Monday October 5, 2009
Homily of Daniel Cardinal DiNardo: 56th Red Mass
I want to extend my deepest thanks to Archbishop Wuerl and to the Members of the John Carroll Society for their invitation to preach at this Year’s Red Mass in Washington, DC. It is an honor. In this federal city where the role of lawyer and judge is so important and where the legal profession is so prominent, even ubiquitous, the invocation of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the judicial year is appropriate and necessary.
The Liturgy of the Word is simultaneously proclamation as an action and proclamation as teaching a message or content. For the Christian community, it was and remains the primary access to the Scriptures: they are read out loud in the “Lord’s Day” Assembly. The presence of the Word in the inspired words of Sacred Scripture proclaimed is both an assurance and a challenge: it is the Living Word. The Word meets us, embraces us; it also judges us, indicts us. So significant is this proclamation that even our “response” to the Word of God comes from the Word of God, the Psalms. God “gives” us words to respond to his Word, words of praise and thanks, of lament and instruction.
The Readings this day, Readings assigned for a celebration of Mass invoking the Holy Spirit, come from three of the most heavyweight books of Scripture: Isaiah the Prophet; St. Paul in his most famous of Letters, the one to the Romans; and the Gospel of St. John, frequently “branded” by the symbol of an eagle, because the eagle flies high where the oxygen is thinner but purer, even as the Fourth Gospel seems more difficult to understand at first than the other three Gospels but is very profound in its presentation of Jesus Christ.
Beginning at Chapter 40 in the Book of the prophet Isaiah, the tone changes and the message of imminent judgment and forensic accusation against Judah and Jerusalem is modified. Now there enters a tone of sympathetic understanding and a message of consolation, even legal defense. “Comfort, Comfort my people!” Aligned with this new tone and message is the appearance of a strange and wonderful figure, “the servant of the Lord,” subject of four remarkable poems in this part of Isaiah. He is introduced into the text in Chapter 42 of Isaiah. It is that text we hear this morning.
The Servant brings God’s saving action. This is the real notion of justice, not an abstraction but the vivid understanding of deed and word together accomplishing integrity everywhere, most especially for God’s beloved but tragically exiled people, Israel. The first person singular of God speaking here is magnificent. Entire chapters in this section of Isaiah form a court scene where God, in the first person singular, presents his case while the plastic idols and lifeless images of the nations are paraded before all for interrogation and cross examination. Obviously God wins the case hands down! But the victory is not boasting or vaunting but merciful renewal and regeneration.
The one true God works through the Servant, unafraid to use what seems paltry to bring about on a human scale a compassionate reversal of injustice and a merciful uplifting of the poor and those of no account. The Lord will work through the Servant who will not scream or hype the message of salvation. In fact the Servant makes real a new understanding of MISHPAT, of law, not only what is required but the teaching that enables it. It is a new Torah for Israel and all the nations. The healing that the Servant bestows makes the teaching vivid.
The images of “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick” are arresting. Though the Lord is victorious through his servant, neither He nor the servant act like a conquering middle-Eastern potentate to crush the opposition or snuff out the wavering and those confused about the truth. The Lord vows and decrees “my spirit” to be upon the Servant. The Lord will take him by the hand so he will not faint but help open the eyes of the blind and bring release to those in dungeons. What is strikingly new here is the power of the Spirit of the Lord to effect a new justice universally, not just for Israel. It becomes an anointing for mission without limits.
There is no question but that the New Testament, especially the Gospels, apply the image of the Spirit-soaked Servant of the Lord to Jesus Christ. In fact, the Evangelist St. Matthew, whose name graces this cathedral Church, quotes the entire First Servant Song we just heard proclaimed verbatim in his comments upon the public life and ministry of Jesus in Galilee and beyond. The context there is opposition by some to Jesus’ interpretation of the Law; Jesus responds, but does not wrangle. Instead, he heals the sick and broken-hearted, the point made by St. Matthew in commenting on what spirit-filled activities are. Jesus cares for the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.
The Gospels not only promise salvation and a new freedom to those who come to Christ, Himself filled with the Holy Spirit. They promise that the gift of the Spirit suffusing every fiber of Jesus is, in turn, given by Jesus Christ to all believers, to disciples. Their status is changed. They are a part of the life of the Father and Son in a new way; they can say “Abba” like Jesus Himself prayed. They have an adoption, children of God. St. Paul borrowed the word “adoption” in Greek from Hellenistic secular legal vocabulary to make clear that this new status is a genuine verdict by God that is more than a veneer but a genuine transformation. Chapter Eight of the Letter to the Romans is a joyous cry of ecstasy by Paul over the intimacy granted to the children of God through Jesus Christ. We are conformed to Him and by Him.
