Summary: We are in danger in the U.S. Church today because we have in many ways lost that attitude of reverence, humble fear, toward God.

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2018

Extraordinary Form

Every morning all Catholic clergy, and thousands of lay Catholics, pray the Benedictus prayer of Zechariah. It’s the prayer John the Baptist’s father vocalized when his voice was restored after John’s birth. There is a line in this beautiful prayer about human beings acquiring knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Zechariah and the Church pray that because the human condition has been made wretched because of human sin. Sin is the problem, and the grace of Our Lord, the Christ, is the solution.

So when Our Lord, probably just moments after He arrived in Capernaum after a missionary voyage, saw yet another paralyzed man being brought to Him by his friends, He got right to the root of the man’s problems. His words “Be of good courage, child, your sins are wiped away” were totally unexpected by the observers. And pretty much all of them missed the point. The scribes immediately thought “Blasphemy, He’s claiming to forgive sins like God.” The rest probably thought, “Duh, doesn’t this guy realize the man can’t walk?” But Jesus gets it. He is human in every way except sin, so from His sinless condition He can see into everyone’s soul and knows the truth. If we are paralyzed in every muscle of our body, but die in the state of grace, we will be totally healed in the presence of God forever. If every muscle works, and we can win every Olympic event by setting a new world record, but die in mortal sin, the real game of life is lost and we will suffer the loss of God and happiness forever.

Furthermore, Our Lord used this healing to teach us something about the Church He was in the process of founding. And He did so with something like a scientific demonstration. Much of modern science involves creating models of what we can’t see to explain events that we can see. So we imagine huge numbers of gas molecules moving very rapidly to explain the pressure of the atmosphere and the movement of weather systems over the earth. We imagine the molecules of water in the ocean turning to vapor and blowing over the land to slow down, clump together and form raindrops.

Christ knew that His critics, hearing Him declare that the poor paralyzed man’s sins are forgiven, didn’t believe He had the power of God to do such a thing. The grace poured into the man’s soul and making him spiritually clean was invisible, so Our Lord’s power to forgive was not visible to the onlookers. But when He used that same divine power to restore the man’s nervous and muscular system so that he could walk, the visible manifestation of healing power of the body validated the invisible healing power of the soul. Our Lord came to us, died for us, rose to new life and then gave us the Holy Spirit so that the Church could continue in our time the healing work that Jesus did in His three years on earth. Remember, His first words to the apostles on the day of Resurrection, up in the room where they had celebrated the first Mass, were “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain are retained.”

Of all the spiritual gifts that Our Lord has given to the Church, this gift of reconciliation, effected by His Passion and death and resurrection, is the best. It is the only reason St. Paul can tell us that “Our Lord Jesus Christ will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We should often imitate the crowds who witnessed the miracle. They glorified God who had given such power to men–to the priests of the Church.

Now there’s one more statement in the Gospel that might just confuse us. It’s tucked into the passage I just quoted. The crowds, Matthew tells us, “were afraid, and glorified God.” The people of Capernaum realized that Jesus was exercising the power of God, that He was acting in some way as the presence of God, and that in some sense terrified them. This requires some explanation.

“Fear of the Lord” is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit catalogued in chapter 11 of Isaiah. It is a gift, which means it is good. So it isn’t the same as being afraid God will zap us if we fall into sin. God is not a monster, waiting for us to do something stupid so He can hit us upside the head. God is a loving Father. What we mean by “fear of the Lord” is that we know ourselves well enough to realize that we are very weak and pretty stupid when it comes to moral conduct. So we are afraid of doing something weak and stupid and sinful that will disappoint the One who loved us so much He gave up His only Son to death for our salvation.

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