Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“Gospel. Matt. xiii. 31-35.
At that time: Jesus spoke to the multitudes this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: Which is the least indeed of all seeds: but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and dwell in the branches thereof. Another parable he spoke to them: The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened. All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes : and with out parables he did not speak to them. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.”
“Our Lord here teaches us, under the symbolism of two parables, what we are to believe concerning his Church, which is his Kingdom, – a Kingdom that rises indeed here on the earth, but is to be perfected in Heaven. What is this grain of mustard-seed, which is hid under ground, is unseen by man’s eye, then appears as the least of herbs, but, finally, becomes a tree? It is the Word of God, at first hidden in Judea, trampled on by man’s malice even so as to be buried in a tomb, but, at length, rising triumphantly and reaching rapidly to every part of the world. Scarcely had a hundred years elapsed since Jesus was put to death, and his Church was vigorous even far beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. During the past nineteen centuries, every possible effort has been made to up-root the Tree of God; persecution, diplomacy, human wisdom, – all have tried, and all have but wasted their time. True, – they succeeded, from time to time, in severing a branch; but another grew in its place, for the sap of the Tree is vigorous beyond measure. The birds that come and dwell upon it, are, as the Holy Fathers interpret it, the souls of men aspiring to the eternal goods of the better world. If we are worthy of our name of “Christians,” we shall love this Tree, and find our rest and safety no where but beneath its shade. – The Woman, of whom the second parable speaks, is the Church, our Mother. It was she that, from the commencement of Christianity, took the teaching of her Divine Master, and hid it in the very heart of men, making it the leaven of their salvation. The three measures of meal which she leavened into bread, are the three great families of mankind, the three that came from the children of Noah, who are the three fathers of the whole human race. Let us love this Mother of ours; and let us bless that heavenly leaven, which made us become children of God, by making us children of the Church.” (1)
The Mustard Seed the Leaven
“Our Lord referred to His kingdom in different ways, as you have already noticed. On one occasion He likened it to the wise virgins, who, with their lamps, went to meet the spouse. He compared it, also, to a rich merchant who knew of a precious stone in -a certain field, and sacrificed all he had to buy that field. The marriage feast made for His divine Son is also a figure of the Church; so also the net, filled with fishes, which was drawn to the land. Among all these similitudes which are notably beautiful, and admired by literary men the mustard seed, the one of to-day s Gospel, is the most beautiful.
A man takes this little seed, and plants it in a suitable place in his garden, and from that minute seed there is raised a plant, so strong, luxuriant, and hardy, that it gives shelter and food to many birds, who build their nests thereon.
The Gospel is explained in different ways; but the most natural explanation is, that the mustard seed is the primitive Church. But I shall take it for my text, to make you seriously think on an important truth, which I find hidden in this parable, and it is this: We must not think that we have to do great and extraordinary things to- gain heaven; no, we need only perform our ordinary actions well. Our little works are very important. It is these that will bring us to the kingdom of God. Many think, it is very hard to get to heaven, because we are not called to do great works. Our position is the same as that held by millions in this world, who have nothing striking or great to perform. Should we, on this account, fall into the error of -thinking that therefore we will not get to heaven? And, not having great things to do we even do not perform our daily actions as we ought. I am pretty certain, my good young people, that when you read in the lives of the saints of their liberality, in giving all to the poor; of their prompt obedience to God s call, in leaving the world at once; when you read of the fortitude with which they disciplined and mortified their bodies; how they hardly took any sleep; prayed from morning till night and through the night until morning, that you become discouraged, and say to yourselves, “It is very hard to go to heaven.”
Having begun your journey of life well, under the guidance of teachers and parents, you think you ought to do something extraordinary, and become discouraged because you find no opportunity and do nothing like the foolish boys who read novels about Indian warfare. They prepare to go to fight the redmen, take pistols and powder and set out, to be caught by a policeman and ignominiously brought back to be delivered over to the custody of sorrowful parents.
It is a great mistake to think you must do extraordinary things if you want to get to heaven. The devil is the author of this deceit, by means of which he gains control of many souls who believe it is too hard to be saved. They lose courage, and conclude that the best thing to do is to enjoy a good time instead of thinking how to become saints.
