We have just heard one of the most vivid short stories in the whole Bible. Its climax: “Today I must stay at your house.” These words of Jesus spoken to Zacchaeus personally resonate with us today as we celebrate the Anniversary of the Dedication of our abbey church, for this was the very Gospel proclaimed at that historic celebration 47 years ago. Actually, they are words that each of us can identify with at any time, for during the course of our monastic life we all experience moments when we identify not only with Zacchaeus (who is trying to get closer to Jesus however he can, no matter what it might cost him) but also (more importantly) with Jesus’ unexpected and arresting initiative of inviting himself to stay with us right now—yes, with you and me, when we feel like the least likely persons in town.
Moments of grace are always “unlikely” . . . both for individuals and communities. Remember, nobody in Jericho liked Zacchaeus! They would have been horrified to think that of all the inhabitants of the town he would be the one known by name to millions of people 2,000 years later. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells of him and his sudden moment of glory. Luke, of course, makes Zacchaeus one of his minor heroes, perhaps because this hardened old tax-collector fits into three of Luke’s regular themes: namely, the problem of riches and what to do about it; the identification of Jesus with ‘sinners’; and the faith which recognizes Jesus as Lord and discovers new life as a result. The Scripture scholar N.T. Wright points out that “Luke tells this story as a kind of balance to the sad tale of the rich young ruler in the previous chapter, and uses it as the final piece of ‘framing’ before Jesus approaches Jerusalem. Luke seems to be saying that this kind of healing, this kind of new life, is what Jesus has come to bring. If only people in Jerusalem could see the point and respond similarly!”
The Good News proclaimed once again in this morning’s Gospel is that Jesus’ mission is always to seek and save the lost, anywhere along his way. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house and true to form finds himself relaxing in the company of the wrong sort of people. No doubt we are the “wrong sort of people” as well, or we wouldn’t have a real reason to be here at the abbey.
I remember that during one of my first family visits many years ago, I wanted to share with one of my brothers with whom I hadn’t been able to speak privately before why I entered the abbey after 12 apparently happy years as a Dominican. As we walked up the abbey road together, I was stumbling around in my head for an explanation that I really couldn’t give even to myself, such as “God’s call”, or my long-held attraction to this way of life, or that developmentally it felt like a much better fit at age 34, or any number of pious reasons—none of which would cut it with him (or with me, for that matter). Suddenly, I had a moment of clarity and truth, and I turned to him and simply said: “I entered Spencer because I need to be here.” (Not unlike Zacchaeus climbing that sycamore tree.) It was that simple—I need to be here, just as he needs to be in his own spiritual program to which he is totally committed for over 50 years. At that moment I had the happy realization that he and I had more in common than perhaps anyone in the family, and I told him so. My life depended on entering the abbey. Nearly 40 years later that hasn’t changed. Without really grasping why at the time, I had to “quickly come down from my tree” at an invitation I didn’t doubt, and that was a pivotal mercy in my life.
Today we appreciate with deep gratitude that we certainly have an extraordinarily beautiful church and monastery, and a community that continues to inspire one generation of monks after another to seek God—but we know that this is not because we are anything special in ourselves. It is all due, moment by moment, to Our Lord’s personal initiative with us who are unworthy, difficult characters, sinners, or simply finding ourselves at the back of a crowd and can’t see what is going on. Notice that Zacchaeus seeks to see (as many of us do), but does not immediately realize that he is being sought after and saved. The wonderful truth is that we seek Christ, and we find him within the community—but only because Christ seeks us, and he finds us through our brothers.
I’d like to focus briefly on a remarkable development in this short story, and in our community’s life: namely, “Today I have to stay at your house” becomes “Today salvation has come to this house.” As Msgr. Ávila told us last week, where Jesus is, there is the casita sagrada, the “small holy house,” the space that has the two-fold purpose of revelation and healing. This “small holy house” is, above all, the persons where our encounter with the Savior is experienced, concretized, and “sacramentalized”—in the abbey church.
“Today salvation has come to this house.” This is because Jesus not only invites himself into our lives again and again, just as we are, but he himself becomes the capstone of the casita we are together in our abbey church. This is the reassuring truth we heard from St. Paul in the 2nd Reading where he tells the Ephesians and us: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Yes, “Today salvation has come to this house” . . . . precisely because we are “Zacchaeus’ house,” where the imperfect, the weak, and the sinful all find a place at the table.
We believe with St. Paul that our community is a living body, and we all belong to each other here in this casita sagrada because of a personal call from God. In this body, each member has a role to play, and a different gift to offer. The sense of belonging, however, depends on everyone being indispensable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was convinced that “In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable . . . Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong but also the strong cannot exist without the weak.” Dom André Louf took this a step further when he said: “God has chosen each one of us because of our weakness, because of a concrete weak spot, our most vulnerable point, to heal it by his power and make it the ‘cornerstone and foundation’ of his house.”
And so, this morning I suggest that St. Joseph’s Abbey is a “school of humility and love” precisely because it is built on human weakness and grace, on forgiveness and healing, on divine faithfulness, and not on human achievement. The “high note” in today’s Gospel, and the hope that we celebrate on this feast day that is uniquely ours, is that the life and growth of our community are woven out of the salvation that is in Christ, not out of our personal virtue, or that of the community. As we continue our Eucharist, let us rejoice with profound gratitude for all the grace and communion that we have experienced in this church, this Domus Dei, and for the ongoing call to be members of one another in the Body of Christ.
Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's homily by Father Dominic.