Homily for Solemn Pontifical Mass of the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

28 Feb 2022

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 27 February 2022

How deceitful words can be and how empty. Many would say this of the recent propaganda of the Russian President and of the huffing and puffing of world leaders. Only the desperate pleas of Ukrainians themselves have rung true.

But to say that words can be misused is not to say they don’t matter. When Christ says this morning that a man draws what is good or bad from the store of goodness or evil in his heart (Lk 6:39-45),  He is not referring first of all to deeds, character or fruits that flow from people’s souls. No, Jesus says, “For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart.”

Why do words matter so much to us Christians?

One reason is, as the Lord says this morning, they reveal what is in the soul. As the sage of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sir 27:5-8) put it: The real test of a man is in his conversation. His words betray what he feels and his defects appear in his talk. Words can reveal largeness of heart, imagination, intellect and will—or smallness—and the direction that heart is pointed. St Francis famously said: preach always and use words when necessary. But today’s Scriptures turn this on its head: speak the truth always and conform your deeds to your words. No empty words, then, like the hollow babbling of some pagan prayers (Mt 6:7). No, Jesus says, your words must be true. “Father, sanctify them in the truth, for your word is truth” (Jn 17:17).

A second reason we Christians take words so seriously is that they are the stuff of so much of life. Words are tools of thought and conversation, of prayer and promise, of laws, treaties and contracts, of teaching and literature, of hymns and songs. As our Psalmist says: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your truth in the watches of the night. (Ps 91(92))

But as we are all too aware right now, words can be the tools also of false promises and broken laws, of propaganda and fake news, of lies, and even declarations of war.

Words can be used for good or ill. Our holy scriptures are made up of words, 750,000 of them in fact. So are our sacraments. That might sound strange, since sacraments are symbolic actions that bring grace, like pouring water, anointing with oil, laying on hands, putting rings on fingers, offering bread and wine. But sacraments have both ‘matter’ and ‘form’. If someone pours water over a baby’s head you can’t know it means Baptism, unless they say “I baptise you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Sins can’t be absolved unless first spoken aloud and with contrition, and they are absolved, not just with the sign of the cross, but with the words “I absolve you of your sins”.

A bishop might lay hands on a person’s head and anoint them with oil, but it can have no effect and we cannot know what it means unless he says “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Confirmation), or he prays the prayer of ordination to a particular rank (Holy Orders), or he says “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you” (Anointing of the Sick). A couple might have good intentions in their hearts, but there is no legal marriage, no sacrament of matrimony, until they exchange vows to be spouses for life, no matter what. A priest might hold up bread and wine, but unless he says in Christ’s voice “This is my body, this is my blood” they are just bread and wine.

So words matter, not just because they reveal reality and so should tell the truth, but also because they make reality happen, and so should do the good.

And so Jesus says “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Mt 7:4; cf. Mt 13:23) “I tell you most solemnly, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account of every careless word, for by your words will you be justified or condemned.” (Mt 12:36-37) But fear not, for when trials come, as they surely will, for “I will give you words no opponent can withstand, a wisdom none can contradict.” (Lk 21:15)

There is a third and even more important reason why we Christians take words so seriously: because words come from God. In the beginning God said things, and so they came into being. After creating this beautiful cosmos with all its amazing animals He said: Now let us make one in our own image and likeness, one like us that can think and choose, can speak words that create or destroy. And so God made man and woman, the talking animals.

But the conversation had just begun. Human beings would speak to God in prayer and worship; and He would speak to them in scriptures and commandments, words of prophecy and wisdom. These are our very life. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus recited (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3). “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall never pass away.” (Mt 24:35) So powerful are His words, that we join the centurion before Communion saying “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and your servant shall be healed (Mt 8:8; cf. 8:16). Indeed, Luke reports, “All were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk 4:22)

Yet the God of Christians is not just a God who talks, who reveals: His Son is the very idea, word, argument, love song, ‘Logos’ of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John tells us, “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:1,14)

Words matter, because they reveal reality and so should tell the truth, because they make reality happen and so should do the good, but also because they are from God, and so we must respond faithfully and speak what is holy, hallowing all reality.

“Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says, “and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn 14:23; cf. 5:24 etc.) For “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you will, and it will be given you.” (Jn 15:7) “Lord, to whom else can we go?” Peter answered, “You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)

And so at this time in this world’s history, when we repudiate the lies and propaganda of the war-mongers, and speak words of peace instead, we join the Blessed Virgin in speaking true words, in enacting good words, in becoming holy words. “Most Blessed is she—and we—who heard the word of God and kept it!” (Lk 11:28) “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” said Mary, “let it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)