God wants us all to be saints, but not in the same way. Some He calls to live in the desert and there He wants them to lead saintly lives. But young men in general are called to live in the world and there they have to become saints. But you will say, “Yes, precisely. That is the difficulty to be saints in the midst of the world, where there are so many distractions, so many occasions of sin.” Yes, I will grant that there is really great difficulty in getting through life with your baptismal innocence. The old man that goes to his grave will tell you how hard it is. But let us not make the difficulty any greater than it is, and whether it be small or great we have to make the best of it.
“But,” you will say, “I shall have to do a great deal of good; long prayers, discipline and penance will be necessary, for the saints did these things, and I hate and fear them.” But let me tell you that not even this is necessary. You surely have not forgotten the Gospel which has been read to you just now, of the grain of mustard seed. This, then, is what you ought to do. As soon as you rise from your bed in the morning, raise your eyes to heaven, and say to Our Lord: “I would like to make a long prayer, but I must now go to my work to earn my bread, and to do my duty. Lord, all that I am about to do shall be for Thy honor and glory.” Then, during the day, think often of God and send up a prayer to the throne of His grace as an act of filial love. In the evening before you retire, again say to Our Lord: “O, my God, I thank Thee for the many graces given me on this day. I am now going to take my rest, that my strength may be regained and I may be able to continue to do something for Thy glory.” Then offer all your sufferings, poverty, cold, hunger, dishonor, disappointments to God and say to Him, “All this has been for Thy love!” Then resolve to remain firm in the good resolutions you have taken, and these little actions offered with a good intention are made great and glorious works before God. As St. John Chrysostom says, “These actions cost no expense nor labor nor sweat; good will is all that is required for a good action. Our Lord looks more to the heart than to the work. If you do your work with a good heart it will have the greatest merit. Our Lord praised the poor widow who gave her mite to the Temple, because the intention made it a noble sacrifice before God. Do not the little insignificant actions of a child please us though there is not much in them? So it is with ourselves before God. The rich men who threw into the corbona great sums of money were not commended at all, but this poor woman is extolled by Our Lord Himself. A glass of cold water is certainly a small matter and costs nothing; and yet almighty God has promised to reward it when given in His name.
These are small things that we all can do, but they are the acts that will gain for us heaven as a reward.
We have to lament, however, that though it is so easy to offer our ordinary actions to God, there are thousands who act only from a mere human motive, and thus lose all the reward. Do not forget, then, that little things bring us to Heaven- not the great actions.
Here is a little example from Father Segneri. It is related that the Emperor Theodosius went to Treves, in order to view there the old Roman games. Two members of his court who did not care for these sights, stayed away, taking a walk through the country in order to feast their eyes on nature. As they were passing along they found deep in the woods a solitary home, where some hermits lived. They entered, and, as they were speculating concerning the smallness of the house and the absence of furniture, they saw a book of pretty good size on the table. One of the men opened it and found it to be the life of St. Anthony. He began to read it out of curiosity at first, but he became so interested in it, that after a while he could hardly stop reading, and at the same time a great desire to imitate these examples took possession of him. After deep meditation he said to his companion with shame depicted on his face: “What road are we poor fellows travelling, with our great pretensions, our courtly manners, and servitude to the king? Where are we going to end? What more can we ever expect than the favor of the prince? And, supposing we get that – what will come of it? Life is short, and youth a very slippery time. There are many who are our competitors and if they exert themselves, they may get ahead of us; what will we have in the end? We will have had much affliction but very little consolation and peace. To become God s friend all that is required is to wish it.”
The man again read on; then he closed the book resolutely, and standing there with his hands on it he said to his companion: “As for me I am now resolved not to go from here again. In this house and in this place I wish to consecrate myself to God. If you do not choose to imitate my example do not disturb me.”
“What!” said the other, “do you think it pleases God that I should have the earth, and you take heaven for your portion?” They put their resolution into practice on the spot and took the lowly garb of hermits, laying aside their rich court dresses; locking themselves in a hermit s cell they remained faithful to their vows to the end of their lives.
Where did the holiness of these courtiers begin? From the time they refused to go to the theatre. Had they gone there they would not have seen that book nor made the serious reflections which led them afterwards to embrace a holy life. If on so little depends a good life or a bad one, ought you not to fear the small beginnings of sin and seek the small beginnings of doing good, that Our Lord may prosper you?
