Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Second Sunday of Lent

23 Feb 2013

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Second Sunday of Lent

Marriage Encounter European Council meeting, Dromantine Retreat & Conference Centre, Newry, Co Down in the Diocese of Dromore

 “Saint Paul was able to say that the love of husband and wife is a revelation of Christ’s love for his spouse, the Church” – Bishop McKeown

The scripture reading and the liturgical seasons are always a gift from God to us. Sometimes we chose readings for a particular event – but hearing the Word of the Lord is never merely an encounter with nice words and inspiring sentiments.  It is a doorway into, and an encounter with the Word of God, the Jesus who is the Word made flesh that dwells among us, the Lord who is Emmanuel, God with us.

Thus today’s story of the Transfiguration is not just an account of a memorable event for Peter, James and John, not some trophy memory that the other apostles did not receive.  It was a glimpse of the mystery of who Jesus was.  It was an uncomfortable encounter with the truth.  It was an insight into God that was to strengthen them in their ministry to others.  In the Christian worldview, all gifts are to be shared and never hoarded, all opportunities and blessings are given for mission.  Like last Sunday’s story of the temptations of Jesus, the Transfiguration is a challenge to go out far beyond our comfortable convictions about the divine and the human revealed in Jesus – and trust that what we find there is not fear but love, not desert but promised land, not loss but grace in abundance.

Speaking to the Bundestag in Berlin in September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI – in analysing our modern European culture – used a powerful image.  He described our earthbound, positivist worldview as one that has locked itself away in a bunker, trying to provide all its own light and sustenance, and unable to look outside itself for beauty or meaning.  We prefer what we know.  We feel we can control it.  But both the Transfiguration and your witness of faithful incarnate married love are calls to go far beyond the comfortable and know – much more profoundly – who we are and who God is.  The search for truth and love are journeys into the unknown.  It is precisely in the desert and on the mountain that God’s chose people encounter the divine.  These little glimpses into the mystery of love and of the divine transfigure life.  In the words of the Andrew Lloyd Webber song: love changes everything.

The core of Marriage Encounter is sometimes superficially summed up in phrases like “God does not make junk”.  But Christian married love is not some fuzzy self-centred, self-help therapy.  It is precisely the opposite of any such inward-looking attempt at mere self-fulfilment.  Saint Paul was able to say that the love of husband and wife is a revelation of Christ’s love for his spouse, the Church.

As Christians, we have that startling belief that our chaste relationships can be a sacrament, a sign of who God is.  This is not self-fulfilment but self-transcendence in Christ.  The Good News says that the Divine was not just incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  God continues to be glimpsed in our consecrated relationships for our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very strong in this regard “The flesh is the hinge of salvation. We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh.”  Christopher West, speaking of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body, puts it this way: “The problem with our sex-saturated culture is not that it overvalues the body and sex. The problem is that it has failed to see just how valuable the body and sex really are.”

In 2005 Pope Benedict, in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), warns that when eros “is relegated to the purely biological sphere, the apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.”  That is what Saint Paul is referring to in today’s second reading.  Those who turn food and other bodily pleasures into their God are actually stultifying their own call to transcendence.

I worked for many years in schools and with young people in other areas of Church life.  I believe that, for many of them, the emphasis on the external and on transient pleasures implies a hollowing out of the capacity for beauty in their lives.  If the beautiful has to be bought or ingested or applied to the skin or hair, then I have no beauty in me.  If love and respect have to be earned by what I have or what I achieve, then I have no value in myself.

That ‘bunker’ approach to human life lies behind much of the self-loathing and self-harm that seems to be widespread in our societies. It was Viktor Frankl who suggested that our society gives us the means by which to live but not a meaning for which to live.

So the Taoiseach Enda Kenny was at least partially correct this week when he recognised the cold harshness of elements in Irish society which, for decades, allowed for terrible treatment of those who were seen to have broken the strict sexual norms of society.  The blindness and hardheartedness of so many in Church is a cause of shame.  But it is dangerous to tell a simplistic story of a ‘harsh past’ and ‘more compassionate modernity’ division.  The real challenge is not merely to castigate the past for its failings but to have the wisdom to see the failings of the present, for which this generation will be castigated by future reports.  We have created a society, whose new orthodoxy means that, for many, it is dangerous to be young, where an inability to establish long-term relationships is assumed and even praised, and where widespread family breakdown produces huge levels of dysfunctionality for individuals and communities. Young people, who have been subject to what Frankl calls “learned meaninglessness” are perhaps more the victims of problems in our society rather than the culprits.  Depression, aggression and addiction are due to a widespread feeling of emptiness.  A society that does not understand love in all its depths is one that quietly kills the dreams of its young.

