Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2018.
We have asked in our Collect for the grace to love what Jesus has commanded us to love, and to desire what He has promised to us. And we have asked that our hearts be fixed to where true joys are to be found, amid the swift and varied changes of the world. Life indeed does change on a dime. Our sense of normalcy, of just wanting things to get back to the way they used to be, because they were going along, well not perfectly, but well enough—the rug gets pulled out from under us. Dramatic changes in our life are swift—too swift.
To love what Jesus has commanded us to love, and to desire what He has promised to us. A superficial reflection on these words would render them little more than sentiment one finds on a Hallmark greeting card. Sure, I will love what Jesus has commanded; sure, I want what He has promised. Well, He wants us to carry our cross and He has commanded us to follow Him. That’s all well and good when we get to sit down on the grass, listen to Him teach and watch Him preach, and then be fed by Him with bread from heaven.
That’s all well and good, in other words, when Christianity is something of a spectator sport—when we can watch the action from a distance, and even when the action gets tough, when Jesus says to the crowd, “I am not the Messiah you thought I would be. I am not a political leader who will overturn injustice and oppression through political action.” Instead He again teaches who He really is: He is the kind of messiah who will suffer mightily, He will die on the cross, with no political victory of any kind attained.
That’s all well and good, except the hard part: which is that Christianity is not a spectator sport. It is not a novel or historical fiction or video game with adult themes; it is not a movie rated PG-13. Jesus demands our heart. In the biblical sense, He demands the depth of one’s being, where a person decides for or against God. He wants us to get onto the Ark with Noah and his relations, and not get off before it is time—He wants our heart not for an initial moment of enthusiasm, but for the long haul, after the novelty wears off. He wants us to walk with Abraham and Isaac, like them giving ourselves over to His will, His Providential hands; He wants us to trust Him so much that we totally depend upon Him, and know that we have that kind of relationship with Him.
Do we want to have a clean heart? How can we avoid that question given our Psalm today? These words of Psalm 51—are they our words? Is the prayer of Psalm 51 our prayer? Do we really want to have a clean heart? We cannot make it clean ourselves. Only God can—through our prayer, and through our humility, coming to Him on our knees in contrition with a willingness, with an openness to the possibility that God’s voice will come upon us like a thunderbolt as it came to the crowd standing by Jesus as He preached that the hour can come for Him to be glorified—to die like a grain of wheat dies before it can become fruitful—heard the thunder as He preached that anyone who loves their life will lose it, and anyone who hates this life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
That is another teaching about idolatry, where loving one’s life is an image Jesus uses to convict us of putting love of other things in front of love for Him. When the moment comes when a person realizes that he or she has made things of this world into a god, to take the place of the adoration due to God Almighty alone, to take the place of adoration due to Jesus Christ, who gave His life for the sins of each and every one of us—that realization thunders throughout the body, mind, and soul—thunders throughout the heart.
It is only when we realize our radical helplessness that the words, “Create in me a clean heart” actually become words that we need. Actually become a desire that resonates within our whole being. God wants us to realize the totality of our dependence upon Him. He baptized all of us, completely, wholly, comprehensively for that very purpose. He put His law within us and wrote it on our hearts—that He is our God and we are His people—so that we can truly experience the joy of His saving help—that when we open our lips, our mouth shall proclaim His praise.
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