6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – ISLI Retreat Closing MassFebruary 16, 2020

 This past November, Thanksgiving week to be precise, I spent 7 days in Rome with the bishops of PA and NJ – a trip that every bishop in the world is expected to make every 5 years or so.  It’s called the ad limina visit – which literally means “to the threshold” – the threshold of the apostles Peter and Paul, who both were martyred in Rome.  It’s purpose is not only for each bishop to give an accounting of the local church/diocese entrusted to his care, but also to pray at certain important sites in Rome, to engage various Church leaders to hear their perspectives on Church life and ministry – and, of course, to meet with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis is an incredible figure – so down to earth – so sensitive to all that is unfolding in our lives – the struggles we face – the challenges that are ours – and the opportunities that we have to live life to the fullest as disciples of Jesus.

Special greetings from Pope Francis to you!  In our 2 ½ hours with him, he challenged us to listen to the voices of the young Church and to do all that we can to help you live out your faith – to sing your song – and to leave your mark for goodness in our world.

Most every day when I was in Rome, like every visitor, I found myself walking across the great piazza in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, at times overwhelmed by the splendor of that space and at others, simply rushing from one meeting to the next. Whenever I was fortunate enough to pause and reflect a bit on where I stood and why, I couldn’t help but focus upon a massive, new statue installed in the piazza by Pope Francis, entitled “Angels Unawares.”

The statute, the first to be installed in Saint Peter’s Square in over 400 years, is a 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high bronze and clay work of art depicting 140 immigrants of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities.  The artist, Timothy Schmalz, took inspiration from pictures of refugees and immigrants throughout history — from persecuted Jews and Christians fleeing the Middle East to Irish escaping the potato famine to Poles fleeing from communism. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are also hidden among the figures.  Recall that they fled to Egypt to ensure the safety of Jesus – and ultimately to safeguard the mission of salvation for which his was born.

At the center of the crowd of 140 immigrants are a pair of wings directed at the sky. The angel wings hearken to the title of the artwork, “Angels Unawares,” which is taken directly from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

I’ve thought about this statue and its meaning a lot since I experienced it.  First and foremost, it challenges us to focus on the plight of so many in our world who are struggling to find a way forward in life – reminding us that in our welcome of strangers to our shores, our borders and our lives, there are angels unawares.  …  God is present.

But I’ve also come to see this statue not only as a challenging social commentary – but as a reminder to all of us of the determination of the human spirit to keep the flame of faith and the fire of God’s love burning in our hearts – no matter the challenge or the obstacle!

It’s that love of God which translates into respect for the human person – made in the very image and likeness of God – that has prompted souls down through the centuries to flee violence, hatred, and oppression to ensure that the lives entrusted to their care are reverenced and respected.  …  The fire of God’s love is what ultimately prompted so many of our ancestors to come to this land that we call our home today.  …  And it’s what prompted Mary and Joseph to flee their homeland to protect their child.

Jesus calls us to treasure that same “fire” in today’s gospel and to pass on the love that God has for all of his sons and daughters – transforming the darkness and bitterness of our world into the kingdom of peace that enables us to live as sisters and brothers.

Yet, it’s fair to say that in Saint Matthew’s gospel, there is a tension present between how some believe we pass on the “fire” of God’s love into the nuts and bolts of everyday living.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed that they engaged that hope by meticulously keeping the letter of the Law.  For Jesus, however, it’s not that simple.  For Jesus, while the Law was a starting point, it was just that.  For Jesus, the heart of the matter is not the minimum we need to do.

For Jesus, the heart of the matter is what it takes to be an authentic disciple – what it takes to embrace the way of life that he lived and for which he died – what it takes to keep the “fire” of his love aflame in our world.

We’re not saved by a cheap grace – but by a love which took Jesus to the cross and cost him his life.  To be authentic disciples, then, we have to live our faith with integrity – and not merely give it lip service by following the letter of a law – Thou shall not kill, or steal or commit adultery – while missing its spirit altogether!

The perfect example of what Jesus is calling all of us to embrace comes from today’s gospel, with little need for editorializing.  …  If you bring your gift to the altar and realize that your brother has something against you, go first to be reconciled and only then bring your gift.

When the chips are down, the message of today’s gospel is one of the most challenging that we’ll ever face.  It does, however, give us some very keen insight into how to become that faithful, authentic disciple of Jesus.

In our first reading today from the Old Testament book of Sirach, we are reminded that before each of us are choices for “life and death, good and evil.”  …  Choose life.  Always choose life – not just the edge of life or the minimum that we need in order to cross the finish line with one foot in God’s Kingdom and the other still firmly planted in this crazy world in which we live.

Choose the life that is born from your heart – where Jesus’ life is real and where “the fire” of his love burns brightly.  …  Sing your song and be Jesus’ voice, his hands and his heart to a world so desperately in need of his love.