Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twenty-Second Sunday in OT, Year C
August 29, 2004
Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29; Heb 12:18-19, 22-24; Lk 14:1,7-14
1) In the parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus is doing far more than giving his disciples — those 2000 years ago and us today — advice on how to achieve the best seats at a wedding reception. As valid and applicable as that counsel is for human situations, Jesus’ real point was to teach us how to be exalted at the ETERNAL WEDDING BANQUET to which the Host, his Father, has invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” In order for us to hear those words from God the Father, “Friend, move up higher,” which is the deepest longing that exists in the human heart, Jesus says that there is only one way: we must HUMBLE OURSELVES, for it is only the humble who will be so exalted.
2) These are very hard and challenging words in our culture, which so much prizes human exaltation. We see the thirst for the gold in the Olympics and the disappointment when Americans return “only” with bronze. We see in the hunger of young boys to be Little League World Series champions and their dejection upon being only the second best team in the country or the world. We see it in all the awards and honors we give, to the “Most Intelligent” students, the “Best Looking” women in pageants, the “Most Successful” sales representatives, and even the “best groomed” dogs. So many of us have been raised with the desire not only to BE THE BEST, but to be ACKNOWLEDGED as the best, that it is so hard for us to hear Jesus’ words today and put them into practice. And if we cannot be the BEST, we at least want to be BETTER than those with whom we come into contact. We want to get our own way, rather than conceding to the wishes of another. We want to get the last word, rather than let someone else have it, even if that person is someone we love. We want to be chosen and another set aside. We want to be the ones noticed and thanked, and resent if others get the credit we think we deserve.
3) To all of us in this culture, Jesus says to us, “LEARN FROM ME, for I am meek and HUMBLE OF HEART” (Mt 11:29). He himself personified what was said in the first reading from Sirach: “My child, perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved by those whom God accepts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favor in the sight of the Lord. … By the humble the Lord is glorified.” Jesus’ whole life is a lesson in humility. He performed with humility every task God His Father gave him. Because he was so great, the eternal Son of God, the more he had to humble himself, and by his humility he glorified his Father. To each of us today, he turns and says, “Follow me!”
4) St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, focused on Christ’s humility as the source and model of our own. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but EMPTIED HIMSELF, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:3-11). Jesus humbled himself to assume our human nature, to take upon the form of a slave to serve us rather than to be served by us (Mt 20:28), to wash our very feet, (Jn 13), to become obedient to human authority, and even to allow himself to be mistreated, manhandled and murdered by his own creatures, all so that he might save us. Because of this, the Father exalted Him forever. St. Peter said that Jesus did all of this to leave us an example, so that we would follow in his footsteps (1Pet 2:21). If we do this, if we follow Christ and ENTER INTO His humility, then and only then will we enter into Christ’s exaltation.
5) The supreme way for us to do that flows from the greatest act of the Lord’s humility, which was not his leaving the Father’s side and being born of a poor young girl in an animal trough. It wasn’t even his allowing us, whom he created, to crucify and kill him. His greatest act of abasement, the greatest manifestation of his self-giving love to ransom us from death, is the EUCHARIST, in which the Lord Jesus goes even so low as to hide behind the appearance of simple bread and wine and permit us, his creatures, to EAT HIM, so that we might become whom we eat. The Lord Jesus cloaks himself in so humble a way so that we would not be disgusted when we consume his flesh and blood, as we might if we were eating what appeared to our senses as human flesh and blood. To get beyond these most humble appearances, we need deep FAITH in Jesus, that he who said “this is my body” and “this is the cup of my blood” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53) meant what he was saying and was speaking the truth.
6) But there’s a great risk in this amazing humility of Jesus in the Eucharist: Because Jesus has gone so low, people might miss his presence; because Jesus has become so “ordinary” under the appearances of simple bread and wine, many might TAKE HIM FOR GRANTED, or HAVE NO FAITH IN HIM AT ALL. This is, in fact, what we have been observing in the Church in recent years and why this taking-Jesus-for-granted-in-the-Eucharist is one of the greatest crises in the Church today. Pope John Paul II has been calling our attention to this crisis almost incessantly during the first few years of this new millennium. Last year, on Holy Thursday, he published a beautiful encyclical called “The Church lives from the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucaristia) which called our attention to the signs of a crisis and called us in the Church to a much deeper gratitude for this gift of the Lord. (This is something every faithful Catholic should read and study). Earlier this year, at his instruction, the Vatican published a series of guidelines for clergy to eliminate some common liturgical abuses concerned with the Blessed Sacrament (Redemptionis Sacramentum), so that the reality of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist might not be obscured. And on the feast of Corpus Christi two months ago, he declared that beginning this October until October 2005, the Church will mark a “Year of the Eucharist,” in which all Catholics will be called, in response to God’s grace, to deepen their faith, hope and love in Jesus in the Eucharist.
