1st Sunday of Lent 2006
Today’s homily is brought to you by the number 9. No, I have not given into the Sudoku craze. Nor do I want to tell you that 9 has always been my favorite number because I was born on the 9th and lived at #9 Hinsdale ave growing up. Now I know a better number for today would be 40. 40 days of rain for Noah and the arc. 40 days of fasting and prayer for Jesus in the desert with its allusions to 40 years of wandering in the desert for the people of Israel. The big 4-0 is the number we associate with the Lenten season. I’m sure you know by now that 40 signifies a long time and also suggests a sense of completion in scriptures.
But now for 9. Do you know why I am reflecting on the number 9 this morning. Last night we began a “novena of grace”. Novena of course comes from 9 and refers to a nine-day period of prayer and intention. Those of you who are moving toward the sacraments of inititation, becoming a Catholic Christian should know about these “catholic idiosyncrasies’ like novenas. Along with ashes on Ash Wednesdays, rosaries, scapulas, miraculous medals, novenas are one of those “catholic things” whether it be this Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier or other novenas like the 9 first Fridays in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Most of what I remembered from my youth of going to Mass on the 9 first Fridays was the chocolate milk and a roll that I would get at the corner store after Mass. )
So since we are making this novena,I did some research on the number 9 to see if I could find out if there were some special significance to nine days? First I found out that it was a pagan custom to have nine days of prayer for the deceased with a big feast afterward. Somehow this nine-day period was baptized by Christians but it was usually before a special feast. Some associated the number 9 with the time of Jesus in the womb of Mary so that the nine days of prayer or the nine months of first Fridays were meant to symbolize a “pregnancy” a waiting for a “new birth”< waiting for something special to happen. (Which brings us to the “ask” involved with a novena. There is usually something that you ask for, some special intention. (Catholics are big on “special intentions) The novena of Grace for Francis Xavier is often associated with some miraculous event, some special healing. The origins of this novena are disputed. Some say it began because of the healing of a young boy in Goa, India. In 1603. Others that it was due to an Italian Jesuit who had a hammer fall on his head and in his delirium Francis Xavier appeared to him and told him to renew his vow to go to the Indies and he would be healed and he was. Go figure!
But what else about the number 9? In my research I found that the number 10 is the perfect number, the “divine number”. God is a perfect 10. 9 is the number for us human beings who don’t quite make the mark (or are far from it) There is something about 9 that is just on the edge, almost but not quite.
So what do you think about Jesus? Was he a perfect 10 or
a 9? In a recent conversation with our catechumens, some were shocked to hear me say the Jesus most likely made mistakes. IF Jesus were truly human, then he would do the human thing, which was to make mistakes. It’s what we hear in Mark’s gospel of the temptation. The spirit drove him into the desert where he was tempted. by Satan and was with the wild beasts. If this temptation were real and not just ‘pretend”, Jesus had to struggle with his own demons as all of us “nines” do. Note the way the Mark describes the temptation. Immediately the spirit drove him in to the desert. Matthew and Luke say and Jesus was led by the spirit. In today’s Gospel Jesus is “driven” to face his demons. He had just experienced this powerful baptism where he heard himself called “beloved son”. Now this time of training, of testing, of temptation. You can almost hear the demonic voice saying “God’s beloved son.. What are you going to do about it”. What were the fears, the doubts, the questions within Jesus that could have kept him from living and proclaiming the kingdom of God in a radically new way? Somehow Jesus got through this time of testing and he comes out of the desert energized, committed, aware of who he is and the mission God has given him.
And is that the “challenge”, the “dare” that each of us is supposed to hear today. “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. What are you going to do about it” What are the fears, the doubts, the questions that you don’t want to face and that the Spirit of God is “driving” you to face? Will this time of Lent give you the opportunity to be energized, with a renewed commitment to the Gospel values of Jesus? Will you let yourself be loved as son, daughter, one who lives the values of Jesus, our brother and friend.
I can’t help thinking of Francis Xavier in the light of these questions. Francis was someone who was driven into a spiritual desert as Ignatius of Loyola led him through the spiritual exercises. He would have to confront his own demons, his desire for power and prestige. He would be tempted to feel that he was never “enough” , never worthy for the mission. But Francis would get through that time of testing to become one of the greatest “evangelizers”. His “never enough” would be enough to impel people to share in the mission of Christ with a zeal, and energy, a commitment that could only come from a heart filled with love, a love that came from knowing he was a beloved son of God, companion with Jesus, son of Ignatius.
That is why I am happy that we are celebrating this 9 day period of prayer during our 40 day period of Lenten prayer and discipline. In this time, in this celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Francis, ask for the grace that he was given “ a heart filled with love, a love that comes from knowing you are a beloved son, daughter, companion of Jesus.Now I know that this homily doesn’t rate a 10 and probably not even a 9. But that’s ok. I’m only human.