Conversion of St. Augustine, Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455, Musée Thomas-Henry
Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
August 30, 2020
Today’s reading is personally significant for me. It was read at my Ordination Mass and it will be read at my funeral. In my mid-twenties, it awoke a sense that the Sacrifice of the Mass was intimately connected with daily life and that my ministry should be judged by how well I joined the two. The pandemic has made these concerns more pressing and the need to have a truly sacrificial life more necessary. The message here is so profound that I will bring in a guest speaker to help me.
Last week’s reading ended with a resounding call to “Give God Glory.” How is this done? What is necessary for Christian worship? Paul will answer not only as a Jew but as a prophet. The great prophets of Israel recognized that the LORD could be neither bribed nor fooled. Performing rituals exactly or offering flocks of animals in sacrifice are worse than useless if our hearts are not contrite and humbled.
We read in Psalm 51:
For you do not desire sacrifice;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit;
God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart
The Prophets railed against merely going through the motions. To use only one example from Jerimiah:
Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba,(Jer. 6:20)
or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable,
nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.
As we here in today’s first reading also from Jerimiah:
If I say, “I will not mention him,(Jer. 20:9)
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
As we saw many times in looking at Romans 8, Paul, good Jew that he is, does not separate body and soul but sees the entire person. When the person is in the spirit and accepts the new life, which Jesus offers the body can offer true worship.
He has previously said in Romans:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death,(Rom. 6:4)
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
so we too might walk in newness of life.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion(Rom. 6:12–13)
in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
No longer present your members
to sin as instruments of wickedness,
but present yourselves to God
as those who have been brought from death to life,
and present your members to God
as instruments of righteousness.
This is reflected in what we read today but is transcended:
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God,(Rom. 12:1)
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God,
your spiritual worship.
God’s mercy is our experience of a relationship with him which allows us to hive ourselves to him by our life. We should not misunderstand this as an exhortation to martyrdom but the way we live our lives every day.
This is not only a preparation for worship as the prophets have commanded, this is worship and indeed a sacrifice. Sacrifice maintains our covenant with God. How we live our lives, what we do with our bodies, can structure our relationship with God and our community in and of itself.
For Paul, this always means acknowledging we are offered new life through Jesus. “Conforming to this age” for Paul is living in the flesh, when we live in the sprit we are transformed and will know what God wants. This not only creates a bond with God but with our sisters and brothers as well. Chapter 12 continues with a discussion of the church:
For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you(Rom. 12:3–5)
not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think,
but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith
that God has apportioned.
For as in one body we have many parts,
and all the parts do not have the same function
so we, though many, are one body in Christ and
individually parts of one another.
This is the true essence of worship and has significant consequences which were recognized by our guest today, St. Augustine of Hippo whose feast we celebrated on Friday. In his great work “The City of God” he wrote about today’s passage from Paul:
Thus a true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. … Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God(Book 10, chapter 6:1)
Augustine understands that though love we not only offer sacrifices we become one. Our actions in the spirit bind us more perfectly to God and neighbor.
The pandemic has perhaps caused us to make many sacrifices in the traditional sense. We have had to give up much. Among them is participation at Mass. Paul and Augustine urge us to see that this does not mean that we have not worshiped. We worship when we offer work “that we may be united to God”. In short, we worship when we love. Never has it been as important to recognize that we can ourselves become a sacrifice.
This is real and precious, but it will reveal our need for the Sacrifice of the Mass. No matter how completely we ourselves become a sacrifice and indeed how closely we are bound to God and our neighbor nonetheless it is still the action of an individual. The Sacrifice of the Mass is “the source and summit” of the Christian life because it is the action of the entire community and we need always remember Jesus at its head.
I hope that all of us have experienced ourselves as a sacrifice during this pandemic and I urge you to keep the memory close. It is a gift that should last a lifetime. It is particularly important as we return to live participation at Mass. Social distancing, masks and other necessary precautions have made the celebration ritually thin but if we can fill it out by embracing our connection to God it will always be “good and pleasing and perfect.”