Cedars of Lebanon Proclaiming God’s Truth and Love

Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, “Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon,” 1907
Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, “Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon,” 1907 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The shoot of the cedar tree that the prophet Ezekiel describes in the first reading, that the Lord plants on the mountain heights of Israel, where it grows majestic and fruitful, and the plant that grows from the mustard seed in our Lord’s parable in the Gospel, have something important in common: Birds of every kind come and dwell in the shade of its branches.

God planted the nation of Israel like a young vine or a tree, but he always intended his people to put out branches that would become a home for all the peoples of the world, as he has accomplished through Christ in the Catholic Church.

One of the Church’s most beautiful titles is “sacrament of the unity of the human race.” The Church’s calling is to reconcile human beings to God, but also to one another, to overcome all divisions between people.

But there’s another plant, another tree, in today’s Liturgy of the Word, that demands our attention today. 

The word of God is full of images and metaphors taken from the world of plants: trees, vines, grass, and so forth. The sacred writers were closer to the earth and the natural world than most or all of us. It can take a little extra effort for us to appreciate the meaning of these images.

The first Psalm describes those who delight in God’s law and meditate on it day and night as being “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” But the wicked, the Psalmist says, “are like chaff” — that is, the dry, dusty, worthless part of the wheat plant, after the good, moist kernels of wheat have been harvested — “chaff that the wind blows away.”


Psalm 92 and the Liturgy of the Hours

There’s a similar image in our responsorial psalm today, Psalm 92, which is one of my favorites, and well known to anyone who prays Morning Prayer from the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, prayed every day by clergy and religious and also by lay Catholics all over the world. 

If you’re looking for a way to deepen your prayer life, I have no better single piece of advice than looking into the Liturgy of the Hours, which today is easier than ever to pray thanks to smartphone apps like iBreviary and Divine Office. With Divine Office, you can even listen to recordings of the prayer being prayed until you learn how it goes. (If you get a lot of notifications, you can use the “Do not disturb” mode so your prayer won’t be interrupted—just as we silence them when we come to Mass…if we remember! If you’re forgetful, you can set reminders for yourself—these things can work for our benefit if we use them correctly!)

Morning and Evening Prayer typically take no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Even if you can’t pray them every day, or can only pray one of them, it’s a wonderful way to join spiritually with priests, deacons, religious, and so many of your brothers and sisters in consecrating the hours of the day to God.

Here are the words of our responsorial Psalm, Psalm 92, as they’re rendered in the English translation most commonly used in the Liturgy of the Hours:

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.

The just will flourish like the palm tree
 and grow like a Lebanon cedar.
Planted in the house of the Lord
 they will flourish in the courts of our God,
still bearing fruit when they are old,
 still full of sap, still green,
to proclaim that the Lord is just.
 In him, my rock, there is no wrong.

The cedar trees of Lebanon were renowned in the ancient world, not only in the Bible but also in other texts. The Temple of Solomon was built with cedar wood from Lebanon. 

But those who are just, the psalmist says, will be like living cedar trees planted in the courts of the Lord’s house, where they will flourish into old age, like mighty old trees that are still green and full of sap.


Proclaiming the Lord’s Truth and Love in God’s House

And what do they do, these righteous old souls, with the cedar-like strength given them in old age? They proclaim God’s truth and love in the house of the Lord! Oh, that each of us should be so blessed.

Many of you are aware of the recent death of my father, Bob, who came to Mass with our family whenever he was staying with us. This is the first homily I’ve preached since his funeral. My father didn’t live as long as he might have, although he lived over a decade longer than the average man with diabetes.

Like me, my father was a convert to the Catholic faith, and the early Fathers of the Church were important to his journey to Rome. A few years before he died, down at my sister’s parish in south Jersey, where he was living at the time, he did a Lenten series of talks on the early Fathers and the role they played in his conversion. 

I’m told his talks were well received by the people of the parish. My sister told me that someone in their Spanish community nicknamed him el pastor. In his old age, my father proclaimed God’s truth and love in the house of the Lord.

And, however old or young we are, we are all here to do just that today. We all have a role in the Church’s act of worship today, in this divine liturgy — a role that, for all of you, comes into focus in a special way in key moments of dialogue, like the one coming in a few minutes at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the celebrant says, “The Lord be with you,” and you reply, “And with your spirit.”


The Sursum Corda

What does the celebrant say next? “Lift up your hearts!” And you answer, “We lift them up to the Lord!” This beautiful exchange — the sursum corda, “Lift up your hearts” — invites us to lift our hearts above the clamor and confusion and distraction of mundane things (like our cellphones, especially if we forget to silence them during Mass!) and turn our minds to the eternal worship of God in heaven, in which this and every Mass is an earthly participation.

It’s when we lift up our hearts that we realize that we really do join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Just as our voices join in Morning and Evening Prayer with countless other Catholics in our time zone and adjacent time zones praying the same prayer, all rising together to heaven like incense.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” And of course your response is: “It is right and just!” Do you see what those words do? It is right and just to give thanks to the Lord our God. Why is it right and just? Because of the Lord’s truth and love. Because of all he has done for us. 

You see, each week in Mass you’re invited to join those righteous old souls planted like cedars in the house of the Lord, proclaiming that the Lord is just; in him, our rock, there is no wrong. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God! It is right and just!

So proclaim the Lord’s truth and love in the house of the Lord. Let your voice be heard at least by the people in the pews around you.

Not long ago we were all wearing facemasks and they were discouraging us from singing and even projecting our voices in church. I’m glad that’s over! Are you? So let’s make our voices heard, today and every Sunday. And not just old people, but children too — we want to hear your voices.

There’s a wonderful line early in the Exsultet — the magnificent hymn at the start of the Easter Vigil, sung by a deacon if possible, or else by a priest — “Let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” Take that as a challenge: Shake this holy building with your mighty voices, if you can.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” “It is right and just!”


The Great Amen

Among the most important moments in the liturgy that fall to you, I want to call out one in particular: the Great Amen.

We say “Amen” so many times throughout the Mass, some of you may not realize that one “Amen” carries more weight than the others. Do you know which one it is? 

Not the one when you come up to receive Communion, as important as that one is. By that “Amen” you affirm your belief in the great mystery we celebrated especially last Sunday, on the great Solemnity of Corpus Christi: that the bread and wine of Communion truly become the body and blood of Christ.

But at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the holiest part of the Mass, comes the concluding doxology: 

Through him, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.

Those words are only for the priest. The word that follows is for you: the Great Amen. This Amen affirms not only the words of the doxology, but the whole Eucharistic Prayer, including, among other things,

  • the words of consecration, by which the bread and wine become Christ;
  • the prayers for our Holy Father and our Cardinal Archbishop;
  • the prayers for our loved ones living and dead; and
  • the invocation of the saints and our hope of coming to share their glory.

This is from a 2012 document from the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses:

At the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer, in the great doxology, we all together acclaim: ‘Amen’, a powerful ‘yes’ to God. In ‘the Great Amen’ we proclaim that we believe what has been said, that we unite ourselves to the prayer and that we are committed to all that it means.

We come to the house of the Lord to proclaim his truth and love. Let’s start right now, with the Creed.