20 March 2019

'If it bears fruit next year, well and good.' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Moses Before the Burning Bush, Domenico Fetti [Web Gallery of Art]

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 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’

The Gospel in Filipino Sign Language
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 1,200 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. (They now live in Nova Scotia, Canada, where I'm preparing this.) 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
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, it 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.

1952 Nash Rambler Custom station wagon  [Wikipedia]

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 on 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 ChurchNo 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'.

Pope Benedict XVI [Wikipedia]

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.

A postscript 

Main Street, Mount Vernon, Kentucky [Wikipedia]

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.)

Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon Ps 25:15-16

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego
for I am alone and poor.

Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam: 
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam.
O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame.
Gloria Patri et Filii et Spiritui sancto
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper 
As it was in the beginning, is now
Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
And will be for ever. Amen.

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum,
My eyes are always on the Lord,
quia ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos:
for he rescues my feet from the snare.
respice in me, et miserere mei, 
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
quoniam unicus et pauper sum ego. 
for I am alone and poor.

The video has the longer version of the Entrance Antiphon, in Latin and English, 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, the 'New Mass', is in bold.   

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