Sermon 2 of 3: The Gospel and the Old Testament

Sermon Series—The Word of God, the Gospel, and St. Mark
Sermon Two of Three:  The Gospel and the Old Testament
Sexagesima Sunday—February 4, 2018

If you’re a cradle Catholic, you’re probably not aware of praying this way.  If you’re an adult convert to the Catholic Faith, you’re probably very aware of it.  Cradle Catholics become used to this way of praying from their first days, as they’re brought to Sunday Mass faithfully by their parents.  Even as infants, cradle Catholics learn to consider it as the most ordinary way in which to worship God on Sunday morning.  But it can be puzzling to non-Catholics.

What is this way of praying?  Most often, it’s called “Catholic Calisthenics”:  that is, the fact that Catholics during Holy Mass stand, and sit, and stand, and sit, and kneel, and stand, and kneel… and so on and so forth.  Even money says that if you bring with you to Sunday Mass a non-Catholic who’s never been to a Mass before, he or she will mention to you afterwards what good shape Catholics must be in to do that much calisthenics at every Mass.

By design, our bodies participate in our Catholic worship.  As you know, the word “catholic” literally means “universal”, and there are many senses in which our Faith is “catholic”.  One way in which our Faith is catholic is how we worship at Holy Mass.  That is to say, as Catholics we worship God not only within our minds, and not only in our hearts, but also through our bodies.  Our bodies express our prayers to God by our standing, sitting, kneeling, and bowing, as well as gestures such as the Sign of the Cross or striking our breast in contrition during the Confiteor, and so on.

Consider one particular example from Holy Mass.  During most of the first main part of Mass—that is, the Liturgy of the Word—the members of the congregation are seated.  But during the apex, the summit, the highpoint of the Liturgy of the Word—namely, the proclamation of the Gospel—we stand.  We stand at that point, not to make a bold profession, as we do during the Creed and the Gloria.  We stand during the proclamation of the Gospel passage at attention.  We stand at attention:  all ears, all heart, all mind, soul and strength, in order to receive the Word of God in the holy Gospel.

The Word of God, of course, is a divine Person.  The Word of God is the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.  It’s about this divine Person that St. John the Evangelist, in the first verses of his Gospel account, proclaims that:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him”.[1]

The point is that this divine Person—this Second Person of the Trinity, who as we say in the Glory Be “was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be”—this divine Person is the One who speaks to us when the Holy Gospel is proclaimed at Mass.  It’s not as if, when the priest reads the Gospel passage about, say, Jesus curing a blind man, that the priest is just telling us a story about this amazing person from ages past, like grandpa reading to us from a storybook.  At Holy Mass when the Gospel is proclaimed, it is Jesus Christ Himself who speaks.  The Word of God speaks to us.  The Word of God is the Person who proclaims the Word of God in the form of that Sunday’s Gospel passage.

But, someone might ask, isn’t the Word of God proclaimed in every book of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation?  Why do we stand only for the proclamation of four of the books of Sacred Scripture:  namely, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?  Why give greater attention to those four books?  Conversely, if those four books are so important, why do we listen to passages from the other books of the Bible at all?

Consider the latter question first.  Before we stand and hear a Gospel passage, we hear a First Reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm from the Old Testament, and a Second Reading from a non-Gospel New Testament book.[2]  In fact, with the exception of Palm Sunday, we spend more time at Sunday Mass listening to non-Gospel readings from Sacred Scripture than we do listening to the Gospel passage.  Instead, why don’t we listen at Sunday Mass to four passages from the Gospel, perhaps one from each Gospel account?  If the four Gospel accounts are more important books of Sacred Scripture than any others, why not listen exclusively to these four?

In the early Church, her leaders had to guard against a heresy called Marcionism.  The chief tenet of this heresy was that the Old Testament was no longer to be considered Sacred Scripture.  The Old Testament had been superseded by The New Testament.  Even today you find “Christians” who espouse such a belief in practice if not in words.  Often, such a belief goes hand-in-hand with the belief that the God of the Old Testament is someone altogether different than the God of the New Testament.  The Church Fathers were zealous not only in condemning such beliefs, but also in preaching in a manner that reveals the “utility” of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament prepares God’s People for the New Testament, as Advent prepares God’s People for the Nativity.  The preaching of the Church Fathers reveals that God prepared mankind gradually for the fullness of His Word made Flesh.  The Church Fathers’ preaching, of course, continues to nourish the members of the Church Militant today.  It does so by showing each of us modern pilgrims, wayfaring and often wandering off the Way, that no matter how weak we may be in mind or spirit, God wills to nourish us to full strength—to full sharing in the life of the Word made Flesh—by offering us the milk of the Old Testament.

Put another way, what ancient Israel needed to prepare themselves to accept the Word made Flesh is what we as struggling disciples need to accept the Word made Flesh.  Likewise, we members of the Mystical Body of Christ are blessed with the Word of God in those books that follow the four Gospel accounts.  They also help us, in their own way, to allow the Gospel to resound in our moral and spiritual lives.  All this, however, should not distract us from the central truth that the Culmen et Fons—“source and summit”—of our Christian life is the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Holy Mass.

[1] John 1:1-3.

[2] On Sundays of the Easter Season, the First Reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles.