Hell Is Real (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2020-08-16)

Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

2020-08-16

Year A: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Ps 147; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)

 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Jesus had a very specific mission to accomplish during his earthly lifetime: to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies that the faith in the one, true and living God and his salvation to eternal life, would be brought to the world from the people of Israel. In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah we heard God’s promise to build “a house of prayer for all the peoples”, confirmed in our response to today’s psalm, with the words of the Old covenant: “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord”.

It is with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus that Israel’s faith reaches its fulfilment enabling the whole world to receive the fullness of God’s truth and grace. A mission to be carried out by the body of Christ: the Church, founded by our Lord himself – i.e. the Catholic – and equipped by him with the complete means for salvation.

In today’s gospel, Jesus confirms this order in God’s plan. God never takes back his promises or changes his mind. We heard that our Lord and the apostles had retreated to an area north of Galilee, populated by the Canaanites, a people that the Jews, with God’s help, defeated as they returned to the Holy Land from Egypt. A people whose pagan religion and immorality were frightening to Israel and, for good reasons, heavily criticised in the Old Testament, among others for the practice of sacrificing children.

This explains the first reactions to the Canaanite woman. But when the she, unexpectedly to the apostles and the first century readers, expresses a faith in Israel’s God incarnate in Jesus Christ, we face something we find throughout the Bible and perhaps also experience in our own lives: true and deep faith can be found where we least expect it. In the dialogue that follows, Jesus consciously directs the woman to make an increasingly stronger profession of her faith. We first react to the quite hard, even rude, language, but we must not forget that Jesus with his divine consciousness of course already has seen the root of trust in God in her, and now wants to help her to test and confirm that faith.

The story also makes the point that Israel’s God, although separated from creation, is not impersonal or distanced from us, but instead invites to a personal relationship in which we are allowed to straightforwardly bring our deficiencies and sorrows before God’s healing power. Like the Canaanite woman, i.e. in full and persistent trust that God finally will give the good, in the best possible way; and like her comprehending God’s answer when we cry out our pain: “just wait”.

Our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, reminded us how our need for spiritual healing is rooted in the fact that we all, Jews and non-Jews, have a share in the fall of the first humans. And that God, who first became known as the God of Israel, therefore wants “to show mercy to all mankind”, i.e. wants the salvation of all.

But salvation, eternal communion with God, actually starts here and now, as the teaching of Jesus and, on his behalf, the Church, underlines. It is indeed perfected in the eternal life and the bodily resurrection, but they crowna relationship already at hand, they never start it. Our salvation thus presupposes our assent, our active “yes”, here in time. God has given us our free will for this purpose. God never forces himself on us, neither in time, nor beyond time. That would be to speak against himself and to de-humanize us. The one missioning by sword, violence and force, can therefore not be a missionary for God. And the one saying an active “no” to God in space and time, will not get a life with God in eternity anyway.

In other words: the one to be saved must also want to be saved. And this is the explanation to the existence of Hell, which is a dogma of the Catholic faith, built as it is on clear Biblical teaching. Just as some of the angels, before the material creation, rebelled against God, used their God-given freedom to separate themselves from communion with God and his will and set up their own false ideas of good and bad, so human beings are capable of doing the same thing. Being pure spirits and thus able to fully know the eternal nature of every single choice, one choice had eternal effect to Satan and the demons. We, however, as embodied spirits, unable to see beyond space and time, are given more than one opportunity to choose. Thus, as long as we are in this world we can continually adjust our choices as we change our way of thinking, i.e. as we convert and stepwise decrease our sinful choices. This is indeed good news of hope!

The fallen angels still exist as creatures but are permanently cut-off from God’s love and truth, fully aware of that God’s love and truth exist. And that state of existence is Hell. Fr. Gabriel Amorth, a very experienced exorcist in Rome, once told about an exorcism where he had said to the demon: “now, go back to the Hell which God has made for you”, upon which the demon answered: “you know nothing; he didn’t make Hell – we did!”. When we give in to the devil’s lies and follow in his footsteps in a “no” or an “I don’t care”, which ultimately risks becoming a “no”, and refuse to convert to let forgiveness restart our friendship with God, we too risk sharing in the full nature of rejection.

The point of this awareness of Hell, is not that it should be somewhere we send others, but instead a reminder of a possible personal reality, a consequence of a freely chosen lack of truth and love. A reality to avoid by taking our Christian mission seriously, just as Jesus did with his personal. As baptized, we are called to build God’s kingdom already here, i.e. helped by his freely and abundantly given grace, make good choices for ourselves and others and so enable others to discover and experience the Gospel – to say their “yes” to it.

Here is a suggestion for the forthcoming week: Decide to make a conversation with, or to do something for, a person near you, be it a family member, a friend or a colleague, testifying to your faith in Jesus Christ and thus your hope that death never has the last word. Trusting that God, as the Lord of the harvest, may allow the seed you plant to grow and bear fruit, in the way that God finds best – and when God finds it best. Amen.

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