Fr. Bryan Howard
4thSunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 3 February 2019
In one of the most famous and well-known passages in the Bible, St. Paul describes love in these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Love is at the very center of Christianity. After all, St. John in his first epistle says that God is love and that anyone who does not love does not know God. Those who love much are close to God, and those who fail to love are far away from God. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus describes the judgement after the second coming in terms of love, saying that those who will go to heaven are those who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. In other words, those who care for those who are most in need are doing the work of God.
When we look at the world around us it’s hard to take St. Paul’s claim that “Love never fails” seriously. There is hate, violence, selfishness, greed, and suffering all around us, and often even in our own hearts. In our more cynical moments we may think that St. Paul should have said, “Love often fails,” or “Love usually fails.” So, what does St. Paul mean? I think he means, first of all that choosing love is always the right thing to do, that no one can take God’s love from us, and that God is constantly offering us His love.
Love is always the right choice. The moral life is about making choices. God could have taken those choices away, made us always choose the right thing, but that wouldn’t be real love. Genuine love always comes from a choice to choose the good of another rather than your own good, especially when it costs you something. And deep down we know that’s true. We wish that we would always make the right choices; that we would always choose to exercise patience, kindness, generosity, courage, and gentleness. We know that it’s more important to be a good person than to be thought of as a good person. We sometimes get confused about what the right choice is and in those circumstances it’s important to go to God. If you have the time, it’s best to wait, spend some time in prayer, and ask God to give you guidance. If you have to make a choice right away, think about what God is asking you to do in this moment.
The best way to prepare for those moments is to have a well-formed conscience. Our conscience is the voice of reason inside of us that urges us to do the right thing and accuses us when we’ve done the wrong thing. You may hear people say that anything is okay as long as you follow your conscience. Well, many of the Nazis truly believed that what they were doing was for the greater good, does that make it okay? Or how about the Spanish Inquisition? Many of those people believed that they were protecting the Church, did that make it okay to torture confessions out of people? We have a moral responsibility to train our consciences to know what is truly wrong and what is truly right and to recognize good and evil. We’re experts at convincing ourselves that what we want to do is right, so we have to learn to be honest with ourselves about our own motivations. Everyone commits sins, but let’s never lie to ourselves about why we’re doing it.
Once we’ve formed strong consciences and trained ourselves to choose the good, then we can be confident that no one can take that away from us against our will. Mind control is science fiction. People may be able to influence your choices, but only you control what you choose. Even in the most dire circumstances, you are always able to choose the good. St. Paul tells us that neither danger, nor distress, persecution, hunger, or the sword can separate us from the love of God. Only sin, only our own free choice to act against God, can separate us from the love of God. Let us ask God to give us the strength that He gave to the prophet Jeremiah, recorded in our first reading today. That he may help us to stand against everything in society drawing us away from God and make us “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.”
It should give us great hope that God’s love never fails. Even in our sin and weakness, even when we do fall away from Him, God’s love for us never fails. He is always calling out to us, always calling us back to Himself, and always ready to forgive those who come to Him in penitence. If Jesus could look down from the cross upon the very people who put Him there, upon the Roman soldiers, upon the Jewish leaders and people, and, with great effort lifting Himself on the nails driven through His feet and wrists to draw a breath, ask God to forgive them. Then He can surely forgive us.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.