22nd Sunday of the Year – August 29, 1971 – CNR
The second and third readings today suggest reflection on the Church–on the people God has gathered for his own, on us assembled for faith and repentance and for thanksgiving.
The passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews compares the constitutive moments of the Old Israel and the Church. Israeli at Sinai stood before its God in storm and fire, confronted with a holiness that terrified men into awe. This is not the Church’s encounter with its God; the new People of God comes before Mt. Sion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Already its life of worship is participation in the assembly of angels and saints who worship in the heavenly sanctuary of their great High Priest, who mediates the new covenant through the blood he shed, crying out, not for vengeance (as did Abel’s), but for pardon for sinners.
The whole scenario is not one that immediately appeals to our somewhat less than Platonic imaginations; but the vision of Hebrews does communicate a dimension of the Church we should not lose from sight. For as the Church, we ourselves are part of a historical continuum; we are people with a history and a tradition. We are part of a community which unites diverse ages and cultures through a common effort to bring to our saving God the common offering of our praise to him and service to one another.
It is that same dimension of community transcending diversity that is suggested by the words of Jesus in the Gospel. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors….When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” The verses parallel the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do that? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even pagans do the same?”
The words suggest that the Church itself and its characteristic activity must represent a new definition of community. It is not to be a mere grouping of like-minded people, joined by similar background, education, culture, sophistication, interests, loves, hates, or what have you. The Church is supposed to be something different in its grouping and its acting, precisely because its origin is different. For, before God, each of us has been poor and maimed, lame and blind, and yet we have each been loved and greeted and invited to his table by the Lord. There is something profoundly self-contradictory when the crippled and blind who have been accepted by Christ refuse acceptance to others they regard as crippled and blind. How many of us could pass before God the standards of community we set up for our fellow men?
Perhaps the recognition of our own lack of generosity towards one another may lead us to a greater awareness and praise of the generosity of the God who has made us welcome in Christ. If that can be the case at this celebration of God’s mercy, then this assembly can be sure that it too takes true and proper part in that vast assembly of saints whose life is the eternal praise of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
21ST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – AUGUST 30, 1992 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
Two of the Scriptural passages we have just heard concern what we are doing here at this liturgy and provide us with an opportunity to reflect on an activity that is so familiar to us.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is an extended statement of the transposition of the old Covenant which has been effected through the high priest of the new Covenant, Jesus Christ. The ritual of Old Testament sacrifice is spiritualized, becoming the anticipatory type of the sacrifice Christ began on the Cross and completes in the eternal worship he offers the Father in heaven. The series of comparisons and contrasts drawn throughout the letter concludes with the one we heard today, between the impressive, indeed terrifying spectacle of the assembly at Mount Sinai at which Israel’s covenant with God was struck, and the assembly of Christians. No longer terrifying, it is nonetheless impressive: “You have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God,” only these are now interpreted to refer to “the heavenly Jerusalem.” And the assembly is broadened out beyond living Christians themselves to include myriads of angels and the saints, the assembly of those first-born enrolled in heaven.
The text means that the worship we have gathered to offer to God does not involve only us. It is a moment in which we bring ourselves not only into this church but become part of the huge assembly gathered around Christ in heaven to give thanks to God. We say this every week, although perhaps we don’t give much attention to it, when at the end of the Preface the priest asks God to join our praise with that of the angels and saints, and we all join in making our own the hymn to the thrice-holy God that Isaiah heard the angels singing. I don’t suppose that we usually have much awareness of the larger dimensions of space and time of what we are doing here, but the tradition of thought and prayer that lies behind our worship today was aware of it. We are not alone in our worship of God, but are part of the long history and great assembly of those who were blessed by God before us, who are our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the praise of God. It is the communion of saints, of people made holy by their common share in the holy gifts of God’s word and grace.
