Homily for Epiphany VI
These days our faith is tried. I’m not talking, specifically, about these days when we are together enduring a pandemic; or these days when we need to worship outdoors; or these days when we need to confront our own subtle prejudices; or these days when we feel as if we cannot give voice to the morality that is inseparable from the Christ we love.
These days when our faith is tried are the days since Our Lord’s crucifixion; the days since His Ascension; the days since the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire.
For while the devil certainly takes advantage of pandemics and unrest and church-distancing, that’s not his end game. His end game is to separate us from the intimate union, the bond of love, and the confidence and hope that we were given in Baptism, that is fed into us in the Eucharist, and that warms us every time we hear Our Lord’s absolution. The devil conspires with our basest desires and is cheered on by those whose god is their feelings. He conspires with them to make us wonder, and question, and think that God is distant or uninvolved or focused on others. And that God’s justice is hardly just.
The devil’s end game is to drive a wedge between us and Our Lord by driving a wedge between you and me; and by getting me to think that my prayers are nothing; and by getting us to be anxious about everything except skipping Mass and losing faith.
That is how our faith is tried these days. And why we need to rejoice—yes, be glad about—and make use of today’s aggravations. For the things we find so irksome—pandemics, unrest, politics, meanness, being silenced and feeling hemmed in—these things truly do bruise and try us. And they work hard to crush us. But a mustard seed is not really true to itself, a mustard seed really doesn’t awaken, a mustard seed doesn’t show its true value—until it is bruised and crushed.
Today, Our Lord compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. And are we not citizens in that kingdom—a kingdom founded by the one who was bruised for our iniquities; crushed for our transgressions; and buried because we hid from Him? And yet, that all released a life full of vitality, and a vigorous mercy that we wish to live toward others. Like the mustard seed which, when planted, grows sturdy branches and brings forth many seeds, so our battered, hard-pressed, buried Lord arises to grow the holy Church made strong and true by His love.
In another place Our Lord compares faith to a mustard seed. Once again, the vigor of our faith relies not on our determination, but on the Lord planted and buried within us. For, like the mustard seed, Christ is planted in us and then comes alive, producing in us greater confidence, hope, and love.
This vitality—of Christ growing the kingdom of His love in you and me—this is released when we are squeezed and compressed and bruised by the many disordered desires within, and the many pressures from without. For faith and is a living force, strong and sure, when we are left with nothing else but God’s love for us. So, if we let it, if we can keep our orientation, if we don’t lose hope but hold to Christ, then we can see that these stresses and forces release a greater, more excellent faith.
Many times, our faith can seem simple and innocuous. Perhaps it feels even vague and indefinable. But when our faith is bruised by its enemies, when it is pushed to a breaking point, then faith can come alive—if we only let it. Then it proves its value and power—if we don’t hide it in a cupboard or toss it out on hard-hearted cement or bury it in sugary sentimentality.
The things that test our faith—the doubts and fears, the desire to give up or to give into our worst self—these things can actually release the sweet aroma of our life in God. Very much like the incense we use at Mass. In the canister, in the plastic box, the incense is inert. But when it is placed on a burning coal, then its full fragrance, both spicy and sweet, disperses throughout the room and wafts even quite a ways outdoors. And that scent sticks to us, announcing that we’ve been to Mass because we smell as Christ did when He arose from the tomb.
Holy Valentine, whom we commemorate today, shows us what the robust energy and aroma in the mustard seed looks like when it is released because of hardship. For when the executioner came, and he bowed his neck, and was decapitated in malice—then Love Himself was diffused to the ends of the world so that, to this day, we connect St Valentine with love: the love that ultimately must emanate from God: for God is love.
Like many martyrs—and even like us in these days—Holy Valentine was “hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—carrying in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our bodies.” And by his martyric death, by his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ, by his desire to let his hope in God outweigh the threats of others—St Valentine shows us that “that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”
The mustard seed reveals the transcendent power of God. For which of us would have ever considered, on our own, that such a tiny object could both be a tree housing birds and add savory energy to our food? Yet in that seed is hidden a truth that has existed since before time—namely, that when we are pushed yet remain strong to Our Lord’s love, then we begin to become the humans we were designed to be.
May our Father grant us such strength and courage; by the prayers of Holy Valentine and of all the saints.
14 February 2021