Today, we’re talking about renewing our hearts, and two stories stand out in my mind as opposite starting points. One time, I was having a deep, late-night conversation with a friend, and I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but he caught me off guard when he said, “I wish I weren’t having sex with my girlfriend.” Most people do want to have sex, but he was expressing a deeper desire. I never forgot his words because they came from his heart.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
In contrast to this, another time a father came to me saying that his teenage son had been caught in a sexual act at school. He explained the most devastating part: “You know, he was crying, and all that, but I don’t know if he’s sorry because it was wrong or because he got caught.” In this case, there was something wrong with this young man’s heart, because he never showed that he had a clear sense of right and wrong.
Most of us want a pure heart, where we’re no longer tempted to commit these sins. God today talks about writing His law on our hearts—that’s something I want. And I’m not just talking about sexual sins, although St. John Paul II says sexuality “concerns ‘the innermost being of the human person’” (Christopher West, Good News About Sex & Marriage, 42). I’m talking about the desire to stop being slothful, to stop condemning people in our hearts, to stop lying, to stop being envious of other people’s lives, to stop swearing, etc.
Today we’re back in the Lenten wilderness, and God’s putting these desires in our hearts. While this may be sobering, it’s also very beautiful.
Here is the historical context for the First Reading. In the time of Moses, around 1400 B.C., God made a covenant with the Hebrew people, and a covenant is like marriage and adoption; He was making the people part of His family! Part of the covenant was the Ten Commandments, the guide for how to live. But the people kept breaking these commandments.
For the next 900 years until the prophet Jeremiah, God kept trying to rebuild His relationship with His people, until we get to today’s Reading: “The days are surely coming… when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah [This means God’s rebuilding His family. Israel was the northern tribe and Judah the southern, and they used to be one people, but had been separated for hundreds of years]. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers when I took them… out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband [This is the clearest teaching that God is married to His people, and so His law isn’t something imposed by a distant god, but the law within a marriage]” (Jer 31:31-32).
There are three characteristics of the new covenant: “ I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…  for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33-34. See John Bergsma & Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, 797-800).
First, the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets, but now God says His law will be written on our hearts. The theologian, Christopher West, says that no one complains about the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” because in our society it’s already written on our hearts that murder is wrong. We don’t need to be told this. But we need the eighth commandment that tells us not to lie, because it’s not yet written on our hearts.
This is the heart of the matter today, pun intended. Deep down, we want to love God and neighbour, but we keep sinning. My friend didn’t want to have sex with his girlfriend because God’s law was in his heart. He was breaking it, but it was still there.
In the movie The Mission, about a slave trader who becomes a priest in 18th century South America, there’s a scene where the native people are hunting an animal. Once they capture it, this young boy tugs at Mendoza to kill the animal, but he refuses. He shakes his head because he doesn’t want to kill anymore. Most of his life he had killed, and now, in his heart, he doesn’t want that anymore.
The key to renewing our hearts is desire. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of God’s punishments, it’s that we don’t want to commit these sins anymore. I don’t want to look at women that way anymore. I’m sick of pornography, lying to my family, making excuses, or fighting with my family.
The second characteristic of the new covenant is that people will have an experiential knowledge of God. ‘They shall all know me.’ Everyone knows about the queen of England, but not everyone knows her personally. That’s the same with God. In the new covenant, rather than just being taught about Him, people will encounter Him. For many of us, we’ve experienced Jesus’ love for us, and that’s why we talk about Jesus as if He’s real to us, because He is.
Think about all the people in your life you’ve met. Does Jesus fit into this category? Do you remember the first time you met someone, what you talked about, how they treated you? Can you do the same with Jesus? If you know what I’m talking about, then you’ve probably met Jesus. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you probably haven’t.
However, if you want to, open your hearts. Jesus wants to meet you. That’s why our church is open 18 hours a day, why Alpha and Faith Studies are offered all the time, because we experience Jesus personally in these events.
The third characteristic of the new covenant is that ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’ Jesus forgives us through Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist. This means we should never give in to discouragement about repeatedly falling into the same sins.
Now, here are four ways God renews our hearts.
1) Desire. The desire to change our hearts is already a purification of the heart, and is pleasing to God. Go back to that teenage boy I told you about—what disappointed his father the most was not his son’s sin, but the fact that he didn’t know if his son knew what he did was wrong.
