Communion ten or twenty or thirty, or fifty, or sixty, or seventy or more years ago, I say, never lose your thirst for God. He has never lost His thirst for you. Approach the Holy Mysteries yearning for the Gift of God, the living water promised by Our Lord to the woman at the well. You will not be disappointed. And God, Who thirsts for you, will find in you the “adorers in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24) that He has desired from the beginning.