Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“Many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” John 2:23
Soon after Pope Benedict XVI was elected pope, he met with the Italian children from Rome who would be making their First Communion that year. Like a good pastor, the Pope allowed the children to ask him questions. One question came from a little girl. She asked, “How do I know Jesus? If I can’t see Jesus, then how do I know he exists?” That is a good question, and one that an adult could have asked just as well. This is how the Pope responded. “Well,” he answered, “we can’t see electricity, can we, and yet we know when we turn on the light switch, the light will go on.” The light is the sign that tells us electricity is working. We know Jesus by His signs.
As Catholics, we call those signs, sacraments. As a matter of fact, “sacrament” comes from a Latin word that means sign. A sacrament is a sign that communicates Christ to us. Christ works through the sacrament, and He is present to us in the sacrament. This is why we can say that a sacrament is what it signifies. A sacrament does not merely symbolize Christ. It is Christ communicating to us. The Catechism of our Church has this to say about the sacraments: “They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1116). God like a divine artist has created an entirely new reality, when He created the sacraments. Here God takes human signs, like bread and wine, or oil and water, and fills them with His Spirit so that they can communicate something of Himself to men and women. Signs always played an important role in bringing people to faith in the New Testament. One such example plays an important role in the Gospel of today’s Mass.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a high holy feast commemorating and reliving the Hebrew deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Jesus chooses this moment to purify the Temple. He finds the Temple filled with money changers and animal salesmen, all of which were necessary for the sacrifices and offerings to be made there. What Jesus did must have shocked the crowds. “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’” (John 2:15-16). When the people see Jesus do this disruptive thing, they ask for a sign. What is the sign that gives Jesus the right to do this? The sign is nothing less than Jesus Himself. Jesus Himself would replace the Temple. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The true sign is Jesus, and “… many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing” (John 2:23).
Some will ask, “Where is there any mention of ‘sacrament’ in the New Testament?” The fact is the New Testament is all about “sacrament.” Jesus is the “sacrament.” Every time He works a miracle, changes water into wine, transforms wine into blood, makes the deaf hear and mute speak and the blind see—these are all signs of God presence. Christ is Himself the presence of God in our midst, and being the presence of God, He is the sacrament, the sign of salvation. And just as He purified the Temple and predicted its destruction, He used this as a sign that He was to become the Temple. He would be the place of worship. He Himself would be the sacrament of salvation. It is in this sense that the Book of Revelation describes the Heavenly Jerusalem. St. John in his vision saw no Temple in the New Jerusalem, with good reason, because the earthly temple had been destroyed. There was a new Temple, and it was Jesus. This is what he writes: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22).
Every time I celebrate a sacrament I enter into the Temple of Jesus. Human hands did not make it. It is God’s masterpiece, God’s creation. With every sacrament I participate in the resurrected-temple body of the Lord Jesus. For this reason St. Paul can write what he writes about the reception of the Eucharist. He says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26). In each and every sacrament I encounter the living Jesus.
Like electricity, I do not need to see it to know that the light will go on. I know it exists. The light gives proof to an invisible reality. Each sacrament is a light that illumines Christ who assures me of His presence. I know He is present because the sign communicates what it signifies, the love of Jesus for me and my desire to be more deeply a part of Jesus.