Message: The ministry of angels can help a person have a new mind and heart.
This Lent I am giving a homily series called "New Mind and Heart." On the Fifth Sunday of Lent (the last before Holy Week) we will hear from the prophet Jeremiah who speaks about a new covenant with God. That new covenant will require a new heart - in order to God's will, to become disciples of Jesus.
Today we begin to see the road ahead, the path to discipleship. To travel that road we have forty days - in honor Jesus' days in the desert. In the desert (as we hear today) Jesus experiences two extremes: on the one hand, wild beasts; on the hand, angels minister to him.
In this homily I will spend most time on the wild animals. We have to understand them before we can appreciate the ministry of angels.
Wild beasts represent the fragility of our lives. We have bodies like the other animals and at any moment we could come to a violent end - an earthquake, a fire or some catastrophe, like the flood in the first reading. Or it could be something more common: a car crash or a vessel bursting in the brain...we could even be attacked by a wild animal, including the human kind.
Not only do wild beasts represent the dangers that surround us, but also dangers within. We humans sometimes act like animals. We have popular stories about humans turning into animals - such as the werewolf. I remember a movie called, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf." Well, the girls did accuse us of beings wolves - and other less attractive animals. Sometimes it does seem like we are in danger of turning into beasts - or worse.
All of us can acknowledge that we have an animal side, but here's the question: Is that all we are? Many people say that humans are just animals and that animals are just complex chemical reactions - and that everything comes down to tiny particles in motion. That viewpoint is called materialism or naturalism or atheism.
But as C.S. Lewis pointed out, atheism is "a boy's philosophy." It is attractive because it seems to relieve a person from restraint and guilt. Naturalism says that you and I simply act on impulses like animals do - and no one blames animals for the way they act.
It's tempting to say everything is relative, that there's no right and wrong, yet it only goes so far. I heard about a guy standing in line at a coffee shop. He wore a T-shirt that said "No Rules." Another guy steps in ahead of him. You can imagine the reaction. "Hey, who do you think you are? I was here first." All of a sudden, fair play, right and wrong, do matter.
As C.S. Lewis observed, we human beings not only fight like animals - we quarrel. "Quarreling," he says, "means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are."
I encourage you to read Lewis' Mere Christianity for a fuller argument on why materialism explains many things, but does not explain everything: That, in addition to the natural realm, a spiritual or supernatural realm exists.*
In today's Gospel we see a supernatural realm - the ministry of angels. Angels are pure spirits. The Bible depicts them as winged creatures because they move as fast as thought. And like thought, they have the power to make things happen.
If Jesus - in his humanity - needs the ministry of angels, how much more do you and I need it? The ministry of angels helps us have a new mind. You see, we are connected not just to the animal world, but to a realm of superior beings - the angels and God himself. If we only focus on our animal side, it's easy to despair.
Some have become convinced that when their body breaks down, they should just end it all. Here in Washington you can ask a doctor to prescribe a cocktail of deadly drugs. Jesus has a word for us, "Repent." And do you remember how Archbishop Sartain defined repentance? Repentance is the refusal to despair. We do have good help - the ministry of angels.** God has given each of us a guardian angel and we can call on St. Michael in the spiritual battle.
The ministry of angels can help a person have a new mind and heart. We will see next week that transformation is possible - that God can use suffering, trials and temptations to transform us. For sure, we live among wild beasts and sometimes are tempted to think of ourselves as one more animal. Lent calls us to lift up our heads, to recognize beings greater than us, to accept the ministry of angels. And to hear Jesus' word, "Repent." Refuse to despair. "Repent and believe the Gospel." Amen.
*I am not attempting to prove that God, angels or even mind exists. But the homilist does need to keep in mind that even though we preach to believers, we do - all of us - live in a culture that assumes that supernatural realities do not exist. Naturalism is the default position in our media, universities and law courts. We can, however, raise doubts about naturalism. For this Lewis is still one of the best resources. Better than argument is witness. In our congregations we know people who have profound experience of the supernatural. We homilists in some way must also communicate our personal testimony.
In this we have to beware of apparent allies - people who use spiritual language but only as a metaphor for natural realities. For example, they will talk about "miracles" but do not mean that they believe that God exists and that he sometimes intervenes in human affairs. And by "God" they mean "everything that exists." This view is called "pantheism" and while many think it's the latest discovery, it is in fact quite old. Here's what C.S. Lewis says:
"Pantheism certainly is (as its advocates would say) congenial to the modern mind; but the fact that a shoe slips on easily does not prove that it is a new shoeŚmuch less that it will keep your feet dry. Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions, and the orenda of a savage tribe has been interpreted by some to be an "all-pervasive spirit." It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle; their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people, while the more popular Pantheism of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Emerson conveyed the same doctrine to those on a slightly lower cultural level. So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. Platonism and Judaism, and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If "religion" means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion..." (from Miracles)
**An example of such help is the The Angelic Warfare Confraternity sponsored by the Dominicans.
From the Archives (First Sunday of Lent, Year B):
Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):
Ash Wednesday homilies:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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