The Gospel of Saint John uses still another word for the intimacy of the Father and Son with each chosen disciple: abiding. Already in Chapter One of the Gospel two timid disciples-to-be are sent to Jesus by the pointing of John the Baptist. They follow Jesus and he turns around to ask: “What are you looking for?” They answer: “Where do you abide?” He answers: “Come and See!” The burden of the rest of the Gospel is to unpack the meaning of “abiding” or “remaining.” At the very center of the Last Supper Sermon which we read today, Jesus promises that just as he abides with the Father so also will each disciple abide and rest in that Father-Son friendship. He also promises the Paraclete, the Lawyer, to teach, and above all to remind disciples of who Jesus is and what He said. One cannot but be struck by the forceful and extraordinary way the Gospel of St. John treats the use of the First Person Singular by Jesus Christ. Jesus speaks of God from the inside not like a commentator or prophet on the outside. Compare Jesus’ words in the Gospel and the mighty “I” of the Lord heard in Isaiah the Prophet in today’s First Reading. The personalizing of the Spirit in the Gospel of St. John is also remarkable and important for our understanding of God, Father, Son and Paraclete, and for our understanding of the work of Living Memory, great mode of the Spirit’s life in us. The Holy Spirit recalls us from religious amnesia, from forgetfulness—especially about where we belong!
“Justice” – “Servant of the Lord” – “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks,” “adoption” “children of God,” “Paraclete” “abiding” and “remembering.” Can we retrieve some of this from today’s Proclamation of the Word and find a foothold for reflection and meditation?
Memory, living memory, in all its layered and sedimented character, is a crucial dimension of personal identity. Within the Christian Faith, living memory forms the basis for the identity of the Church and each disciple. Yet even some important memories can lapse, languish or fall hidden. When we deal with our relationship to the Lord as “children of God” in St. Paul’s terms, the dignity and truth of what that means needs constant reminding. Otherwise our relationship to the Lord no longer abides but becomes merely an external piece of information. Last Pentecost Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI gave a splendid homily on the role of the Spirit’s work as memory. (Some day they will collect all his homilies, magnificent beyond description, and put them together as a corpus similar to the way Pope St. Leo the First, the Great’s, homilies have been collected.) The Pope took the two images of the Holy Spirit that became manifest on that first Pentecost Sunday, driving wind and tongues of fire, and unpacked them for their current significance. Against poor air quality, he spoke, the Holy Spirit’s “wind” is an environmental fresh breeze so that the truth of Christ’s words might become more transparent. The physical air we breathe is a subject of much concern and environmental activity and rightfully so; no less of concern should be the sometimes stagnant air of our relationship with the Lord, and thus to one another. The Holy Spirit’s activity is providing a cleaner air and it takes discernment to recognize that movement. Further, the “fire” of the Holy Spirit purifies what has become polluted, within each disciple and within the Church. Such purification especially affects the tongue, the place where the mind and the heart physically crease our environmental space in speech, action and decision.
Yet the Holy Spirit rarely works at the surface of things but probes more deeply into the heart. On the same day of Pentecost, the Church sings a poem, a sequence as it is called, that salutes the Holy Spirit for: “bending the stubborn heart and will, melting the frozen and warming the chill.” Anyone who has watched a block of ice melt knows the subtle way that occurs.
The proclamation of the Word of God today then invites us to “invite” the Holy Spirit for an action of revivifying and cleansing memories, opening us up anew to a deeper impulse of the Lord’s work among us. Though the invitation is received actively, it is an activity of “receiving,” dare I say, an act of contemplation. The legal profession is one of the first of human activities and bodies of human knowledge to receive the word and accolade: “Profession.” Its systematic knowledge has always been technical and nowadays the increasing specialization within the law is dizzying. Such wondrous formal knowledge frequently becomes semi-mechanical and distancing. A person can forget that the basis of that knowledge is something much more natural in the human condition, that the law and lawyers are around because justice among human beings is always an issue. There are always smoldering wicks and bruised reeds needing our human attention, an attention that cries out and says that even sophisticated knowledgeable “human” lawyers need reminding, need a purifying divine fire from the Lord, both in their personal lives and in their profession itself. It is that reality that brings us to praise, reflection, and prayer this day.
The many smoldering wicks are our “clients” but more than clients. They are poor and wealthy, confused and lucid, polite and impolite. In some cases the clients are voiceless for they lack influence; in others they are literally voiceless, not yet with tongues and even without names, and require our most careful attention and radical support.
The Christian Faith responds to God who not only brings order but to the God who has spoken. The work of the Holy Spirit is to illumine, purify and constantly remind all those of Christian Faith that the Word must take root in hearts and become a kind of “abiding.” The Word of God has taken an initiative in speaking and the response is certainly to hear and understand. This contemplative dimension, however, also leads to obedience, an obedience of Faith. Graced in this manner, we respond in our personal lives of faith and witness and in our professional lives too, not only for the good of our souls but also for the sake of our professions that must show God’s justice in the world. An early Christian thinker, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, commented on the Holy Spirit as one whom the Lord through the Prophets promised to send upon his servants. The Spirit descended upon the Son of God become a son of man, so that he could abide in the human race and thus “be at home among people” and renew them. This beautiful familial image that places the work of the Holy Spirit as one who transforms from the old man, frequently forgetful, to the new life of every man in Christ is also a great picture summary of what we have heard today in the voice of the Readings. May that voice of the Word of God touch our hearts and tongues in the judicial year that lies ahead.