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.

St. Agatha

St. Agatha, Virgin Martyr
I Kings 8:1-7,9-13  +  Mark 6:53-56
February 5, 2018

Lord, go up to the place of your rest!

Today’s Responsorial Psalm comes from the first half of Psalm 132.  The refrain is, “Lord, go up to the place of your rest!”  In itself this sounds like a strange thing to say to the Almighty.  Why does the Lord need us to tell Him where to go?  Why does the Lord need to go to a place of rest?  What is the broader context for this refrain?

Within the setting of the Old Testament, we could imagine this refrain verse being spoken during the Exodus or one of the exiles from the Holy Land.  In these settings, the place of the Lord’s rest would refer to His final “resting place” on earth:  the Temple in Jerusalem.  It’s there that the priests enter to offer right worship to the Lord, according to the dictates of His Law.  Within this setting we can certainly interpret Psalm 132 according to the original meaning of the human author.

In a further sense, however, we listen to Psalm 132 in terms of its fulfillment in Christ.  The Lord is Jesus, who entered our fallen world for us men and our salvation.  This psalm, then, speaks to the Ascension of the Lord as the completion of the Incarnate Word’s earthly mission.  Our own share in this rest is what we await beyond death, although even now in the sanctuary of the Living God, in the right worship of the Eucharist we may share in the rest of His Real Presence.

The 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Job 7:1-4,6-7  +  1 Cor 9:16-19,22-23  +  Mk 1:29-39
February 4, 2018

“For this purpose have I come.”

In today’s Gospel passage, the people around Jesus seem to believe that the cures He’s working are the “good news” of the Gospel.  We have to remember that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, and that Jesus had gone around Palestine for some time preaching that he had a message of “good news” for them.

But there was a common misunderstanding among those who heard Jesus.  They didn’t exactly understand what Jesus’ “good news” concerned.  Was it good financial news?  News of good weather for the crops for the next hundred years?  Was it news of Israel’s freedom from its slavery to the Roman Empire?  The people in today’s Gospel passage think that Jesus has “good news” for them about the physical suffering that afflicts them.

Now we, as Catholics living in modern times, know that the meaning of the Gospel is that we are freed from slavery to sin, not simply that we are freed from the slavery of our bodies to disease.  The people in Palestine, however, were so caught up in the wonder of Jesus’ physical cures that they couldn’t understand that Jesus was simply using these cures as signs.  They were healings of the body that foreshadowed the more radical healing of the soul.

We shouldn’t fault these people in the Gospel.  After all, who among us, when faced with disease, doesn’t find it easy to get caught up in the misery and suffering it brings about?  All you want is for the suffering to be over.  “Life on earth is a drudgery,” as Job says in the First Reading.  Suffering seems to consume your life.

So it’s easy to see why a person in the first century, suddenly and dramatically freed from serious sickness, would look upon Jesus as his Messiah for that very reason.  Nonetheless, Jesus’ purpose in working these cures is to point our attention beyond them to something infinitely greater.

By putting our faith in Jesus—that is, by believing that through His holy Cross He has redeemed the world—we are freed from the slavery of our souls to sin.  But the larger question that Jesus points to in this Gospel passage is not, “What are you a slave to?” (the correct answer being, “Sin”).  The larger question that Jesus points to is, “Who is it who has enslaved you to sin?”  This isn’t a question that the people in the Gospel were ready to hear, but we as Catholics ought to consider this question seriously.  “Who has enslaved you to sin?”

The answer is:  “you have.”  Practically speaking, this is one of the hardest teachings of the Church.  It’s a teaching that often derails a Christian’s efforts at spiritual direction.  We might take it for granted that we are responsible for our actions.  But if we look closely at our actions, we might be surprised how often we deceive ourselves.

