HOMILY WEEK 25 06 – Year I
The Paradox of Presence, Suffering and Persecution:
Memorial of Saint Jerome
(Zech 2:1-11; Jer 31; Lk 9:43-45)
Have you ever heard of a chancel lamp? It is that lantern or candle in a church that tells us that Jesus is present in the tabernacle. You might think it was developed as a kind of signal to let people know they the need to be reverent when they enter a church, but there is a lot more to it than this.
Think back to the Book of Exodus. When Moses was called by God to confront Pharoah, it was by means of a burning bush. And when Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt, God led them with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. The fire and cloud reminded them God was with them and would guide and protect them always.
Think also of Elijah confronting the false prophets of Baal, when fire from heaven came down and consumed his sacrifice, demonstrating he was a true prophet. Remember also the return of God’s people from exile in Babylon. They were filled with joy as they began to rebuild their lives and the temple, in the city of Jerusalem. But they were also concerned about the nations around them. Would God protect them and let them live in peace? In today’s first reading, the prophet Zechariah promises God will be with them, this time as a wall of fire. God will protect them, and, even more, God’s glory, or shekinah, will dwell among them as they rebuild.
Wouldn’t you love to have that same kind of comfort and peace? Some sign that God is accompanying you on your journey? The flame of the chancel lamp is that sign. In every church, the chancel lamp is there to tell us that Jesus is present. It is there to remind us of his faithfulness – whether and when we feel vulnerable, anxious, joyful, contented, or scared. It’s there to tell us that Jesus is really and truly present, hidden inside the tabernacle, just as he is present and hidden in the depths of our hearts.
In the New Testament, that presence becomes much more of an interior presence. Think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who felt their hearts burning within them as they conversed with the Risen Lord, but did not recognize until he blessed and broke bread with them in the inn.
So, we know that God is always present to us. Our Bible says so; our catechism says so; even our own memory of past events says so. Still, the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament stands above all of these assurances. Visible yet hidden, understandable yet mysterious, he is inviting us to come sit with him. Can we take a few moments out of our day and respond to his invitation? Let us go and spend time with him; he just may have a special message for us.
As comforting as this reflection is, the tone changes in the gospel as Jesus, the beloved Son of God, predicts his betrayal at the hands of Judas. There will be for him no obvious protection from the harm and agony that awaits him – only the apparent absence of God instead as he freely goes through his suffering and death on the cross to reveal to us the depth of God’s love for us.
Even this, however, is consoling and comforting for those who have faith in the Father and in Jesus, for we know that this suffering and cross led to resurrection, to the in-breaking of the brand new, eternal life into this world and to the ultimate revelation of our God who is humble, compassion, mercy, unconditional love, forgiveness and total non-violence. This is a call to a deeper faith, to let go of the temptation to preach a gospel of prosperity as opposed to the theology of the Cross. We are also called to recognize Jesus in others, especially the poor, where it seems he can be found and recognized the most.
Today the Church invites us to honour and emulate a great example of someone who truly lived these teachings, St. Jerome, who was born in Dalmatia about 342 and baptized in Rome by Pope Liberius. Having experienced a vision of Christ, Jerome withdrew into the Syrian desert for four years, praying, fasting and learning Hebrew. He was ordained in 377. Jerome’s mastery of language enabled him to translate Hebrew and Greek books of the Bible into Latin, the language of the common people; this translation is called the Vulgate. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent declared Jerome’s Vulgate an official text of the Catholic Church.
Jerome’s rhetorical skill coupled with his fiery temperament made him a fierce opponent in theological debate and involved him in controversy most of his life. His last years were spent in Bethlehem, where a group of noble Roman women under his spiritual direction used their wealth to build convents, monasteries and hospices. These consecrated women, led by St Paula, are regarded in Church history as a powerful witness to early Christian feminine spirituality. Jerome died on this day in 420. His accomplishments in biblical studies are without parallel in Christian history. He is a Doctor of the Church, and patron of scripture scholars, translators, archeologists, librarians and students.
In some ways, Jerome is like Zechariah, to whom the Word of God came and who dedicated his life to strengthening the faith of the Israelites in God who would deliver and restore them to fidelity and righteousness. Jerome is also in many ways like St. Paul, who met Jesus on the road to Damascus, realized he was the Messiah, the Risen Lord reigning over all of creation, went to Arabia to reread the Old Testament scriptures in that light, integrated how loved and forgiven he was by God, and devoted the rest of his life to proclaiming Jesus as Lord and building up the Church as the Body of Christ.
With Zechariah, St. Paul and St. Jerome as models, we are invited to imitate them in their response to Jesus, to believe in him, to fall in love with his Word, and to live it out our faith with humble, childlike simplicity. I have had the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the caves where St. Jerome spent his last days, and celebrated the Eucharist in two of those caves with our pilgrimage groups.
The Eucharist is an experience of the extraordinary love of God in a very, ordinary way – humble gifts of bread and wine transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayer of the community into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, freely broken open for us on the cross.
May our celebration today empower us to let our light shine, to truly hear the word of God in our hearts, to allow it to heal and transform us, and then to witness to it with our lives, as did St. Jerome.