Reading I (Hosea 2:16b, 17b, 21-22) Reading II (2 Corinthians 3:1b-6)
Gospel (St. Mark 2:18-22)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Hosea, God says to His people that He will lure them out into the desert, and there He will speak to their hearts. And there they will respond, He says, as they did when He led them out of Egypt. Recall that for 40 years the people of Israel had to wander the desert. That was because of their disobedience and their lack of trust in God. God allowed the people to go out into the desert, and there in the desert He taught them that He was completely trustworthy. He taught them there in the desert how much he loved them. And there, as the people recognized the love of God, they were able to love Him in return. They were able to learn to be obedient to God because they saw that God would indeed provide for them. They recognized in His love for them that He was with them, that He would fight their battles, that He would feed them, and that He would care for them – as long as they would do His Will.
If we look around right now, we realize that the New Israel needs to be moved out into the desert as well. The New Israel is the Church, and the Church is in constant need of being reformed. Right now, perhaps more than ever, the Church needs a reformation, not the way Martin Luther attempted it 500 years ago, but rather a reform from within. Saint Peter reminds us that any time God is going to purify the world, it begins with the Church. It always starts in the household of God, Saint Peter tells us. And so the Church is being reformed right now; it is being purified.
If we look at what has gone on in the last couple of years with some of the scandals that have come out and some of the different problems that have been made public, this is part of the purification of the Church. It is a necessity, and such things are going to continue to be exposed as all the things within the Church need to be purified. Following the purification of the Church (and, of course, completing the purification of the Church) is going to be a much broader purification that is going to happen within the world. That is soon to come, but the Church needs to be purified first.
The members of the Church also need purification; consequently, we have an opportunity right now as Lent is about to begin to freely cooperate in the purification that needs to happen. The Church asks that each one of us would look at the areas in our lives that need to be changed. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that a new piece of cloth is not sewn onto an old cloak, and new wine is not put into old wineskins. The reason He is saying that is because His intent was to start something entirely new. He was not going to reform the people of Israel; He was going to start something entirely new and different. But now what He is going to do is to purify and reform us. He does not want to start something entirely new, but rather what He wants is to change our ways. He is not going to do something that is an entirely new religion, but rather He is going to change what we are doing so that we are in conformity with His Will.
Each one of us now is called to look into our hearts and to ask ourselves what needs to be changed. If the Lord is going to lead us out into the desert, we can ask ourselves: Why did He lead the people of Israel into the desert? Number one, so that the people of Israel could know that there is only one God and there is no other. Number two, so that the people of Israel could know that God was with them, that He had chosen them individually and He was truly with them. Number three, so that the people of Israel would come to trust the Lord. Number four, so that the people of Israel would respond by loving God as they had been loved. And, number five, so that the people of Israel would be obedient to the Will of God.
If we look around in our own lives, we can then ask ourselves: In what areas am I not trusting God? In what areas am I not loving God? In what areas am I not being obedient to God? In what areas do I not have faith in God? I suspect if we are honest that we are going to find all kinds of places where we can answer those questions because living in our very affluent and self-centered society, most of us in America really do not believe that God is the only God. We have lots of false gods that we can put our trust in. And while intellectually we will acknowledge that there is only one God, many of us have allowed our hearts to stray far from Him, and in essence we have given ourselves over to lots of false gods, little idols that we set up in our society and in our lives. Those need to go. Where do we fail to trust God? Many of us put more trust in money than we do in God. It needs to go. Where are we failing to love God and to be obedient to Him?
We can look at the areas of sin in our lives because most of us, when we go to Confession, usually have to confess the same thing over and over again. That is a normal problem people deal with. But in confessing the same things over and over again, we certainly have a good idea what things need to be worked on in our lives. So we know then what needs to go. Why does God need to lead us out into the desert? To strip us of all the things that stand in the way.