If the Epistle reminds us of the transcendent dimensions of what we do here, the Gospel reminds us that they do not take us out of this world and that our assembly is supposed also to realize here and now the indiscriminate generosity of God’s gift. When Jesus used banquets or meals for his teaching, the early Church always understood him to be referring also to what their meal-assemblies were supposed to be, especially what the Eucharistic assembly was supposed to reveal about who they were as a Church.
They are supposed first of all to be a community from which is absent the struggle for highest honors, in which is realized the overturning of values by which the first are last and the last are first. But their assembly and community is also supposed to transcend the do ut des, “I’ll do it so you’ll do it,” mentality that too often limits human societies. Don’t invite people who are likely to invite you, Jesus says; invite without any hope of getting a return invitation. Bring in people whom other societies exclude: beggars, cripples, the lame, the blind. Give, in other words, without expectation of return. It is a call to be as free and gracious towards others as God has been towards us, for he has invited us into his family simply out of love, not seeking anything from us, but simply giving. St. Augustine had a wonderfully concise way of describing this utter gratuity of God’s love: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi: you have gone in search although you lack nothing. God has sought us for our sake, not for his; and that is supposed to be the model of our lives, individually and as a community.
In both readings, then, the bounds of this assembly are extended out–first out beyond those whom we can see, to include all the saints and angels; and then out beyond those with whom we might wish spontaneously to gather, to include people rejected and marginalized by society. In both respects we are asked to be sure that the full dimensions of our Christianity are part of our consciousness, that in this assembly is realized a community as wide as is God’s love of mankind, that in our assembly we keep in mind and live in the hope of the final assembly in heaven in which all who are saved meet as brothers and sisters before our common God and Father.
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 29, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
The brief passage we have heard from the Epistle to the Hebrews sets out a dimension of our Christian existence to which we perhaps do not give sufficient attention. At every Sunday Mass this dimension is explicitly evoked, but I have found that many people pass right over it, without appreciating it at its full value.
At the end of the Creed we profess our belief in “the communion of saints.” Both in Greek and in Latin, the original languages of our ancient creed, the phrase could also be translated as “the communion in holy things”; in other words it would refer to something objective: the holy things of God’s word and grace in which we all share. In the usage of the NT, of course, those who share in these holy things are themselves called “holy”; “saints” is one of the earliest self-designations of Christians. It did not refer first of all to their personal holiness, but to their having been blessed by holy gifts. Both translations, “communion in holy things” and “communion of holy ones,” are possible; in fact, one could say that they imply one another.
Today’s reading gives one list of the “holy things” to which Christians have been given access. A contrast is drawn with the assembly of Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, with its dramatic character: blazing fire, gloomy darkness, storm, trumpet blast, and God’s powerful voice from heaven. What Christians encounter in their assembly, instead, is the heavenly Jerusalem, “the city of the living God,” with hosts of angels and the assembly of the firstborn, and God, and Jesus, with the sprinkled blood of the new Covenant.
We may be tempted, as we surely are with regard to the phrase “communion of saints,” to think only of something in the future in this description, but the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has put it in the present tense, as something to which we already have access. And that is also how it is expressed in the other moment in every Mass when this teaching is evoked. At the end of the preface, the priest gathers up the praise of the assembly, like this one here and now, and links it with the praise being offered by the angels and the saints: “And so with all the angels and saints we take up their endless song of praise.” And then we go on to sing the “Holy, holy, holy”, the song which the prophet Isaiah, in the great description of his own call, heard the seraphim singing.
And we may imagine either of two things: one, that with our joining in that angelic hymn we are ourselves transported to the heavenly liturgy and are singing alongside the holy people of earlier generations. Or, two, we may imagine the saints and angels as here alongside us, adding their voices to ours. In either case, the common share in holy things extends our communion, fellowship, out beyond the number of us here in this Church at this moment to include all those whom God’s grace and truth have made holy.
