Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Ez 24:15-23; Dt 32:18-21; Mt 19:16-22
“You will have treasure in heaven.”

Our responsorial on this Feast of Saint Bernard is taken from the book of Deuteronomy. This third book of the Torah is a second telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. The Great Prophet and Lawgiver, Moses, rebukes the people of God with preaching that we need to hear, centuries later: “You have forgotten God who gave you birth.” Even in the early days of freedom from slavery, the people fashioned a god they could see and honor in all the ways they had honored gods during their slavery. They worshiped a molten calf and provoked the anger of the LORD God Almighty. This sin of forgetfulness followed the Pilgrim People all through history and follows us in our own journey of faith. We become unmindful of the Rock who begot us; we forget the God who gave us birth. This hurts our Creator who made us in his own image and likeness. We are created with the desire to be filled with God, and when we are unmindful of our origins or forget our dignity we only hurt ourselves. Our turning away from God diminishes our humanity; we become ugly in our own sight and self-loathing destroys our confidence. We live in fear of being unmasked; we only survive waiting for the next foot to drop and utterly crush us. In this misery and poverty we experience the desolation of all who are abandoned, forsaken, and lost. We cannot see the face of the LORD because we constantly turn away from that glory. Our piety is like the morning dew that quickly fades in the brightness of the noonday. But this is not the end of the story. Even in the midst of our mindlessness and our forgetfulness, the LORD raises up prophets like Ezekiel and Saint Bernard for our imitation. These men given to prayer and lost in contemplation grew in strength to summon kings, nobles, popes, monks, rich and poor alike to return to the One who first loved them. These holy prophets continue to call us out of our foolishness and into the wisdom of a gospel life where we live like the Lord Jesus and seek first the Kingdom of God abandoning all our vain idols, selling all we have and giving to the poor so that we might have a treasure that will last unto the ages of ages.

It’s so natural to mourn or weep or shed many tears upon the death of a wife, or a husband, or a parent, or anyone so loved. Yet, this natural love and affection is only a hint of God’s love and affection for us. His unconditional love and faithful mercy is so unnatural. Love and affection in our relationships is so dependent upon the other. That’s why God’s love seems so unnatural, because we do not earn it, deserve it, or control it in any way. God is love, as Saint John reveals. He is the very definition of love and it’s ultimate source. This love remains no matter what his people do or don’t do. The sudden blow of God taking away his wife, the delight of his eyes, shocks Ezekiel. The sudden blow of God taking away his temple, the delight of the eyes of his people, shocks Israel. The prophet represents the people, and Ezekiel is a sign for them; all that the prophet does, so the people must do. Ezekiel shares in the divine sadness that is provoked by the death of his people Israel; in the exile they lost everything: the temple, the king, the priesthood, the land, everything was lost. Indeed, their identity was severely threatened by their exile. Yet, this new danger is not unlike the danger of slavery in Egypt. The mixing and mingling with a pagan nation evolved into a forgetfulness that continues to plague God’s people in every generation. It is God’s faithfulness and kindness that is the real shock for us. His love and mercy wake us up from the slumber of self-pity and self-destructive behaviors. When all we have is sadness, mourning, and grief, it is then and only then that the LORD’s love is shocking enough to wake us up. “Thus you shall know that I am the LORD!”

In a world that based a person’s value upon what he had, a world not that unfamiliar to us, what a shock to hear the Lord Jesus say: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” At the time of Jesus worldly treasure was a sure sign of God’s favor and of future glory. How can a possession free person be perfect? How can one who has nothing be perfect? Poverty was a sure sign of divine retribution, a sign of God’s disfavor. The law of Moses is known to the young man, and as he explained, all these commands I have observed all my life. “What do I still lack?” This young man gave Jesus the power to redesign his life. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. This is great rhetoric, but no real power to change. When the Lord Jesus made known the demands of being his follower, he went away sad. When the Lord Jesus summoned the young man to trust him completely, he went away sad. When the Lord Jesus revealed that following him means living like he lived, he went away sad. Saint Bernard heard this divine demand and followed the Lord Jesus. We are a richer church because of Saint Bernard’s poverty. We are able to hear the demands of the gospel as a joyful liberation from all that possesses us in this world, and we go with the Lord Jesus in great jubilation.

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