Remember the people of Israel when they first went out into the desert, what did they do? They complained against God. They said, “Oh, if we could just go back to the land of Egypt where we had leeks and melons and fish and all the things that we want!” They preferred to go back to the slavery than to have the freedom of the children of God. Aren’t we the same way? If things happen and we are purified, what do we do? Most of us do not rejoice that God is purifying us and taking away the things we have relied on that are not Him. We complain. We do not like it when we have to do without. We fight and grumble against God. But then as He leads us deeper into the desert of our own hearts, what we find is that all of these things were really because He loves us. And He loves us so much that He takes away the things that stand between us and Him so that we can truly love Him with our whole heart.
When we look at the second reading, Saint Paul talks about how he did not need letters of recommendation because his letter of recommendation was the people and the law that was written in their hearts. The law of God has been written in the heart of each and every one of us. He has chosen us for Himself and He loves us. He has given us His heart and He asks that we would give ours in return. He has written His law in our hearts. And what is His law? To love God and to love our neighbor. So He asks that we would respond, that as we go out into the desert we would recognize that He is completely trustworthy, that He is completely loving, that He will take care of us and provide for us. He simply asks that we would be obedient, that we would trust Him, that we would love Him, and that we would believe completely in Him.
When we look around in our society, it does not take a genius to answer the question: Why might God need to lead us out into the desert? When we look around the Church, it requires the same amount of genius to figure out why we might need to be led out into the desert. The Church is about to be purified in a most severe way, and when it is done, there will be a very poor Church rather than a very rich Church. But the Church will be rich in what it really needs to be rich in: faith, hope, and charity. Not in all kinds of materialism and affluence and opulence. But our Holy Father has told us that the remnant is going to be very small, much smaller than what most people would expect it to be. If that is the case, we realize just how much purification needs to happen in our own hearts first so that we will remain faithful, so that we will be able to continue to love God in the midst of the difficulties that are to come.
And if the Church is going to be a poor Church and a small remnant, Saint Peter says, “If the purification begins in the household of God, what is going to happen when it goes forth from the house of God?” The world is going to be purified as well. The house of God, being purified first, is then going to be the example for everyone else. When the house of God has been purified and is poor and small, when God looks to purify the world, it is going to be even more severe because at least within the Church we still have the fullness of the truth, we still have the seven sacraments, we still have Our Lord and Our Lady. In the world, they have rejected it all. Consequently, the purification that will happen in the world is going to be much more severe than what is going to happen in the Church because ultimately the world is going to have to reflect the glory that is in the Church, and the glory that is in the Church is in Her poverty, not in Her opulence. It is in Her faith, not in Her trust in Herself. It is in Her love for God, not in Her love for the world. That is what we all need to look at.
Saint Paul tells us in the second reading today that none of us can glory in ourselves, that none of us can take credit for anything ourselves; but rather if there is anything good, it comes from God and we must give God all of the credit. Most of us do not do that very well. Therefore, we need to be purified so we will recognize that. Now the Church is asking us to look at the areas where we will choose to cooperate with God, to look at the areas of sin, to look at the areas of selfishness, and to make a choice to get rid of them. If we do not, the purification that is coming will do it without us. The choice is ours. We can choose to cooperate, we can choose to love God more perfectly, to trust Him more perfectly, to have more perfect faith in Him by looking deeply into ourselves and choosing as a Lenten penance something that is going to make a real change, a spiritual change in our lives. Or we can just go through the perfunctory things as we have in the past and give up potato chips and pop, things that really are not going to account for much of any kind of change in our lives. Then God will have to purify us because we have refused to cooperate.
Are we willing to go out into the desert? Are we willing to leave the fleshpots and the leeks and melons of Egypt behind in order to learn to trust in God and to love Him? One way or the other, the purification is about to happen. We can choose it, we can cooperate with it, and we can begin the purification now ourselves by getting rid of sin, by getting rid of selfishness, and by doing something in this season of Lent that is going to be truly substantial. Or we can let God do it. If we wait until God does it, we are not going to be very happy being out in the desert. We will grumble and we will complain, and many will fall away. That will be a tragedy. The choice is ours. The Lord is inviting us out into the desert, and there He will speak to our hearts. There He desires that we will respond to Him in love. Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to accept His invitation to open our hearts, to go out into the desert to be united with the Bridegroom of our souls, and to love Him as He has loved us?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.