Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lent: A Time to Get Right with the Family


(This homily was given on March 21, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:3-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2021]


Lent is a time to “get right with the family”—and here I’m not alluding to the Mafia!  Nor am I referring directly to our blood relatives; although the process of “getting right with the family” certainly involves our getting right with our blood relatives.  But it doesn’t only refer to them.

Fr. Ray, what are you getting at?”  Well, if someone asked you the question, “What is a covenant?” how would you respond?  I think that many people, perhaps most people, would answer by comparing a covenant to a contract.  But actually, from a biblical perspective, that would be a very poor comparison to use.  Why?  Because a contract is a legal transaction between two individuals who may have little or no personal commitment to one another.  For example, you can have a contract with someone you don’t even know.  Some of you may have contracts with people whom you’ve never met personally.  You can even have a contract—a legal, binding agreement—with someone you strongly dislike.  A covenant is different.  A covenant goes much deeper.  The best definition of a covenant that I ever heard was from Dr. Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  He described a covenant as a “family-like bond.”  That means that when you’re in a covenant with another person you’re in a committed relationship—a deeply committed relationship; the kind of relationship that we’re supposed to have with members of our biological families.

Throughout the Old Testament, as most of us know, God made covenants with his people.  He made a covenant with Noah.  He made a covenant with Abraham.  He made one with Moses.  But all of these covenants—all of these family bonds—were imperfect.  And they were broken quite often; not by God, of course, but by his people. 

This is why, by the way, the Old Testament constantly uses the image of marriage to describe the Lord’s relationship with Israel.  Marriage is a covenant bond between a man and a woman.  It’s not simply a legal contract.  This also explains why Israel’s unfaithfulness in the Old Testament is always compared to adultery.  As we all know, there’s no more serious sin against the covenant of marriage than the sin of adultery.

Thankfully God, in his great love, was not content with these imperfect family bonds between himself and his people.  So even though we didn’t deserve the perfect family bond with the Lord, he gave it to us anyway—through his son, Jesus Christ.  All this having been said, listen once again now to today’s first reading, because this is the covenant that Jeremiah is prophesying about:

The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days says the Lord.  I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord.  All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

This new covenant in Jesus Christ brings us the gift of eternal salvation.  Yes, it’s a covenant that we can still break by committing serious, mortal sin.  If we do that, and then die without repenting, we do forfeit God’s marvelous gift.  But, as St. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy, even when we are unfaithful in this life, God still remains faithful.  And so, unlike the people in the Old Testament, if we want forgiveness for our serious sins, we don’t have to sacrifice bulls and goats and sheep.  The sacrifice of Jesus was sufficient to cleanse us of every sin.  So all we have to do is humbly admit the sin and accept his gift of mercy (admit and accept)—which is precisely what we do when we make a good confession.

That brings me back to what I said at the beginning of my homily: Lent is a time to get right with the family.  Hopefully, you see what I’m getting at: Lent is a time for reconciliation not only with God, but also with our brothers and sisters in God’s family.  And this is one reason why confession to a validly ordained priest is so important.  In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest not only represents Jesus Christ.  He also represents all our brothers and sisters in the family of God.  Therefore, when the priest absolves us, we are reconciled vertically and horizontally—in other words with God, and with others! Some people are fond of saying, “I don’t need to go to a priest.  I just go to the Lord.”  Well, that’s all very nice.  The problem is, our sins don’t just affect our relationship with God!  Our sins, even the ones committed in secret, affect our relationships with other people.  For example, I can sit in my room all by myself and have angry, hateful thoughts that nobody else is aware of.  But if that happens, I guarantee you that it will affect my relationships with others.  It will certainly affect the next unfortunate soul who calls me on the phone—”Gee, Fr. Ray, why are you yelling at me?  I just called to find out what time the next Mass was!”

So the real question for us to face today is this one: Am I willing to do what I need to do, to get right with my family (with my spiritual family)?  In practical terms, that means: Am I willing to look at myself honestly?  Am I willing to make a thorough examination of conscience and confess everything I need to?  Now that’s not as easy a task as it may appear to be, because as fallen human beings we all have a tendency to rationalize and sweep things under the rug.  Some sins we can face and confess easily.  But others are much more difficult to come to terms with.  For example, statistics show that the majority of Catholic couples today use artificial contraception.  I think most priests would tell you that this is a sin that they rarely hear confessed.  It’s become so socially acceptable, that’s it’s very easily swept under the rug. 

We can easily rationalize sexual sins like this by saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad.  A lot of people do things that are much worse.” 

We can easily rationalize sins of unforgiveness and hatred and revenge by saying, “Well, it only serves them right.  They asked for it!” 

We can easily rationalize a sin like stealing from an employer—stealing goods or stealing time—by saying, “My boss makes enough money, he’ll never miss any of this.”

We say that a covenant is a family-like bond.  Well, if there’s one thing that will ruin any family bond, it’s dishonesty; it’s the practice of sweeping things under the rug.  This is certainly the case in our biological families, and it’s also the case in our spiritual family.  For years I’ve told teenagers: “Do you really want to mess up your relationship with your parents?  Then lie!  That’s all you have to do.  Some night soon, tell them you’re going to the library, and then go out with your friends.  Some other night, when they go out, tell them that you’re planning to stay home to study; then have all your friends over for a wild party.  That’ll do the trick; just be deceitful.  But, if you want a good, solid, stable relationship with your mom and dad; if you want them to trust you more and give you more freedom—then be honest; be up front.  Don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes.  Sure, sometimes being honest will be difficult.  Sometimes being honest will be painful.  But, in the long run, it will pay off.”

And so it is in our relationship with God.  Sometimes it’s hard to be totally honest.  Sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it can even be a little bit embarrassing.  But, my brothers and sisters, it really is the only way to get right—and to stay right—with the family.  It’s my prayer that all of us “get right” during this season of Lent.