The students in our school all sin, but when I visit the classes, some visibly care about what’s right and wrong, some don’t. That’s the scariest part of all, that some don’t care. Yet, for the students who do care, I can work with that, God can work with that.
Fr. Jacques Philippe writes, “What does God demand of us, if not this goodwill? What more could He demand of us, He who is a good and compassionate Father, than to see His child desiring to love above all?” (Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 18). If we desire to grow, that’s pleasing to God. If we fight against our sins, even though we fall, that repeated effort is pleasing to Him.
If today you desire to have a new heart, you’ve come a long way, and God is with you! But let’s take that desire and fulfill it with what follows.
2) The Sacraments. The most powerful truth about the sacraments is that it’s Jesus Who is doing the work. What’s more powerful: If we purify our hearts or Jesus does? When you pray at night, you’re the one praying. When you participate in Mass, Jesus is the One praying and you’re joining in it. When you ask God the Father for forgiveness for venial sins, it’s your action in Jesus. When you go to Confession, it’s His direct action.
Last Holy Thursday, I told you that, when you receive the sacraments, all you have to do is desire to receive grace and you will. This is because of the nature of free will. Some people, when they go to Communion, are casual about it, so they receive Jesus, but no grace, because He won’t force them. But others, when they receive Jesus, they receive supernatural power to grow, because they want it. It all depends on our desire.
3) The Rosary. For a thousand years, saints have sworn by this, because the Rosary requires humility, and brings us to contemplation of Jesus’ life. Contemplation changes our hearts, because contemplation means a deep thinking, reflecting, and being in contact with Jesus’ life. Everyone who prays the Rosary grows. It doesn’t have to be all five decades every day. Just one decade prayed well is better than five done poorly.
4) Signs of sincerity. Sometimes, when a rod is bent too far in one direction, in order to straighten it, we have to bend it back the other way. So, some people, to renew their hearts, take extra steps that aren’t absolutely necessary, but are signs of sincerity; they’re not just doing the minimum, but the maximum. For example, some get Covenant Eyes for their devices, some give up alcohol except on certain occasions, some practice silence to control their words. I remember a young man who, before he married his future wife, wouldn’t go into her house alone, not because it was wrong, but as a sign that he was serious about having a pure relationship with her. I didn’t understand this at the time, but now I do.
I end now with a story about Brian Walch, whose life encompasses three of these ways God renews our hearts. Born in Michigan, Brian was talented, captain of the high-school basketball team, and popular. But he lived a double life: a good Catholic in front of his parents and the priest, he got drunk on the weekends, swore profusely, and was having sex.
After high school, he stunned everyone by entering the seminary. The other seminarians couldn’t figure out how he got past the psychological exams. Whereas most guys had simple rooms, Brian brought in carpeting, an air conditioner, and had parties there. No one thought he would last.
At the end of first year, the seminarians had a ten-day silent retreat. On the last day, the retreat master invited the students to pray out loud, and Brian said, “Lord I want to tell You that I’m really sorry, that I realize I’ve wasted my talents, I’ve wasted the gifts you’ve given me, I’ve abused the trust my parents have put in me, I’ve not been the person they thought I was. I’ve been a great sinner and I want to change my life and turn my life over to You.” No one took him seriously.
The next year, Brian came back and had changed: He sold his car, had given the money to the poor, got rid of his stylish clothing, and stopped swearing and drinking. “He still had the same smile, same popularity, same sense of humour. But he was a different person; he spent a lot of time in the chapel praying”. One day, after sitting on the floor in front of the tabernacle, he said to the organist, “Tim, have you ever thought how wonderful it is that Jesus always remains with us in the Most Blessed Sacrament?”
He loved serving the poor so much that he eventually left the seminary to go to Cambodia, to help Mother Teresa’s sisters as a lay volunteer. In 1975, when the Cambodian genocide started, and people were being evacuated, he wrote to his former seminarian friends, “This time if I am asked to leave, I will stay, because I feel called to mix my blood with the Blood of Christ for the salvation of these people’s souls.” He stayed there encouraging people, teaching catechism, and going to daily Mass secretly, all the while, evading capture by the Communists. One day, however, he was caught at Mass, brought outside the church, and executed, at the age of 23. A year later, when a seminarian friend met St. Mother Teresa, she said, “Ah, you are very fortunate, because you are the classmate of a saint.”
So there’s hope for all of us! We may struggle with our sins, but with desire, the sacraments, the Rosary, and signs of sincerity, God can renew our hearts and we can become saints!