May 7 & 8, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Friday All-Night Vigil
Reading I (Ezekiel 34:11-16) Reading II (Romans 5:5-11)
Gospel (St. Luke 15:3-7)
Our Lord tells us in the Gospel reading today that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people. This would strike us initially as being rather strange because we know that God would rejoice in our righteousness. We know that if we are seeking to live a virtuous life, if we are praying, if we are being truly holy in the way we do things – that is, if we are humble, if we are charitable, if we are striving to imitate Christ in all things and be united with Him in the way we live our lives – that this is something greatly pleasing to Our Lord. Indeed, He rejoices in the fact that there are people who are doing exactly that. Yet, at the same time, we hear that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine of these people who are truly holy. We can begin to understand that when one grows in humility and charity, what one does then is to spend time praying for others, seeking the conversion of others. And while united with all those who are also seeking to do what is right and good, when the fruit of a person’s prayer is finally found (that is, when that person for whom you have been praying for a long time finally turns around), that brings greater joy to your heart than to be with all your friends who are striving for holiness just as you are.
So when we look at our own selves and we apply these words, Our Lord tells us in the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel that He Himself is going to shepherd His sheep. The strong and the sleek He is going to destroy, but it is the weak that He is going to bind up and shepherd rightly. One of the problems we oftentimes run into is that we like to think of ourselves as being strong. We sometimes, as we are striving to live in the right path, like to judge other people. We like to, unfortunately, become self-righteous rather than being truly righteous. The worst part of all is that in our pride we oftentimes think we do not need God. None of us would ever say we do not need God, but the reality is that by the way we live our lives we try to do it ourselves. We do not necessarily turn to the Lord to ask for His guidance. We are not necessarily seeking His Will in the things we do, but rather what we tend to do is choose the things that we think sound pretty good to us and we never bother to ask God whether that is His Will for us. Then we are off on our own little path, and heaven forbid that anyone might try to tell us it is not the right path because in our pride we do not want to hear that. And so it is precisely these souls, that is, the ones who think they are strong and sleek, that the Lord says He is going to destroy.
Now in the context of our own selves, it is not that He is going to destroy us by getting rid of us, but rather what it means is that He is going to destroy all of that pride. The real question then for us is whether we are going to stick around to allow it to happen. If we think we are strong enough by ourselves and that we really do not need God, when the purification begins, what happens is that we run away because it is not the way we think it is supposed to be. It does not seem right or fair to us because, after all, we were only trying to do the right thing. We thought we were serving God, and all of a sudden He is allowing all these unfortunate things to happen to us; and we do not understand why.
If we remain faithful to Our Lord and continue to try to pray our way through it, suffer through all the circumstances that He allows in our lives, what will happen is that in time we will begin to see the fruit of what God is doing. He will help us to see that in fact we have grown – most often, just a tiny little bit – in humility. He will help us to be able to recognize that we are actually becoming more charitable, which means more selfless in the way we do things. He will help us to see that what happens is instead of thinking that we were serving God because we were praying the way we thought it should be and we were doing what we thought we should do, He begins to turn it a different way. We persevere through the dryness, the darkness, and the pain in prayer, and what happens is that God helps us to see that we are actually doing far more good by persevering through the pain than we ever were when we were doing what we thought was the right thing to do and were doing it on our own.
It is only when we are completely broken and when we become weak that we will finally admit we are truly dependent upon God because what happens is that until we are completely broken, the pride still remains. And even if we are mostly dependent on God, there still, every once in a while, creeps in something that we look at and say, “I can do that myself. I know how to do this; I’ve always done this.” We jump at the opportunity only to find that it did not work quite the way we thought it was going to. Suddenly, we wind up back in prayer with the recognition that we need God even for the things we thought we could do ourselves. Even for the tiniest little things, we are completely dependent upon God.
Only when we are willing to acknowledge our dependence upon God, which means to acknowledge our complete and total weakness, can God shepherd us. Not because God does not have the ability to shepherd us, but because we will not allow Him to shepherd us. It is as if the Shepherd is trying to lead us in one direction and we keep saying to Him, “I know a better way. I can do this myself. I’ll show You how we should get to the next pasture,” instead of allowing the Shepherd to show us.
It is difficult because when we go through the darkness, the struggles of prayer, it certainly seems to us that there must be a better way – but there is not. The Lord is indeed shepherding us rightly. He is leading us along the path that will help us to become truly dependent upon Him, which means He is leading us along the path to help us become truly Christian in everything that word means. We recall the words of Saint Paul when he says, “God chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to Christ.” God has chosen each one of us, not because we were the brightest or the best, not because He could not find anyone better, but because we were the weakest, we were the least, we were the worst that He could find.
Now if there is anybody who has a temptation to say in their own heart, “That’s not true of me!” then there is still a little more work that God has to do to be able to rid us of the pride, to help us be able to recognize that in fact we are the weak ones, we are the little ones, we are the ones that He chose because no one would ever be able to say that we did it ourselves. Our Lord told us our works are to shine so brightly that when people see them they will give glory to our heavenly Father. Only one who is standing out of the way of the light will be able to give glory to God in that way. If we like to be in the light, all we are going to do is block it so that other people cannot see it. We draw the attention to ourselves rather than to the light.
Once again, we recognize in doing this – because Jesus is the light – that God will have much to do to get His little sheep in order. As God works His purifications, we have to learn to embrace them, to rejoice in them, because it is in these things precisely that He is making us true sheep of His flock, sheep who will truly hear His voice. He will help us to recognize that in fact we were not as righteous as we thought we were. The glorious part is that when that day comes, we ourselves will become that one sheep who finally repents when we did not think we needed to. That will bring more joy to the heart of Jesus, to the heart of our Blessed Lady, and to all the angels and saints than all the good things that we thought we could do all by ourselves because we thought we were strong enough to do it without God.
That is what Our Lord is seeking from each of us: that humility, that trust, that dependence on Him, and the recognition of our own weakness, of our own sinfulness. It is not to get caught up in the sinfulness, but rather it is to be able to recognize how much God loves us, how much He has forgiven, how good and loving He is. When we are able to do this, then we will see ourselves for who we truly are. By ourselves, we are weak, we are sinful, we are nothing. By God’s grace, we have been raised up, we have been forgiven, and we have been made members of His flock, of His Mystical Body. There is no greater glory in this world than to be united with Jesus, and the only ones who can be united with Jesus are the ones who are weak, who are humble, who are dependent, and who are those little ones who have finally recognized their need to repent and to turn wholeheartedly to Our Lord.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.