Readings: Daniel 3:25, 34-43; Psalm 24; Matthew 18:21-35
The first reading expresses perfectly what many feel in the Catholic Church today. Standing in the heart of the fire, a fire for the most part fuelled by the Church's failings, we can easily make the words of Azariah our own:
Do not abandon us for ever, for the sake of your name. Do not repudiate your covenant, do not withdraw your favour from us, for the sake of Abraham your friend, of Isaac your servant, and of Israel your holy one.
We cannot point to anything in ourselves as sufficient justification for God's help. We cannot claim any credibility of our own. It is for the sake of God's name - if we are indeed to be His witnesses in the world - and for the sake of the covenant He has made with us. We can appeal to Him as who He is ('I am who I am'), for the sake of His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, for the sake of the covenants He made with Moses and David, on the basis of the covenant sealed in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. We make our appeal straight to the heart of God, to the deepest springs of God's engagement with humanity, to God's fidelity and reliability.
Now we are the least of all the nations, now we are despised throughout the world, today because of our sins. We have at this time no leader, no prophet, no prince, no holocaust, no sacrifice, no oblation, no incense, no place where we can offer you the first-fruits and win your favour.
From the land of their exile, the people lament. All the familiar words and rituals, places and times, through which they were accustomed to be in the presence of God and receive His grace: all of this has been taken away, destroyed, emptied of its meaning, a fitting punishment (they feel) for their sins. The teaching of the Bible is at its most powerful in those times of wandering, exile and loss when the people become desperate on account of their weakness and long for earlier times when (they feel) they were more faithful, more reliable, more holy.
May the contrite soul, the humbled spirit be as acceptable to you as holocausts of rams and bullocks ... such let our sacrifice be to you today. And may it be your will that we follow you wholeheartedly, since those who put their trust in you will not be disappointed.
What else is left to offer (as the Prodigal Son realised) except the broken heart and the humbled spirit. Can we even find in ourselves the desire to put our whole heart into following our Lord, and how can we ever do that without, in the first place, His grace? We want to seek his face once more - or do we? Is it really faith, hope and love that we want (can we want such gifts before we have them?) or some form of religion that will buttress our egos, massage our sense of identity, make us feel special and different?
Do not disappoint us: treat us gently, as you yourself are gentle and very merciful. Grant us deliverance worthy of your wonderful deeds, let your name win glory, Lord.
We believe the Church is holy, not because of us (obviously), but because of Christ who is its Head, and Mary who is its Mother, and all the saints who have grown within it. It seems as if the deliverance we need is a fresh and compelling manifestation of holiness. In what ways might that come about? In what parts of the world? In what kinds of people? Who is there who can speak Christ to us in ways that will startle, shock, disturb, but ultimately convince by the Truth they convey?