Like our first parents, Adam and Eve, there is a constant tendency within us to shift the blame.  “Who ate the apple?  Well, I did, but she made me do it.”  We may not even shift the blame to another person, but rather to the circumstances in which we find ourselves in life.  “If only I didn’t have to be around that person so much, I wouldn’t bother her,” or “only if I didn’t have to finish that work by next week, I would do a better job on it.”

There is no denying that we are influenced by others, even at times perhaps by the Devil himself. Nonetheless, each person must accept responsibility for his or her sinful actions.  When we recognize how powerless we are to do good on our own, and when we accept the fact that it is through God’s grace that we can both be saved and do good works, then we are moving in the direction that Jesus points in today’s Gospel passage.  He is pointing us, through His Cross, towards the very source of all good:  namely, Jesus’ own eternal Father, who, as the priest names Him in the confessional when giving absolution, is “God, the Father of mercies.”

St. Blaise

St. Blaise, Bishop & Martyr
I Kings 3:4-13  +  Mark 6:30-34
February 3, 2018

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”

In listening to the words of today’s Gospel passage and applying them to our lives, perhaps we have not listened as carefully—or as fully—as we should have.  In this passage Jesus says to us what Jesus says to His apostles:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”  He invites them by His words to imitate Him:  He calls them to follow Him to a deserted place.

Jesus leads the apostles there, but when they arrive at the place, Jesus sees a vast crowd.  What does he do?  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, begins feeding the flock with His teaching.  Again Jesus is speaking to His apostles, but this time He invites them by His actions to imitate Him:  He calls them to follow Him into the midst of the crowd.

Jesus’ life in this passage teaches us the meaning of the words of Saint Francis of Assisi:  “O Divine Master / grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console / to be understood as to understand / to be loved as to love.  / For it is in giving that we receive….”

These words of Saint Francis lead us back again to the scene of the Gospel.  Can we see that Jesus is teaching us that to be a faithful shepherd is to be a faithful steward, to offer everything to God, both our work and our rest?  Nothing, not a thing, is ours, not even the rest that we enjoy in the midst of a busy day, for even the rest we are granted prepares us only to serve both God and others more fully.

The Presentation of the Lord

The Presentation of the Lord
Mal 3:1-4  +  Heb 2:14-18  +  Lk 2:22-40
February 2, 2018

“… for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples….”

Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple might seem a little off kilter.  After all, the Church’s season of Christmas ended some weeks ago, but today we celebrate another mystery of Jesus’ early life.  February 2nd falls forty days after Christmas Day, creating an obvious parallel to the Resurrection and Ascension.  Nonetheless, no matter how long Christmas lasts, today’s feast points our attention towards the giving of presents.

Just as the name of today’s feast is the “presentation” of the Lord, the meaning of the feast shows that the Lord is a present to be given to others.  On the one hand, God the Father gave His only Son as a present to the human family.  But on this feast of the Presentation, we see humans giving this present of Jesus to others, both back to God and to other humans.

For Joseph and Mary this presentation was what we in our day might call a supreme act of stewardship:  they recognized that not only were their time, talent, and treasure from God, but their first-born son as well.  The gift of human life, like a marriage between a man and a woman, only exists through the grace of God.  As an act of stewardship, then, Mary and Joseph present their new-born son back to God, recognizing that God is the ultimate Father of Jesus.

Joseph and Mary’s presentation of Jesus to God the Father was a sacrifice not offered only once.  Joseph and Mary continually offered this sacrifice as Jesus continued to grow.  When Jesus was twelve and Joseph and Mary lost and then found Jesus in the Temple teaching the scribes, Jesus expressed little concern about their worry.  He asked them, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”  This was not callousness on the part of Jesus, but a call for Mary and Joseph to recognize that as parents, they were not the ultimate meaning of their child’s life.

But even that event of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, as much as it may have initially shaken Mary and Joseph, was almost nothing in comparison to the event that would take place on the Cross on Calvary some twenty years later.  It is there, on Calvary, that the greatest presentation took place:  one to which we join our own selves through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.