May not your irreverence and your talking in church be the beginning of a bad life? May not your aversion to hearing the word of God, or going to confession from mere habit, without any sorrow for your sins, be the first impulse to a bad life? Those communions made so coldly, with so little preparation, with no thanksgiving after them, lead into the way of death.
Again, when you despise the inspirations of God, when you neglect putting into practice the holy advice received from your confessor, or your spiritual superiors, where will this lead? These are all venial sins, and taken singly do not matter much, but taken on the whole do they not show an inclination to evil? The little value you set on your faith and a good life show you are beginning to drift away, slowly, imperceptibly at first, but when you have been caught by the stream, you will be swept along the path of death with fearful rapidity. A spark is very small, but it may kindle a terrible fire. In the same manner, from these little things come often great spiritual ruin. A glance of the eye, listening to a bad conversation, improper reading, a wilful thought not repressed, can be the beginning of a downward course, and it is very hard to stop, and next to impossible to retrace the steps.
In the infirmities of the soul we find the same symptoms as in sickness of the body. Here is a youth in the flower of his life, strong, healthy, fresh and rosy. One day he feels a pain in his head. He suffers loss of appetite, and a slight fever declares itself. He goes to bed and his condition becomes worse; for some reason doctors cannot help him, and in a few days his funeral winds its way to the graveyard. How could such a young and healthy man die so soon!
Now how is it in the spiritual life? That youth was healthy and strong when he made his first communion. He was full of good resolutions; he avoided sin more carefully than he would death; he, in short, served God with fervor. But he felt a coldness in the practice of his religion. It was but a very slight coldness: he was careless at his prayers; he omitted his frequent communions. At first he was scrupulous about entertaining evil thoughts, and in choosing his companions, and when he heard them speak evil words he rebuked them and avoided them afterwards. But by degrees he relished wicked conversation and was ashamed to appear too pious. That youth, once so good, had lost his delicacy of conscience, and went on until he lost all shame and came to the last stages of spiritual life; he lost the grace of God altogether by one great sin,, and now he is spiritually dead, in the hands of the devil,, and no longer able to rise, like a beast that has fallen under its load. Does not this prove that we must carefully avoid our small faults? Tertullian tells us that little faults are the beginnings of great crimes.
There are some who laugh at such an argument, but let us not look lightly on such matters. Be convinced of the truth of these assertions, though they seem a little far fetched. You will be able to trace the consequences of evil to small beginnings when you stand at the judgment-seat of God. When the heavy veil of ignorance and passion shall fall from your eyes, then you will admit the truth. The just man will see how close to the edge of the precipice he was sometimes walking, without knowing it. That Mass at which you assisted with devotion; that deed which seemed to have so little good in it; that communion made in honor of the Blessed Virgin, was the beginning of your salvation. Had you gone perhaps just once more with a certain companion; in such a temptation had you failed to call on Jesus and Mary, what would have become of you? You mortified your eyes; now you see the glory of God. You shed a few tears, and now you enjoy the forgiveness of your sins and eternal happiness.
How will the damned, on the contrary, burst into blasphemy and rage when they see how little would have saved them! They will say, “Oh, that I had listened to that sermon from which I deliberately ran away! If I had not liked a certain company; if I had gone to confession with a little more compunction; if, on a particular day, I had not fallen into that sin, I would be saved and would be now in paradise. If with a little fervor I had said, Lord, give me Thy kingdom/ I would now be in heaven instead of in hell.”
One word on the other parable which Our Lord proposed. The kingdom of God is also like to a little leaven, which a woman took and mixed with the dough, so that you could no longer distinguish it, but the whole was influenced by it and was leavened. Some doctors say that by this leaven is meant the virtue of charity, and the grace of Jesus Christ, infused into our hearts by the Holy Ghost. By these God reigns in our soul. That woman is the holy Christian soul, who hides the word of God in the heart to keep it there, where it does its work by spreading its influence over a whole life. It restrains our evil character and corrects it. Then put this holy leaven of the word of God into your soul, take care of it and let it work, and you will be happy for all eternity.” (3)
- The Liturgical Year