Sunday, January 03, 2010

Good News IS NOT ALWAYS good news; at the same time Good News IS ALWAYS good news!

(Epiphany 2010: This homily was given on January 3, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2010]

Here are two statements that seem to contradict one another. When you hear them, you will probably be thinking that only one of them can possibly be true, but I assure you that both of them are.

Statement #1: Good News is not always good news.

Statement #2: Good News is always good news.

Fr. Ray, how can both of those ideas be true at the same time?

It’s because one of the statements (the first one, to be exact) has to do with “perception,” while the other statement concerns “reality.”

Let me now explain.

Just in case anyone is unclear about it, the “Good News” referred to at the beginning of these two statements is the Gospel. In fact, that’s what the word “Gospel” means—Good News: the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, and the good news about how to get to heaven.

But when is this Good News not good news for a particular person?

It’s when that particular person does not want to change his or her life! It’s when that particular person is committing a certain sin that he or she does not want to repent of.

Then the person perceives the Good News as bad news! As I said a few moments ago, Good News is not always good news!

This, incidentally, is one reason why a priest will sometimes receive a less-than-charitable email or note after he delivers a homily. Of course, he might get a letter like that simply because he gave a bad homily—that is certainly possible; but more often than not those letters come because the message of the homily struck a ‘spiritual nerve,’ so to speak. The Good News of the Gospel is the good news of God’s incredible mercy, but for mercy to be experienced, sin has to be acknowledged—and that acknowledgement can sometimes be difficult.

Just ask King Herod.

We just heard how the Magi proclaimed “good news” to him when they arrived in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago: The Messiah had come! The Savior of the world—the King of kings and the Lord of lords—had been born. They knew that because they had observed his star in the heavens. It’s an historical fact that even many pagans in the first century expected a great king to be born in their lifetime—it was not only the Jews who had this expectation—and many of these pagans believed that the birth of this new king would be indicated by a special sign in the heavens.

Herod should have been happy about all this. His reaction should have been, “Halleluiah! Praise God! We have waited for our Messiah for centuries! Thank God he’s arrived! What a privilege I have to be able to welcome him into this world!”

But that was not his response, was it?

Rather, the Bible tells us that he was “greatly troubled”; other translations say that he was “greatly disturbed.”

In other words, he was angry and upset and didn’t like it one bit! Amazingly, for Herod, this good news was really, really bad news! That was his perception. It was his perception because he was a selfish, power-hungry person and didn’t want to change his ways!

Do you know that this particular Herod (one of 4 Herods mentioned in the Bible) murdered his own wife and 3 of his own children (and a number of other people as well!)? He did that because he was deathly afraid that they were plotting to take over his kingdom. Fear ruled his life, not faith.

It was that same fear that led him to slaughter the Holy Innocents when the Magi failed to return to him after their visit to Bethlehem.

And yet, in spite of Herod’s skewed perception, in reality the Good News of the Savior’s birth was still good news! It wasn’t good news to him, but it was good news nonetheless. The Messiah had still come to him to offer him eternal salvation. Yes, even him! His messed-up perception didn’t change that fact. This is why I said at the very beginning that both statements are true: Good news is not always good news to us (if, like Herod, we don’t want to face our sin); but, even if we have the wrong perception—even if we see things upside down like Herod did—in reality the Good News is always good news!

That’s why repentance is always possible for us, and why forgiveness is always available to us—until our dying breath.

But we need to reach out for it.

On that note, a few weeks ago a man whose confession I had heard wrote me a letter—a very nice letter—in which he said the following: “Many thanks for hearing my confession on Saturday afternoon. . . . I can understand why this is such an unpopular sacrament and why procrastination is so common. It’s a bit like repeatedly canceling a dental appointment to get a decayed tooth pulled until it really begins to throb. I put off going to confession to get my sins ‘pulled’ until my conscience begins to throb. As you suggested, more frequent spiritual check-ups are probably the better approach.”

Have you ever had a “throbbing conscience?”

Do you have one now?

From what we know historically, King Herod never had his sins ‘pulled’—for him the Good News remained bad news, and he lived and died in his fear.

God wanted something better for him, as he wants something better for us.

That “something better” comes with regular spiritual check-ups. Then the good news of God’s mercy becomes really, really good news for us, because we experience that mercy personally through repentance and through confession—which is the cure for a throbbing conscience.