Monday, October 4, 2010

Homily - Respect Life Sunday

Here's the homily I preached at the Cathedral this weekend:

On this Respect Life Sunday, I invite you to consider how many ways the devil tempts us to devalue human life. We probably think first of truly grave evils, like abortion and euthanasia; and rightly so. These are diabolical things. The devil certainly uses fear or anger or despair as weapons to keep a mother from loving the new life in her womb. He uses greed or even misplaced compassion to prevent the terminally ill, and their families, from choosing to love the suffering Christ shares with them.

But the devil also works in more subtle ways. Every day, he tries to convince us that other goods, other divine gifts, are more valuable than a human life. If we think like this, that the ends justify the means, we won’t easily recognize some of our own sins. We will be unprofitable servants, unable to ask God to forgive our much smaller attacks on the dignity of life, such as taking God’s name in vain, cursing at the driver who cuts us off, or taking our loved ones for granted.

Since this is Respect Life Sunday, let’s think about this more deeply. First of all, let’s hold firmly to the truth that the divine gift of life is a fundamental good. Consider that God cannot give us any other good, even the greatest possible good of final salvation, unless He’s already given us life in this world. This is why we say that each human life is sacred. From the moment of conception, each person is unique and irreplaceable in God’s love, and in His plan of salvation.

But, if life itself were not a great gift, then it would be right to sacrifice precious lives for these other goods, both literally and metaphorically. Not only would the appalling crimes of abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research be justified. But also, in the same way, to justify the means is to justify many other crimes against human dignity. Respect for the sanctity of human life is slowly eroded, until eventually, it has no value at all. In the end, this diabolical lie always leads, not only to murder and slavery, but also to every kind of callous and hard-hearted contempt for others every day.

In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk denounces these consequences – both the great and the small – as intolerable violence. This denunciation is God’s own word, which God gives to Habakkuk for Israel, and for the whole world. From the beginning, God wills life and hope together. Violence against human dignity therefore attacks not only life, but also hope.

But without hope, what becomes of our faith? If other gifts were more valuable than life, would God become man for us? If our lives were such paltry and contemptible things, would God be willing to die for us? The more we believe this lie, the less we can believe in the Incarnation or the Cross or the Resurrection. If we disregard the sanctity of life, we reject both hope and faith.

We heard the echo of this confusion in our responsorial psalm. Psalm 95 says, “Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness, when at Meriba and Massah they challenged me and provoked me, although they had seen all of my works.” The greatest of all God’s works in the Old Testament – namely, the Passover in Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea – happened only three days before the Israelites reached Meriba. Only three days!! And already they were grumbling about what they had left behind.

But God responds to His people’s sins with generous grace. At Meriba, He gave Moses the miracle of using a piece of wood to freshen the salt water for them to drink. This foreshadows the Cross. At Massah, He first provided quail and manna. This foreshadows the Eucharist. He also brought forth water from solid rock. This foreshadows baptism. Every time we turn against God, He calls us back to hope and faith.

In the light of faith, no lie can hide. We know that life is good, even given the reality of sin and suffering. We know that life is a divine gift, and that we must treasure this gift by treating every human being with the same respect, regardless of their age, their productivity, or the functioning of their mind. From natural conception to natural death, God wills only our good, and provides all the good things of His creation to strengthen and nourish us. And spiritually, we know that God wills not the death of the sinner, and provides us in His Church every means of grace, and every opportunity to repent of our sins, so that we may receive the eternal life He wants to give us.

To have strong faith, then, means both to know and love Jesus Christ, and to live publicly according to His promises. We are still imperfect, still sinners in this life, but we come to this Holy Mass to become more perfect, to receive His healing. We want to give ourselves more fully to Christ, and to help satisfy His thirst for souls. We hope and believe in the power of grace to overcome our sins. We trust that following Jesus with living faith will make our lives, and the lives of others, more joyful. We believe enough to act for that longed-for perfection.

Acting for that perfection means respecting the dignity and sanctity of every human life – not only on the most grievous and urgent issues of our day, but also on the daily sins of anger, spite, and contempt. When we succumb to temptation in little things, we make ourselves less trustworthy in great things. Therefore we seek forgiveness and conversion. We strive to respect life even in little ways, so that we can change the world’s more fundamental disrespect for life.

In the second reading, St. Paul tells us not to believe like cowards. He says, “Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord…; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Our Lord Jesus Christ entrusted His testimony to sinners and tax collectors. We don’t have to be perfect in order to stand with Him in defense of life and dignity. He takes us as we are, and He heals us with His grace.

But we do have to have courage. It takes courage, for example, to join 40 Days for Life, or Right to Life, or even in private to pray the Rosary for an end to abortion. It takes courage to refuse that extra dose of morphine, which might end a loved one’s suffering a few days before God wills it. It takes courage to unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ crucified. But it also takes courage to ask our neighbor for forgiveness when we’ve wronged them. It takes great courage to go to Confession, and ask God to forgive us.

Fidelity to the Gospel will cost us in this life. But listen to Moses and Habakkuk and Paul, and to all the saints, who say: “Christ has already paid that cost for us!” This is the strength of our faith. This is why we can hope, despite suffering and death, and even despite our own sins. This is why we have the courage to imagine a world without the intolerable violence of abortion or euthanasia; and the still greater courage to imagine ourselves without sin. “For what is seen is still distant, it will appear in the end and will not lie. If it delays, hope for it. What is coming is coming, and it will not be late.”

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