7) As we get ready for that Eucharistic year, all of us need to be humble enough to ask if we’ve been taking Jesus’ incredible gift of himself in the Eucharist for granted. The Pope and many others with him have noted several signs of the crisis of faith in the Eucharist. We can take a few of them, in the form of a Eucharistic examination of conscience:
a) Sunday Mass Attendance — If people really believed in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and were grateful, how could they not come to Mass to receive Jesus? Could anything else that they are doing on Sunday possibly be more important than receiving GOD inside? Yet 60% of Catholics in the US do not attend Mass at all, and another 20% do not attend every week.
b) Daily Mass Attendance — Perhaps a better index than Sunday Mass attendance is daily Mass attendance, when people come to Mass, not because they have to, but because they want to. While it is certainly not a sin to miss daily Mass, it’s hard for me to imagine that if someone believes that the Eucharist is Jesus and has the possibility of coming to daily Mass that that person would not want to receive God inside every day. In many cases, daily Mass attendance would require some sacrifices, but wouldn’t those sacrifices be worth it if, in exchange, you receive GOD?
c) Eucharistic Adoration — If we believed that God is present in the Eucharist, we would want to come to spend time with him. Over the past year, we have had many opportunities at this parish to adore Jesus in the Eucharist. In conscience, everyone can ask God, “When was the last time I came to adore You, Lord, in the Eucharist?”
d) Praying the Mass — If we believe that the Mass is our participation live in Jesus’ last supper, do we really pour our hearts and souls into the Mass, or are we just trying to “get it over with?” How much attention do we pay to the readings and to the prayers of the Mass? Do we sing the hymns (which are prayers set to music)? Do we take Mass seriously enough to try to arrive to prepare? Do we stay to thank God after Mass for the incredible gift of receiving him? Do we receive him reverently, bowing before we receive the King of Kings, making a suitable throne for him if we receive him on the hands?
e) Confession — If we believe that Jesus in the Eucharist is “holy, holy, holy,” do we make sure that we are properly prepared to receive him, by being free of all serious sin through going regularly to confession? Or do we think that we are fit to receive him by the simple fact that we have shown up to Mass?
8) St. Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was convinced that if we really understood what was happening at Mass and who it is we are receiving, we would never want Mass to end. In the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the Holy Spirit through the human author gives us a glimpse of what the reality of the Mass truly is.
9) He describes the Mass — which is our participation in the New and Eternal Covenant — by contrasting it with the institution of the Old Covenant. “You have NOT COME to something,” he says, “that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” All of these things — the blazing fire, the darkness, the gloom, the thunder and lightening, the sound of the trumpet — were what the Israelites observed when they saw Moses come down from Mt. Sinai (cf. Exod 19:12-19; Exod 20:18; Deut 4:11; Deut 5:23-27). God spoke to them in these unforgettable signs through their senses, so that they would know that He and He alone is the Lord of all creation and that they would have to leave their idol-worship completely behind.
10) In the establishment of the New Covenant, however, God did not act with thunderous signs that would overwhelm our senses. Some people today might wish that he had, especially those people who are accustomed to say “Mass is boring” and criticize the homilies or the music for not being sufficiently “entertaining or “interesting.” In establishing the New and Eternal Covenant, God did not act with celestial fireworks because otherwise our faith and trust in God would not grow. To see the realities of the New Covenant in which we enter through the Mass, we need the eyes of FAITH. These eyes allow us to perceive the invisible realities that are here, which go far beyond metereology. Listen to what the author to the Letter to the Hebrews says about what is here today to greet us. After saying “you have NOT COME to … a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest… [etc.],” he states, “But you HAVE COME to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than the blood of Abel.” We encounter these seven realities here at Mass (and more!):
a) “Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” — These are images from Sacred Scripture about HEAVEN. Mass, as so many of the saints have commented, is truly “heaven on earth,” God’s holy dwelling place, where we have the privilege to adore him.
b) “Innumerable angels in festal gathering” — If God for a moment were to open our eyes so that we could detect the invisible — as he has to some mystics in Church history — we would be overwhelmed to see the entire heavenly host around the tabernacle and, after the consecration, around the altar. All the angels are here!
c) “The assembly of the first born enrolled in heaven” — “Assembly” is the translation of ekklesia, the Greek word for Church. By their baptism, they have received the full inheritance of God’s first born son, and are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). Through truly living out the full meaning of our baptism, Christians’ “names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3). We come here to pray not individually but together with all those brothers and sisters who are co-heirs of the most priceless inheritance of all.
d) “God the judge of all” — God the Father is here and and he is our judge — so we should never sentimentalize his presence or pretend that we’re better than we are — but we should on the other hand not be terrified, because out of love he provided Jesus as our lawyer before Him who has written his brief on our behalf in his own blood (1John 2:1).
e) “The spirits of the righteous made perfect” — These refer to the saints, who have been made perfect by God in heaven. All of them are here as well — including our patron, St. Francis Xavier — praying right alongside of us.
f) “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” — The Lord Jesus is here celebrating this one, eternal sacrifice of the Mass through a priest. He is the priest, the sacrifice, and the mediator between us and God (cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15; 1 Tim 2:5) and he has “earnestly desired to eat this passover” (Lk 22:15) with us, alongside the apostles.
g) “The sprinkled blood [of Christ] that speaks more eloquently than the blood of Abel” — Whereas Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance from the ground after his brother Cain killed him (Gen 4:10), Christ’s blood, after we, his brothers killed him, speaks not of vengeance but of forgiveness: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all SO THAT SINS MAY BE FORGIVEN.”
11) This is the reality we encounter when we come to Mass! This is the reality we hope to encounter forever in heaven. Jesus out of love humbled himself so much in the Eucharist to give us the means to enter into this reality now and forever. To receive Him well requires a similar humility, to come to him in this sacrament with “humble and contrite hearts,” admitting, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” and then humbly allowing the Divine Physician to “say the word” that will heal us so that we may worthily receive him. To receive him well requires the humility to admit how much we need Jesus in the Eucharist and therefore to hunger to receive him even daily and to dwell with him in Eucharistic adoration.
12) God the Father has brought us all together here in this wedding banquet to feast on his son. If we’re humble, the Father will call each of us up here, not just to the seats in the first row, but beyond the first row, to exalt us by giving us the Son whom he has exalted above all forever. And if we respond, by humbly embodying the lessons contained in the Mass, by meekly incarnating the One we receive, then one day, that same Father will say to us, “Friend, move up higher still.”