Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 17, 2019.)

Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician of the seventeenth century, had a religious experience one night in 1654.

The following day, he wrote these words: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of philosophers nor of the scholars. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ, my God and thy God. ‘Thy God shall be my God.’ Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God. He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Greatness of the soul of man. ‘Righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee.’ Joy. Joy. Joy, tears of joy. Jesus Christ. I have fallen away: I have fled from him, denied him, crucified him. May I not fall away forever. We keep hold of him only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Renunciation, total and sweet. Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth. I will not forget Thy word. Amen.”

The words reflect an encounter with the Lord in prayer that changed the course of Pascal’s life. The change was unseen but profound, an interior change that caused him to look at his own life in a different manner. He was now clearly directed, moved and motivated by a love of God. Everything else finds its place in this framework, and Pascal found joy, peace and happiness – even though he suffered with some grave medical conditions.

The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy contains the beatitudes. Most of us are more familiar with the version in the Gospel of Matthew, which begins with “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Today’s account comes from the Gospel according to Luke. This version has two sections. The first announces blessings, the second woes. “Blessed are you who are poor or hungry or sorrowful or persecuted” and “woe to you who are rich or who are satisfied or laugh or praised.” At the center of all is a call to root one’s life in God.

Jesus is not making a statement praising the value of poverty, hunger, sadness or persecution in themselves. However, when a person living in with one or more of these realities finds their solace, strength and sustenance in God and through Christ, then they are indeed blessed and will find not only relief but reward. The same can be said in reverse for those experiencing the “woes.” This world cannot substitute for God; the world’s ways cannot provide that which comes from God, no matter how satisfied one might feel at a particular moment.

Jeremiah has a similar message in the first reading. He says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord … [but] … blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord.”

One illustration Jeremiah uses to contrast the two is a bush or tree. The one who relies on man or himself is like a “barren bush in the desert.” It will be very difficult for this person to get what he or she needs for life. They may be satisfied at a particular moment, but not for the long haul of life. On the other hand, the person who trusts in God is like a “tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream.”

The roots of a tree, or any plant for that matter, will naturally grow toward water to find nutrients and sustenance. So too for the person who seeks God. In the interior of our hearts, at the core of our being, we seek him who is the source of life. When we do this, we will be nourished and hence grow strong, finding peace and experiencing joy.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians to exhort them to keep the faith. Apparently, there are those who have come to the community preaching that there is no resurrection from the dead. Paul addresses this in clear and direct terms: “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.”

Our faith in God is centered on Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead. His passion, death and resurrection is the heart of faith. Removing this or minimizing this in any way will separate us from the source of life. It would be like cutting the roots from the tree. Faith in Christ Jesus and in his resurrection feeds and nourishes us for the journey of life — as Saint Paul says: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

After Pascal died, a friend was going through his things. He noticed an unusual piece of cloth attached to the interior of his coat. He pulled the stitches of the patch away and a piece of paper dropped out. On that paper were the words Pascal wrote after that experience in 1654. It was later discovered that Pascal had positioned the paper to lay near his heart, moving it each time he got a new coat, so that he would never forget to keep hold of Christ by the ways taught in the Gospel.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.