Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21, 2024 

I’m sure that just about every one of us who is listening to this homily can make an association with the reluctant prophet spoken of in the first passage proclaimed in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  If I say “Jonah,” what’s the first thought/word that comes to your mind?  …  Most of us probably responded “whale” – or more precisely as the scriptures note – “a large fish,” recalling that it was Jonah who was swallowed by a large fish and lived to talk about it.

Now a follow-up question.  Do you know the circumstances that led to his encounter with this large fish and ultimately that prompted him to preach a message of repentance and God’s mercy to the people of Ninevah? 

Jonah was something of a reluctant prophet.  He was called to preach a message inviting the people of Ninevah to change their lives – to repent – to be converted – and to embrace the mercy of God.  Seems straightforward and reasonable enough.  The problem for Jonah, however, was the fact that Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria.  The Assyrians were Israel’s greatest enemies who had plagued Israel for years with invasions, death, persecution and torture.  As such, Jonah didn’t believe for an instant that the people of Ninevah were worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness, let alone his efforts in preaching to them. 

 So, when asked by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah responds with a resounding “No!”  …  To avoid the prophetic call that God was extending to him, Jonah got on a boat and sailed in the opposite direction of Ninevah.  A storm came up.  The crew on the ship believed Jonah was the cause of their bad luck.  They tossed him overboard into the raging waters.  He was scooped up by the great fish – and eventually spewed out on the shores of – you guessed it – Ninevah.  With nowhere else to hide, Jonah reluctantly preached repentance to people whom he believed did not deserve a second chance.  But much to his surprise, they repented!  …  In the end, as is always the case, God’s plan prevailed over Jonah’s misguided beliefs.

 Two days ago, faithful from throughout this great land and from our own Diocese of Scranton traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the 51st Annual March for Life.  This gathering in our nation’s capital has been an annual clarion call reminding each of us of the vital responsibility that we’ve been given as disciples of Jesus to proclaim the sanctity of every human life and, in turn, to witness to that proclamation by the respect and reverence that we extend to the lives that God places within our own. 

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, the battle to protect human life has shifted a bit from a national perspective to a more local initiative.  While there were fewer marchers in Washington on Friday compared to years gone by, thousands from around our Commonwealth have gathered in Harrisburg for the past two years and will do so again on this coming September 23rd for the third annual Pennsylvania March for Life.  And we will continue to make our voices heard, sadly, because of efforts like those being promoted in our own state legislature along with scores of other states that are intent on passing pro-abortion legislation. 

In short, the overturning of Roe has given the Pro-Life cause great hope.  It has not, however, ended the work that still needs to be done to create a culture of life in our land.  And that, brothers and sisters, is why we pray so intently at this Mass today. 

We would be remiss if we failed to carefully heed the message of today’s scriptures, particularly our first reading from the prophet Jonah and the gospel passage from Saint Mark.

In calling his disciples to journey with him in his mission of salvation, as we hear in Mark’s gospel, Jesus not only entrusts to them the message of God’s mercy and love.  He does so as well to each of us who have been baptized into his life, death and resurrection and who also seek to walk in his footsteps.  To be authentic disciples, Jesus beckons us to reach out and grasp the hand of those who struggle and stumble and to impart to them the love, mercy and forgiveness of God.

Essentially, what that understanding of God’s merciful presence in our world demands of those of us is that we never yield to the posture embraced by Jonah in today’s Old Testament passage that found him withholding God’s love from those whose sins appeared to him to be beyond God’s forgiving reach.  In so doing, we risk putting parameters around how God should act in relationship to his creation.  We place limits on God’s love and saving grace.  And we – who are all so desperately in need of God’s mercy – amazingly decide who is worthy of being loved, forgiven and saved by God. 

Friends, when we allow ourselves to assume such a role that belongs to God alone, look what happens.  We keep people at a distance.  We judge actions and motives.  We become critical of individuals and we contribute to the polarization that has become rampant in our world, our country and even in our church.

Our greatest efforts in building a culture of life are discovered when we courageously speak the truth, as Jesus has proclaimed it, and when we, in turn, respond to those whose beliefs fall short of treating all lives with dignity and respect with respect, dignity and love. 

Pope Francis has taught us that “the dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances, not because that dignity is something we have invented or imagined, but because human beings possess an intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations. This requires that they be treated differently. That every human being possesses an inalienable dignity is a truth that corresponds to human nature apart from all cultural change.”

Brothers and sisters, the work to preserve and protect human life did not come to an end with the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe.  And the most important work that we can engage is the changing of minds and hearts – our own and those of others.  That occurs through prayer and through our efforts to walk with women and their children – to assist them during unplanned or difficult pregnancies – to be available to them for support and care once their children have been born – to love and accept them in the midst of challenges – and to respectfully advocate for life at every opportunity.

May we all make as our own these words of Jesus taken from today’s gospel passage, “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”