In championing the human capacity for love, the Holy Father uses a strong word about sexual intimacy which may also tie in with today’s Gospel story.  We don’t know exactly what happened on the mountain of the Transfiguration.  The Gospel writers struggle to explain the inexplicable and grasp for words that reflect traditional Old Testament stories of divine revelation.  This was an experience that took the apostles outside themselves and their normal experience.  Similarly Pope Benedict speaks of the ‘ecstasy’ of love, a standing outside ourselves, an exaltation of the human side of our nature. He writes:

“Love is indeed ecstasy, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an on-going exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”

Thus knowledge of the divine is liberating for our humanity, not a denial of it.

I commend your work and your witness in Marriage Encounter.  For me, as a young priest in Belfast over thirty  years ago, the experience of Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, Youth Encounter and parish renewal weekends was a hugely important formative element in who I have become. Those years enabled me, not just to understand better the wonderful mystery that is committed human love and love-making but also to know myself better, to be more at ease with the mystery of my experiences and my emotions.  It gave me a profound insight into the complementarity of the married and the celibate vocations in the Body of Christ. I understood better both the need to minister to those who are married and the ministry of those who are married to the rest of the Church, and in a particular way to priests and religious.  An authentic Christian understanding of the body is an affirmation of the dignity of all vocations within the Church, not a subordination of one to the other.

For me, the support and goodness of many married people to me has been a source of affirmation rather than of jealousy. And I have always felt affirmed in my own vocation by their fidelity, despite often very challenging circumstances.

All of our vocations within the People of God are framed within the context of God’s faithfulness to us.  Our first reading speaks of the covenant with Abraham.  Jesus would later talk about the new covenant in the blood of his physical body.  The commitment of a husband and wife has often been referred to as a covenant.  And in the Eucharist, we celebrate the covenant between God and humanity.  Our Church teaching on marital faithfulness, chastity and openness to life is not some misogynist desire to curb human pleasure. It is based on the dignity of the individual and the couple, the belief that what I do cannot be separated from who I am, the human capacity for greatness. Your witness to the divine call to do beautiful things lies at the heart of the new evangelisation. A society that finds it harder to believe in good and love will be unable to believe in the God of love.

In the midst of all the crosses and challenges of your lives, you assert that, in Christ, we are capable of heroic love.

You tell young people that love and sacrifice are not only possible for the few but also the only way to be transfigured in this world that we might be prepared for an encounter with the God who is faithful love.

You offer a hope for the future of human beings so that we are open to mystery and not just paralysed by fear.

You reflect in your bodies our faith in a God who has faith in us.

You tell us that love is possible, that we are all capable of loving and of being loved.

You show us by your forgiveness that we are all capable of forgiving others, ourselves and our past.

In Christ, you tell us in so many concrete ways that we are capable of the graced spiritual intelligence that takes the rubble of the past and makes it into a foundation for the future and not just into a pile of rubble that we throw in hate at others, or with which we harm ourselves.

You help young people to dream that there is undreamed of beauty beyond the bunker.

The high point of your celebration of communion with one another in your marriages is the Eucharist where we celebrate Christ’s self-giving for us.  We use uncompromisingly strong language for what we do here – this is my body, given up for you; by the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.  For here, around the altar, we celebrate the triumph of love over sin and apparent tragedy.  Here we celebrate Christ’s solidarity with us in our bodiliness.  We recognise that human love opens us to the divine and we acknowledge our need for one another that we might discover the God who is relationship within the Trinity.

Lent is not just a season of the year but also a season of the heart.  We pray that your time here in these blessed days of Lent may strengthen you in your ministry to us as an Exodus people, walking in faith and in love.

And may you be strengthened to help us be a more loving and more prophetic Church so that all things can be restored in Christ.


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor

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