Three Roman Homilies
Three Roman Homilies
From our recent pilgrimage to Rome
Saturday, September 17th, the Chapel of the Tomb of St. Peter—at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome!
1 Timothy 6:13-16; Psalm 100; Luke 8:4-15
“St. Paul and Me”
When Father Charles so generously invited me to preach today—here! at St. Peters! at the very Tomb of St. Peter!—I was overwhelmed. I was shocked.
But you know, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Because I have a lot in common with St. Peter.
I am a sinner. I am a flawed, ordinary human being.
I am full of faith one minute, confident and unafraid. And the next I panic. I doubt. I sink like a stone.
I have denied Jesus three times, and more than three times.
I will die, as Peter died. I will return to the ground.
And yet Jesus has chosen me in my ordinariness and my blockheadedness, as he chose Peter in his and chooses you in yours, and he never stops choosing us. He never stops throwing out those seeds, no matter how many rocks we have in our heads.
In this he is entirely inefficient and undissuadable.
The Lord Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Not us. Not Peter. Not Francis. But finally this “unapproachable light” isn’t unapproachable at all. It’s raining down us, it’s pouring down, and all we have to do is turn and accept it. It’s being given away, freely, all the time: in the mountains and in the trees, in a glass of wine with friends, in all laughter and our conversation.
Today we will be awed by the things we see, and we should be. Today we will feel the greatness and grandeur of our tradition, and that’s proper and good.
But all this art architecture and design are only meant to remind us of what is always already true. They’re meant to open us up. We go on pilgrimage only to discover that we already have what we seek: the Lord Jesus himself. He is in us, he is all round us, wherever we are. He will be with us always, even onto the end of time.
Monday, September 19th, St. Mary Major, Rome
Ezra 1:1-6; Psalm 126; Luke 8:16-18
“The Duty of Delight”
Things get better.
Sometimes we are in exile, as the Jews were in exile. We are lost. We’re stuck.
But then something happens, something changes, when we least expect it, and it’s never our own doing. What happens always comes from the outside, from out of the blue. It’s like the weather—like a sudden thunder storm, in the night.
The lost child returns. The job opens up. The house finally sells.
How could the Jews have possibly imagined that the king of Persia, their enemy, the oppressor, would be the agent of their great change? Would soften, would open up? Who is it in our lives we think can never change, never help us?
We have to carry our crosses. There are all the sorrowful mysteries, in our lives as in Mary’s, and they keep coming around, every week. But there are also the joyous and the glorious and the luminous, and as Christians we are charged with the responsibility of continually believing in them, of always holding them in tension with our struggles and travails. As Christians we have what Dorothy Day called “the duty of delight.”
The early Christians, the ones we encountered yesterday in the catacombs of St. Callistus, were famous for their courage and their cheerfulness, even in the face of persecution. The Roman commentators all remarked on this, and it really puzzled them. What could possibly account for this joy? But we know. We saw it with our own eyes, scratched on the rocks in the catacombs: the Risen Christ, the Chi-Ro, the Phoenix. Their knowledge of this and their faith in this is the light that shone in those people long ago and that shines in us now, the light that can never be hidden, even in the tomb, even across the centuries.
So, if there’s something weighing on you, some problem waiting for you at home that you think you can just never solve: you’re right. You can’t solve it. But God can. The Spirit can, and will. Let go. Surrender. Don’t just do something, sit there. The change will come, somehow, someday.
Hope in the Lord.
And if like the Psalmist today you are filled with laughter and rejoicing, if on this pilgrimage you have felt joy and renewal, trust that feeling. Believe in it. It won’t go away, not really, and it’s not an illusion, though of course the sorrowful mysteries will still keep coming around. No, we shall come back from Rome rejoicing, carrying our sheaves, and our souvenirs. Because this laughter, this hope: it’s telling us something, something real and true: that God exists and that God is love and that the Lord is risen and is always rising, in us, here and everywhere, now and forever.
Wednesday, September 21st, the feast of St. Matthew, the Church of San Cosma e Damiano, Rome
Ephesians 4:1-13; Psalm 19; Matthew 9:9-13
“Every Window is a Cross”
It’s really remarkable for me that the gospel today describes the call of Matthew. Really remarkable.
Because maybe the thing that has moved me the most on this pilgrimage are the three magnificent paintings by Caravaggio in a side chapel in the Church of San Luigi, near the Piazza Navano--three magnificent paintings depicting the life of the apostle Matthew. I’ve walked all the way over there twice in the last two days just to see them, past St. Peter’s and across the Ponte Umberto. Just to stand there. Just to look at them.
Especially the first one, the one on the left as you face the window: the one depicting the call of the apostle.
This very moment, this very gospel.
The gospel for today, our last mass together before we leave.
Jesus is standing on the right with Peter and reaching out his right arm to point at Matthew, who is sitting in his finery at a grubby little counting table, surrounded by four other figures, counting out his coins. The Lord is standing in darkness, barefoot, in a coarse robe, but a great shaft of light is coming over his shoulder and illuminating the figures at the table, especially the face of Matthew, and of a young boy with a feathered cap.
With one hand Matthew is still holding onto his money, but with the other he’s pointing to himself, at his chest, as if to say: who me?
We’ve caught him at just the moment of recognition, of decision. He seems shocked. Scared. Uncertain.
It’s a very dramatic scene. The hand of Jesus as it points at Matthew is meant to remind us of the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel, giving life to Adam. And Jesus has just the suggestion of a halo, just a hint. But we almost don’t see the halo at first, we miss it, and that’s the most dramatic thing of at all, really. The tendons are cording in the neck of our Lord. Matthew’s fingernails are dirty. The light that floods the deep shadows of the room is coming from a source somewhere outside of the picture. But it could be the light that shines through any open window, in any room.
In the window we can see in the painting, just above the hand of Jesus, the two panes make a cross. A simple, obvious cross.
I didn’t see this at first, either—my brother had to point it out to me.
We never see the cross. At first.
Just for a moment forget St. Peter’s and the Pope and the Bernini altar and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As Father Charles said yesterday at mass, God is always calling us, in every ordinary thing.
Every window is a cross. And every cross is a window.
We walk along the streets of Rome, we start to flow along with all the thousands of other people, we start to feel at home. And suddenly it comes to us: every place is just a place. Every moment is just a moment. The ancient Romans were people just like us, and so were the early Christians, and so is every person alive on the planet today wherever they are and whatever language they speak.
“Day pours out the word to day,” the Psalmist says. “Through all the earth their voice resounds.”
There were clouds passing over the oculus of the Pantheon this morning, just clouds, across a blue sky, as clouds are passing over everywhere, even over our own roofs, in Corvallis.
Who, me? Yes. Me. You. We with our dirty fingernails. We with our one hand still trying to hold on to our money, our ambition, our pride.
But with our other hand, at least, we’re point back at ourselves, at our own chests, our own hearts.
We’re starting to understand. A light is always shining on us, and it’s the ordinary light of day.
We’re starting to understand: we, too, have been called to “the one hope”—“one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Thank you all for being a part of this pilgrimage—for your good will, your good humor, and your companionship along the way.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.