I had a powerful experience of this once. My paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Slovak national church in Haverstraw, NY. He walked from Slovak community to Slovak community, and my family possesses the little notebook in which he recorded the nickels and dimes he collected to build the Church. And then he himself physically helped to build it. My father was baptized in that church, and so were all the members of my generation. It was from that church that he and my grandmother were buried, as well as aunts and uncles and cousins.
The church had fallen into disrepair, but a good priest, an Italian, came in and got the roof repaired and the frescoes restored and the whole thing repainted, so that it looked as beautiful as the day Mass was first said there. He asked me, as a descendant of one of the founders, to say the Mass to celebrate the restoration of the Church. We started with a procession up the main aisle, singing a hymn, and everything went as usual. But then as I reached the sanctuary and turned around to face the congregation, an overwhelming feeling came over me that in addition to the people I saw in front of me, there were gathered around us all those people who had built that church, who had been that church, who had been baptized there, confirmed there, celebrated Mass there, been married there, had their children baptized there, been buried from there. I was as convinced of their presence there as I was of the presence of the flesh-and-blood people I could see in front of me. It was so powerful and convincing an experience that it took me a while to regain my composure so that I could get on with the Mass, and I still get emotional recounting it.
That was, I think, an experience of the communion of saints, of our presence to those who have gone before us, and of their presence to us, that we affirm in every Mass. Perhaps we need to personalize it more so that, when we think of those angels and saints whose song of joy we take up, we don’t think only of ancient saints, or of great saints, but think also of holy people we have known, of grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers–of people with whom here on earth we shared the holy gifts of God, with whom we believe we continue to share them, in a fellowship, a communion, that death does not destroy and that will be restored in even greater degree in the resurrection on the last day.
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 29, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
Two weeks ago, we heard the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews refer to the great figures of the history of Israel as a “cloud of witnesses” that surround us, and which we could expand to include the great figures of our Christian history, down to grandparents and parents, down to the generation that led us to faith and love of God. Today’s reading ends the same chapter and this time looks forward, looks toward the future, the complete gathering of God’s people in the Kingdom, at the end.
A contrast is drawn with the circumstances of the sealing of the old covenant between God and Israel. Then it was a visible and tangible mountain, Mt. Sinai; there was fire and smoke and noise and a frightening voice–the classic symbols of a theophany, an appearance of God. But what we Christians face when we approach God now is a festival gathering in a new Jerusalem, and we will be surrounded by the angels and by the spirits of those who have been made perfect before us, and we will have confidence because the blood of Christ has brought us forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
This is where we live our Christian lives, between past and future, between memory and hope. Philosophers and psychologists have spoken of individuals locating their identities between past and future: who we are being defined by where we’ve been and by where we wish to go. Amnesia means a loss of identity–no self possible because no future possible because no past is remembered. A similar analysis can be applied to groups, to communities, which arise and hold together because of a common remembered past and a common anticipated future. Think of how we introduce new citizens into the story of America. Think of how new Christians are introduced into the sacred history we remember and celebrate each week. Think of how our creed ends with what we await in hope: we expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
This location between memory and hope also defines what we do in the holy mysteries we celebrate. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the sacraments have threefold sign-value, symbolism. They are commemorative signs, recalling to mind what God has done for us in Christ. They are anticipatory signs, looking forward to the eternal banquet of the Kingdom. And they are signs of the grace already present among us, of the fellowship in grace already enjoyed. St. Thomas not only wrote beautifully about this in his great theological work. He also wrote of it poetically in the beautiful verses of a hymn: “O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, and futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.” [O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given us.]
Who we are individually is defined by what we remember and what we hope for. Each present moment of our lives is poised between what we have been and what we may become. If faith is the great virtue that keeps us anchored in what God has done for us, and hope is the great virtue that keeps our hearts and minds on what he has promised, love should be the great virtue by which the power of the past and the promise of the future enable a life lived generously, in imitation of Christ and all the great saints and anticipating the reconciled community in the great and joyful feast God has prepared for those who love him.