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Sunday, November 8th, 2020

‘Cogitationes pacis’: a Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

‘For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction, to give you an end and patience’  (Jeremiah 29, 11).

In order to understand the power and import of today’s introit, we need the full context of ch 29 of the prophecy of Jeremiah.

The Babylonians had invaded, razed Jerusalem and the Temple, and carried off a host of prisoners; a small population of petty nobles and unskilled laborers is all that remains. The prophet is in their midst, more or less a prisoner.

As for the state of affairs for the Israelite exiles, we can reasonably imagine it; for they are a people entirely defeated and traumatized. No family is without its dead or missing. The number of war dead is great; and what fighting-age men were taken captive are maimed, sick, and more or less enslaved to Babylonian masters. It is difficult to image the state of the Israelite women and children under such circumstances. But exile means that homes are no more; all that was familiar and worked-for is destroyed or belongs to one’s conquerors.

That is how things look when we reach ch 29. The content of this chapter consists of a series of communications going back and forth from Jeremiah in Jerusalem to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. Beginning at v 4, we have a twenty-five-verse epistle from the prophet, and it is out of this text that our introit is taken. But what does he say to the Babylonian exiles? In a word, something they, and perhaps we, might not expect:

Build ye houses, and dwell in them: and plant orchards, and eat the fruit of them. Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters . . . and be multiplied there, and be not few in number.[1]

He tells them furthermore to pray for Babylon, with whose fate the exiles are now linked. He warns them against false prophets. And he promises deliverance, after a season.  It is just here that we come upon the text of today’s introit—Ego cogito cogitationes pacis: 

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction, to give you an end and patience.[2]

Thus, the people of Israel are taught by the mouth of the prophet not to resist their exile; to see in it the unfolding of God’s Providence toward them.

This is no easy matter. Building homes and orchards, entering into marriages: all these take time, and require a stability of purpose and a certain peace of mind. On the other hand, no doubt there were many in Israel seething revenge. Indeed, the false prophets did not accept Jeremiah’s prophecy; they cared little for a message which said that this exile would be long. The majority of the false prophets—sycophants to the political order and adulterers—had a counter-narrative. They tried to rouse anger and persecution against Jeremiah, as they always had.

But God condemns them in no uncertain terms. Yet he also condemns all those who chose to remain behind in Jerusalem, by promising them further warfare and pestilence.

Liturgically speaking, the prophecy of Jeremiah is used during Passiontide and Holy Week. But here, as the liturgical year winds down, the Church is hinting that Jeremiah has something to say to this time as well. And he most certainly does.

Two truths appear before Catholics. First, the mystery of exile. Every time we pray the Salve Regina we speak of it; high time that we begin to mean it anew: Et Iesum benedictum fructum ventris tui nobis post hoc exilium ostende. Fundamentally, the Catholic is an exile. Shame on us if a presidential election has had to remind us of the fact. We are never meant to be comfortable here, and we are never entirely secure. On the contrary, one sometimes hears the phrase about building the Kingdom of God on earth. Such language appears in the USCCB’s recent statement about the presidential election.[3]

But it is difficult to see how such language squares with the grace and doctrine of the prophets. Without prejudice to our civic duties and of life in society, nobody builds the Kingdom of God but God himself. Remember what happened to David when he presumed to take a census.[4]

And yet, second, what remains for us, we Babylonian exiles? I happened across a passage in Raïssa Maritain’s journals that articulates the matter well and answers the question. And I suspect Jeremiah himself might well have agreed:

The grace of sanctity is the fruit of fidelity. To be sanctified and pacified, society too must begin by being faithful. . . . The Church is ready to instruct us in everything that concerns the truth of life, and justice. But this word of social salvation, this efficacious word, is something we have to deserve to hear. We have to be ready to leave everything in order that it should be accomplished. . . . We do not desire it, we are not ready—and the divine voice echoes in the wilderness.[5]

 


[1] Jeremiah 29, 6.

[2] Ibid, v 11.

[3] ‘As Catholics and Americans, our priorities and mission are clear. We are here to follow Jesus Christ, to bear witness to His love in our lives, and to build His Kingdom on earth.’ (Cf usccb.org/new/2020/president-us-bishops-conference-issues-statement-2020-presidential-election ).

[4] Cf 2 Kings 24, ff.

[5] The Journal of Raïssa Maritain, ed Jacques Maritain, (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2020), ‘Loose Leaves, n 80,’ p 218; emphasis added.

{Art Credit: 19th c., unknown.}

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