God Is Not a Vending Machine.
The Second Monday of Advent.
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Isaiah 35: 1-10.
• Psalm 85: 9-14.
• Luke 5: 17-26.
The Second Monday of Advent; and, the Commemoration of Saint Melchiades, Pope & Martyr.*
Lessons from the dominica,** according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Romans 15: 4-13.
• Psalm 49: 2-3, 5.
• Matthew 11: 2-10.
If a Mass for the commemoration is taken, lessons from the common "Si díligis me…" for One or Several Holy Popes, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Peter 5: 1-4, 10-11.
• Psalm 106: 32, 31.
• Matthew 16: 13-19.
10:10 PM 12/9/2018 — Tomorrow is the memorial of Pope Saint Damasus, but I’m off tomorrow and won’t post a homily, so I want to share something about him with you today before reflecting on today’s Gospel lesson.
There aren’t many saintly popes more important to the life of the Church than Pope Saint Damasus, though I’m willing to bet not many of you know much about him; but, when you know who he was and what influence he had over the development of the Church’s life and worship, you’ll wonder why his day isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation. For example: how many times do we pray the words, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit”? Pope Saint Damasus invented that prayer. If you’re someone who loves the Latin Mass—or when I say only some of the Mass in Latin—he should be your patron, since he is the pope who changed the official language of the Mass from Greek to Latin so that it could be understood by the laity, who mostly knew only Latin at that time; but even these things are just the tip of the ice-burg when it comes to his importance. Born in the year 305, he was the first Spaniard to be elected pope. He summoned the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople to defend the Church against the heresies of Eunomius and Macedonius, and repeated the condemnation of the false Council of Rimini, already condemned by Pope Liberius, which had rejected the Creed and the faith of Nicea. As I mentioned, he is credited with originating the "Glory be to the Father...," and directed that it be recited at the end of every psalm in the Divine Office. He promoted the veneration of martyrs, directing the first church built on the site of the catacombs. He commissioned Saint Jerome's translation of the Bible, which would eventually come to be known as the Vulgate. And on and on. After a very controversial papacy because of all the changes he had made, he died a holy death in the year 384.
The paralyzed man in today's Gospel lesson has a lot to be thankful for, and not only the cure he receives from our Lord. He can be thankful, as well, for his friends who decided not to give up when they found they could not reach Jesus by the usual means. Taking him up onto the roof and lowering him down through the ceiling is certainly very unusual, and shows an extraordinary level of dedication and devotion, particularly since they’re doing it, not for themselves, but for someone else. And I suggest that their perseverance in taking such extreme measures to get their friend to our Lord is something that applies analogously to our own interior life and relationship with God. How many of us have given up or somehow faulted our Lord when we could not get what we wanted in the way we wanted?
As you know, I serve as a full-time hospital chaplain, so I'm often with families when they are told that a loved one has died. If the illness had been a long one, they usually had been praying for a recovery. And when death finally came, they inevitably felt that their prayers had gone unanswered, and this confused them. Why did God turn down their request? This is even more true when the death is sudden and unexpected, or when the person who has died was a son or a daughter; then the confusion often becomes a very bitter anger toward God: “I went to church every Sunday. I said my prayers. I lived a good life. I did what was right. Why has God let me down? Why has he betrayed me like this?” We've talked about this before.
And you will find within your own life that this is also true with regard to our own struggles with sin and temptation: “I have asked the Lord to help me with this sin. Why am I still struggling? Why is it that God does not lift this burden from my soul like I asked him to?” And when we go to the priest to confess the same old sin time and time again, we almost want to believe that it’s God’s fault: “I prayed for strength. Why has he not given it?” So many of us pray in the same way we shop: “O.K., here are my prayers, my Rosaries, my novenas, my First Saturdays, my sacrifices, my Masses—here’s my money—now give me what I want?” as if God’s answer to our prayers is like payment for services rendered.
And here is where I think the behavior of the paralyzed man’s friends can be instructive for us. When they reach the house where Jesus is preaching and find that there’s no way they can get in by the door, they could have stopped right there, had a little conference among themselves, and said, “What kind of nonsense is this? Here this guy invites us to come and bring our sick to be cured, and now we find we can’t even get in. We don’t have to stand for this.” And then I suppose they could have stormed off in a huff cursing our Lord for not being accessible enough. But that wasn't the attitude they took; instead of cursing our Lord and turning away, they find another way. And the way they find is certainly above and beyond the call of duty; it’s practically heroic. They climb up onto the roof, carrying their friend with them, and lower him through a hole the ceiling. It’s no wonder this impresses our Lord. And this is exactly why our Lord gives them what they came for: because instead of blaming Him, they looked for an answer within themselves and found a way to reach our Lord, never doubting the Lord’s love for them no matter what they had to go through to be with Him.
Now, I could end the homily right there, and simply say that the moral of the story is “God helps those who help themselves,” which would leave it on the level of a fourth grade Sunday School class; but, as you should know by now, there's always more to it than that. What these men do for their friend, and how our Lord responds to them, is a perfect illustration of what we've talked about here so many times: the Dogma of Sufficient Grace. You've heard it because I keep talking about it; but, any other Catholic you meet on the street is going to have no idea what you mean by it in spite of the fact that understanding it makes the whole spectrum of Catholic moral teaching comprehensible. The Dogma of Sufficient Grace basically is this: in any situation in which a baptized Christian is faced with a moral choice, the Holy Spirit will always provide sufficient grace to do what is right. More often than not, that grace will come through the Sacraments of the Church, but not always.
All it's really saying is that there can never be such thing as “I know the Church teaches this is wrong, but I really have no choice, otherwise this will happen or that will happen, and I just can't deal with that; so, I'm forced to do this thing I know is wrong.” The Dogma of Sufficient Grace says that this can never be true; and, if you think it's true, it's all in your head, the operative word in the definition being “sufficient.” It's not the Dogma of Abundant Grace; it's the Dogma of Sufficient Grace. The word “sufficient” implies just enough to do what's right; no more, no less. If it was the Dogma of Abundant Grace, then it would mean that God gives us enough grace to do what's right without any ill effects, without any hardship, without any suffering; but, because the grace offered to us is only sufficient, it does not protect us from suffering or hardship, but it does gives us the grace to cope with and endure the suffering and hardship that may result from doing the right thing. This is how we participate in redemption, and is why the Christian life is defined by the way of the Cross.
We always have the ability, given to us by God, to do what is right, not only in extreme cases like a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy for example, but dozens of times every day, in all kinds of little situations, whenever we are faced with a choice to do right or wrong, and an easy way out always presents itself. In the case of the men described in today's Gospel, the easy choice would have been to say, “Well, we can't get in through the front door. We've done enough. No one could reasonably expect us to do more. Let's take our crippled friend and go home.” But they didn't do that. And who would've expected them to drag this man on his stretcher up onto the roof, and pull off the tiles, and lower him down through the ceiling? No reasonable person on earth would have expected that. Our Lord may have expected it in His Divine Knowledge, but in His purely human intuition He marveled at it, and gave them the grace of a cure for their friend.
God is not a vending machine; and, even though this time of year sees us reliving the beginnings of our Lord’s public ministry, we all know that this journey ends in the cross. Let’s ask our Blessed Lord today to help us keep our eyes fixed firmly on the end of the road.
* Not much is known about Pope Saint Melchiades, except that he died peacefully after suffering during the persecution of Maximian in AD 314.
** In the extraordinary form, outside privleged seasons, the lessons are taken from the previous Sunday.