Thursday, 23 February 2023 : Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Memorial of St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today as we listened to the words of the Lord in the Scriptures, we are all called to remember that each and every one of us have been given the choice from the Lord to follow the path that He has revealed before us, or to turn our back against Him and walk away from Him, by continuing to live in the state of sin. All of us have been given the freedom to choose, the free will to discern the path that we are going to choose in our path forward in life. That is why the Lord reminds us today, through His Church, at the beginning of this Lenten season that we should be very careful and vigilant in how we live our lives so that we do not end up falling into the path of sin and evil, and we do not end up making the wrong choice because we are swayed by the temptations of the world.

In our first reading today, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, we heard of the Lord’s reminders to the people of Israel, which He gave them through His servant Moses, who led the people of God in the great Exodus from the land of Egypt, where the Israelites were enslaved. First, we must understand how the Lord has led them all out of Egypt through Moses and his brother Aaron, performing great wonders and miracles, and leading them even through the sea itself, as I am sure we are all aware of. During the journey to the land He has promised to them, God gave His Law and commandments, and made a Covenant with them on Mount Sinai. But the people even at that early stage already showed signs of rebellion and unwillingness to obey God’s Law and commandments.

They made for themselves a golden calf to be their god, and offered sacrifices to it, despite having witnessed and experienced all the things that God had done for them, in saving them from their troubles and slavery. Those who disobeyed the Lord and persisted in the rebellion were crushed by God, and at that day, when Moses returned from the Mount of God, three thousand people in total perished by their refusal to repent from their sinfulness, while the rest also had to endure the bitterness of their disobedience. Then, in another well-known occasion, at the place known as Massah and Meribah, the Israelites rebelled again in opposition to God because they complained and disagreed about their state in the desert, despite God having provided for their every needs, every step of their way.

In all those occasions, including the time when God finally led them all to the boundary of the Promised Land, and when they refused to enter because of the reports from the scouts they sent to find out more about the place, which brought fear to their hearts, God punished all of their whole generation for their continued hard-hearted attitude and wickedness, their stubbornness and refusal to believe in Him. They were barred from entering into the Promised Land, and the journey which was supposed to be a relatively short one, ended up becoming a sojourn in the desert lasting a whole period of forty years, in which the entire generation of those who had rebelled and refused to follow God, save that of Caleb and Joshua, who remained faithful to the end, perished and died. Like what happened in one occasion when the rebelling Israelites were struck by the plague of fiery serpents, many died for their rebellion and sin.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what those examples and experiences highlighted to the people of Israel back then and also to all of us is that, those people made their choice of action, in rebelling against God and in disobeying Him by their own free will. They have been given so much by God, provided and helped throughout their journey, and even throughout that forty years period of punishment and delay, God still provided the people with everything that they needed to survive and even flourish in the middle of a hot and lifeless desert. Whatever the people did in disobeying God and rebelling against Him was therefore their own free will and free choice, as there were also those who remained firm in their faith in God, and did not fall into the sinful and rebellious ways. What is clear is that the path of disobedience and rebellion lead to death and destruction, while faith leads to salvation and liberation in God.

God Himself has said that those who kept their faith in Him will be blessed and will receive the fullness of His grace, and while the path that He was leading them towards will not be an easy one, but there is great merit for one to choose to remain faithful to God and to obey His Law and commandments. In our Gospel passage today, the Lord Jesus told His disciples that unless they take up their crosses and follow Him, there will be no salvation and path forward to eternal life for them, and He said clearly that even He Himself, as the Son of Man and Saviour of all, would have to endure great persecution and sufferings, as He eventually did at the moment of His Passion, when He chose willingly to bear the whole entire great and unimaginably heavy burden of our multitudes of sins, so that by His suffering and death, He might bring us all to the assurance of eternal life.

The Lord reminded us all that following Him is something that we should do, and we have the free will to choose that or to continue to live in the state of sin as what we may be more accustomed to in this world. His path is likely going to be a difficult and challenging one, as we often will have to resist the many temptations all around us, and as was evident from the example of the Israelites in the past, many of them and our predecessors failed to do so. Many veered off and fell off the path that God had led them through, and were tempted and ensnared by sin instead, tempted by their pride and ego, their greed and desires, their jealousy and lust, among others. But this should not discourage us from following the Lord. Instead, it should keep our flames of faith burning bright and strong, as we help one another to remain faithful to God.

Today, we should be inspired by the great examples and faith shown by St. Polycarp, a great Church father and our holy predecessor, who was a bishop of the Church, the Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. St. Polycarp was known to be one of the disciples of St. John the Apostle, the last surviving Apostle of the Lord back then, and he was entrusted with the care of many of the faithful in the often persecuted but still thriving Church. He was regarded as one of the three greatest Apostolic Fathers, the successors of the Apostles, together with Pope St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, each of whom were great role models and sources of inspiration in their own right. St. Polycarp corresponded frequently with the other Church fathers and was a great example to his flock, caring much for their spiritual needs.

And during a time of great and intense persecution of the Church by the Roman state, which carried out many rounds and episodes of persecutions and attacks against the Church and the faithful, St. Polycarp helped to lead his flock to remain faithful to God, and to endure the hardships and challenges that they had to face in the defence of their faith in God. In the end, St. Polycarp himself was arrested and persecuted, when he was already in the advanced age of eighty-six years old. Even then, in that old age, he remained strong in his desire to love and serve the Lord, and in persevering through the hardships and sufferings that he had to suffer, together with the rest of his flock, which was truly an example of them carrying their cross with the Lord. St. Polycarp died a martyr, inspiring countless others to follow the Lord more faithfully and with greater love, and I hope he has inspired us similarly too.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all therefore renew our faith and commitment in God as we enter into this holy and blessed season of Lent. Let us make good use of this time and opportunity that God has given us so that each and every one of us may distance ourselves from the many temptations of sin, the allures of worldly fame, glory, pleasures, and the pressure from our pride, ego, greed, jealousy, ambition, and more. Let us all control all those desires and negative things within us, and help one another to be strong in enduring the challenges and trials of this world, carrying our crosses together faithfully with God. May the Lord continue to guide us and strengthen us, and give us all the courage to continue to live our lives as good and dedicated Christians, blessing our every works and efforts, our every endeavours at all times. Amen.

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