One Saturday morning many years ago, I was sitting in my parents’ bedroom watching TV while my Dad cleaned out some drawers by dumping them out on the bed. I spied a small bundle of envelopes tied with a red ribbon and said “Hey, what’s this? Can I take a look?”
“Sure,” he said absent-mindedly. But as I grabbed them, he came to his senses and said “Put those down!” They were the love letters my parents had exchanged while courting.
I don’t know where those letters ended up, but if I do come across them when we finish sorting out Mom’s things, I don’t think I’ll read them. Love letters should be read only by those to whom they’re addressed.
But earlier today, as he celebrated Mass on the very first Sunday of the Word of God, Pope Francis described God’s word as a kind of a “love letter” he has written to each of us, to help us understand He is at our side.
Imagine a love letter that was never read by the person to whom it was addressed. There’s nothing sadder than stories of tender letters written to soldiers that didn’t arrive until after they had lost their lives in battle. Or a love letter marked “return to sender” after an unresolved hurt.
Pope Francis has instituted the Sunday of the Word of God for the same reason St. John Paul gave the Church Divine Mercy Sunday—to help us know that God wants to give us “peace of heart, the joy of being forgiven and feeling loved.”
In his homily today, the Pope explains beautifully what the Letter to Hebrews means when it says “the word of God is living and active.” He said the “word consoles and encourages us. At the same time it challenges us, frees us from the bondage of our selfishness and summons us to conversion. Because his word has the power to change our lives and to lead us out of darkness into the light.”
Notice those verbs: Consoles. Encourages. Challenges. Changes. Leads.
I love the sacraments, and I know you do also. But sometimes we forget that God comes to us in great power also through the Bible, the message of salvation.
That verse from the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to describe God’s word as sharper than a two-edged sword. Forget that ancient image: it means the word is as sharp as a scalpel. It means God uses his word like a heart surgeon, entering the most intimate places within us.
The Pope explains this too. He says the word of salvation “enters the complex and obscure places in our lives… God wants to visit the very places we think he will never go.”
But with his typical bluntness, Francis warns that all too often we are the ones who close the door, preferring to keep our confusion, our dark side and our unfaithfulness hidden and locked up inside us, “approaching the Lord with some rote prayers, [cautious] lest his truth stir our hearts.”
The Holy Father uses today’s Gospel to answer three questions about the preaching of Jesus: how, where and to whom.
How? The Lord began simply, with a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
His first message is that God is not far from us. “He has torn down walls and shortened distances.”
“God came to visit us in person, by becoming man… For love, he took on our human nature … because he loves us and desires freely to give us the salvation that, alone and unaided, we cannot hope to attain. He wants to stay with us.”
The second message is an invitation to change. Although Jesus meets us where we are, from the beginning he tells us that’s not where he wants us to stay.
He demands that we repent—“in other words,” the Pope says, ‘Change your life’. Change your life, for a new way of living has begun. The time when you lived for yourself is over; now is the time for living with and for God, with and for others, with and for love.”
And today Jesus speaks those same words to us: “Take heart, I am here with you, allow me to enter and your life will change.”
As for where: “Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout Galilee, passing “through all of that varied and complex region. In the same way,” the Pope says, “he is not afraid to explore the terrain of our hearts and to enter the roughest and most difficult corners of our lives.”
To whom is rather obvious: Jesus began with fishermen, “using the language they understood. Their lives changed on the spot. He called them where they were and as they were, in order to make them sharers in his mission.”
In our parish, we’ve talked a lot about how we have all been called in baptism and confirmation to share in the mission of Jesus. Today we are reminded that the sacraments are not the only source of our missionary call. The word of God, living and active, continues to invite and to guide us on our discipleship path.
Pope Francis urged that we “make room inside ourselves for the word of God!” If we do that, “we will discover that God is close to us, that he dispels our darkness and, with great love, leads our lives into deep waters.”
And he ended with simple and practical advice. . “Each day,” he said, “let us read a verse or two of the Bible. Let us begin with the Gospel: let us keep it open on our table, carry it in our pocket or bag, read it on our cell phones, and allow it to inspire us daily.”
In other words, let us find at least a little time to read the love letter God has written to us.