02 March 2013

'Let it alone, sir, this year also . . .' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Lent Year C

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15, First Reading

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 13:1-9 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."

And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" 

Sycamore Fig

The parable in today's gospel reminds me of an incident on Thursday of Easter Week 1970 in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. I had driven the 800 or so kms from New York on Wednesday of Holy Week with a group of students from Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, where I was studying music at the time. My car was an old Nash Rambler that I had bought for one dollar from Irish friends, Doug and Maeve Devlin, the previous year when they moved back to Dublin. The car was more than 15 years on the road and the doors didn't lock. But it had a great engine.

Our Lady of Mount Vernon Church, Mount Vernon, Kentucky

However, the day before we were about to drive back to New York something was preventing the car from going at more than about 30 kph. I took it to a local garage. The mechanics tried for an hour or so trying to loosen what was too tight, without success. I was almost resigned, somewhat like the owner of the fig tree, to leaving the car, forgetting about it and travelling by bus back to New York. However, the 'vinedresser' in me said to the mechanics, 'Try just once more'. They did. And whatever the problem was disappeared.

A few months later I gave the car to my mechanic in White Plains, New York, a Belgian named Joe Brody. When I had first brought the car to Joe the previous year he said, 'This is OK for driving around town'. 'I'm driving to Kentucky tomorrow', I told him. And the car, which I jokingly called 'The Irish Rover', served me well in its latter days.

A 1952 Nash Rambler. (Mine was black).

The parable of Jesus doesn't tell us whether or not the tree bore fruit the following year, just as the parable of the prodigal son, read at Mass this morning, Saturday of the Second Week of Lent, doesn't tell us whether or not the older brother joined the celebration.

What the parable does tell us is that God doesn't give up on us.

It also tells us that what is 'waste' in our lives - our sins, our failures to cooperate with God's grace and so on - can bring about fruitfulness when we let go of it. Manure is bodily waste - but it has the potential to bring about new life in plants.

The first part of the gospel reminds us starkly that we can perish unless we repent. God has given us free will. We can choose to accept God's love or we can choose to reject it. God will not give up on us till our dying breath.

But Lent is a special grace to the whole Church and to each member so that we won't leave it till our dying breath to turn away from sin.

We have many examples of saints who were once far from God. Perhaps St Augustine is the best known of these. But his very 'past' has been a grace to the Church ever since he turned back to God, largely because of the prayers of his mother St Monica. Not only did God not give up on St Augustine but he called him to be a source of hope to other sinners. And he called St Monica to be a source of hope to persons close to God who suffer as they see their loved ones far from God, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

St Augustine's wasted years are not really wasted. They are part of the 'manure' that a loving God uses to nurture life in others leading fruitless lives. 

The fig tree in the parable didn't have a will of its own but each of us has. It is possible for us to choose to reject God's love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 1033,  says:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: 'He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.' Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'.

And in a homily on 25 March 2007 in the Roman parish of St Felicity and her Children, Martyrs, where there are many Filipino parishioners as he noted, Pope Benedict, preaching on the gospel of the woman caught in adultery, said: 

Jesus does not enter into a theoretical discussion with his interlocutors on this section of Mosaic Law; he is not concerned with winning an academic dispute about an interpretation of Mosaic Law, but his goal is to save a soul and reveal that salvation is only found in God's love. This is why he came down to the earth, this is why he was to die on the Cross and why the Father was to raise him on the third day. Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in Paradise and that hell, about which little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.

Pope Benedict added:  Dear brothers and sisters, on the Lenten journey we are taking, which is rapidly reaching its end, we are accompanied by the certainty that God never abandons us and that his love is a source of joy and peace; it is a powerful force that impels us on the path of holiness, if necessary even to martyrdom. This is what happened to the children and then to their brave mother, Felicity, the patron Saints of your Parish.

May we never take God's love for granted but may we never lose hope in his unconditional love for each of us.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

A couple of postscripts 

The church in Mount Vernon was still very new when I went there. In earlier years Mass had been celebrated in the home of Mom and Pop Reynolds. At the time there was only a handful of Catholics in the area and many people had strange ideas about them. When I arrived in Holy Week 1970 I discovered that Mom Reynolds, an elderly woman, had been bedridden for months due to a broken hip.  She hadn't received the Sacrament of the Sick and I asked her if she would like to. She was delighted. Her husband was present and looked as fit as the proverbial fiddle. I brought Holy Communion almost every day to Mrs Reynolds.

On Friday of Easter Week as I was having lunch just before we were to drive back to New York Mom Reynolds phoned to tell me that her husband had been taken to hospital and asked me if I could give him the last rites. I went immediately. He was in a coma and I anointed him. When I came back the following summer to Mount Vernon I went to the home of the Reynolds couple, but only Mom was there. She told me that her husband had died shortly after I had left for New York. She also told me that he had felt 'left out' when I had anointed her during Holy Week! I was a young priest at the time and it was still very soon after Vatican II and the notion that the Sacrament of the Sick was only for the dying was still prevalent, as I learned from 95-year-old Mrs Murphy in the same parish. She was housebound but when I suggested the Sacrament of the Sick she nearly threw me out! However, she was very happy to receive Holy Communion almost every day while I was there.

God showed his love to Pop Reynolds in a very 'thoughtful' way at the end of his life. And this gave great consolation to his wife. Both of them had been faithful Catholics all their years and, in a very real way, missionaries by their faithfulness and by making their home available for Mass in a community that to some extent was hostile to Catholics. (By the time I was there that hostility had nearly disappeared.)

Connor Eberhard with his Dad, Martin

The other postscript involves Doug and Maeve Devlin who gave me their old Nash Rambler for a dollar. They spent only one year back in Dublin before moving with their four young children to Ontario, Canada. One of them was Cathy, now married to Martin Eberhard. God gave them only one child, Connor. Last December, a few days before his 18th birthday, Connor, a first year university student, was diagnosed with cancer and given only six months to live. He is now on treatment that may prolong his life. But the family are praying for a miracle, especially through the intercession of Blessed John Paul. Please remember him and his parents in your prayers.

Introit (Ps 25:15-16)

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum, 
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos: 
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego
Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam: 
Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam. 
Gloria Patri et Filii et Spiritui sancto
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper 
Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Entrance antiphon (Ps 25:15-16)

My eyes are always on the Lord,
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
for I am alone and poor

The video has the longer version of the Introit as used in the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, often referred to as 'The Traditional Latin Mass' or 'TLM'. The text used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass is in bold, in Latin and in English.

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