Words on the Word

12. Sunday A

This homily was preached in Italian. You can find the original by clicking on ‘Norsk’ in the top left-hand corner of your screen. 

Jer 20,10-13: But you, Lord, scrutinise the loins and the heart.
Rom 5,12-15: Death reigned over all from Adam to Moses.
Mt 10,26-33: Everything now covered will be uncovered.

Our readings speak to us about processes of revelation and unmasking. The texts are old, yet indicate tensions intrinsic to postmodern Western society. We have become a crowd of exhibitionists. The internet gives us startling resources to publicise our private sphere. Each of us can, with the simple means of a mobile phone and a mirror, upload seductive photographs of ourselves, film ourselves feeding the dog, or pontificate on the state of the world and the Church.

The worldwide web feeds the agreeable illusion that there is before us an immense audience waiting with bated breath for our oracles, our communications. At the conclusion of Lauds yesterday we prayed, ‘May all be prophets in the community’. Well, it’s never been easier to pass as one. We hear the word prophecy used a lot. There’s a risk, though, that the term is devalued thereby, becoming self-referential, wordy, tiring — boring, quite simply.

This tendency coexists with conscious obfuscation. Because we are so exposed to one another, we expend much energy in hiding aspects of our lives we don’t want others to know about. Banks and the health service spend a lot of money encrypting data. It’s good that they do!

More problematic are the games we privately play, hiding fragile or compromising aspects of our personality behind fictitious facades. The great scandals of our time, whether in a secular or an ecclesiastical context, are almost all linked to wanting coherence, to a certain disorder in the lives of public personages, even in the lives of supposed prophets.

‘Everything now covered will be uncovered’, says the Lord. It is a verifiable proposition. No darkness can indefinitely vanquish the light. This fact may not seem reassuring, humanly speaking, if we do not prepare ourselves well, considering with frankness our existence, asking ourselves, ‘Is mine an integral or a double life? Are there shadowy corners I maintain inaccessible to the purifying light? If so, how can I deal with them?’ As we go about this indispensable work, we might consider the example of an ancient prophet — a genuine prophet, not a false one — and from it draw inspiration and courage.

Jeremiah became a prophet despite himself. When the Lord called him, he resisted: ‘Alas, Lord! I do not know how to speak!’ He had to learn that the authentic prophet does not speak words of his or her own. The prophetic task is to be a mouthpiece for the word of Another. ‘Behold’, the Lord told Jeremiah, ‘I will put my words into your mouth’. Thus, only thus, would he become a dependable reference for Israel, ‘a column of iron, a wall of bronze’. A prophet must divest himself of self, assuming the mantle provided by God’s sweet providence. This way of living, this kind of kenosis, is not accomplished once for all. It must constantly be tested and purified.

This is the process we encounter in the reading we have heard. Jeremiah is no longer a novice. He knows what it means to serve the Word which is ‘like fire, like a hammer that splits the rock’ (23,29). He knows the antagonism prophecy provokes, for true prophecy is rarely apt to please all. Above all he has learnt how to live in God’s presence. He acclaims:

You, O Lord of Hosts, you who probe with justice, רֹאֶה כְלָיוֹת וָלֵב

It’s a pity that the Bible approved by the Italian Bishops’ Conference translates this last phrase, ‘who see the heart and the mind [che vedi il cuore e la mente]’. The determined reader must go and find a magnifying glass in order to look out, in a tiny footnote, the indication that the literal sense is rather, ‘who scrutinise the loins and the heart’.

The heart and mind stand for intellectual faculties, those parts of ourselves we consider noblest. The loins meanwhile represent that dimension of ourselves that reason cannot capture — our appetites, passions, and sensuality. We easily suppose that these depths have nothing to do with the life of faith, that they are like unruly barking dogs we must just strive to keep quiet. This is a mistake. Grace must reach this level too in an ‘evangelisation of the depths’, to cite a suggestive phrase coined by Simone Pacot.

When scandal arises in the world or in the Church, is it not often because persons whose vocation at the outset was crystalline and fruitful have gradually lost the habit of letting their loins be scrutinised and ordered, so ending up living, as it were, at two levels simultaneously, proposing exalted discourse while being in fact governed by passions, all the more deadly for being unacknowledged?

Brothers and sisters, let’s not fall into that trap! Let’s have humility and Christian realism to let all our being be scrutinised by God’s healing light, that all might be illumined, indeed, that all might become light. The Lord scrutinises us with mercy — Jeremiah insists on this — but also with divine clearsightedness. He does not share our cherished fancies about ourselves. Let us learn, then, to live in truth at every level. In that way we shall, little by little, by God’s grace, find freedom at every level, too. Amen.


Photograph from Väversunda Kyrka.