Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness, in the sight of the Israelites.”
—Offertory of today's Mass
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Last week a professor at Bellarmine University in Kentucky published a provocative essay on “Thomas Merton and Liturgical Reform.” Merton, you may recall, was a Trappist monk whom Pope Francis held up last year as one of four "great Americans" alongside Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merton died in the late 1960s, so in his last years he witnessed a revolution in the way that Catholics render homage to God. Writing to a Carthusian acquaintance just five days after the Second Vatican Council published its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Merton wrote:
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful [but] which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve: a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."

It's a striking phrase: “Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand.” My purpose this morning is not to expound upon the evils of “silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date” liturgy: I think that for the most part I would be preaching to the choir on that subject. Rather, I want to say that Merton's warning about the liturgy applies to all aspects of our spiritual lives. We all stand in danger of throwing away things that are excellent because we do not understand them. Of the many things we stand in danger of throwing away, I will mention three:

  • Silence,
  • Scripture, and
  • The Sanctification of the Hours of the Day.

If there is one excellent thing, above all others, that has been thrown away in our modern age for lack of understanding, it is silence. One of the reasons I love this Mass is that there is so much time for silent prayer. Although there may be noise—singing, a crying child, the ringing of bells—there is always an environment conducive to an interior silence. Silence, whether kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament or sitting in some other tranquil place away from distractions, is something commended to us by the lives of all the saints as a way to draw close to God. In the second chapter of the prophet Habbukuk we read: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” 

One reason our society hates this stillness and silence because it is not productive, because there is nothing to “show” for time spent in this way. But as Pope Benedict said during his apostolic visit to the United States in 2008: “Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side.” Although time spent in silence before God does not usually produce immediately obvious effects in our life, it makes us into reservoirs of God's grace; and if silence is for us a habit we will often find ourselves saying something unexpectedly profound as we spontaneously share the fruit of our contemplation with others.

A second aspect of the spiritual life too often ignored in our day is the importance Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are an excellent and most important way in which we come to know God. St. Jerome said that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Commentariorum in Isaiam libri, Prol.: PL 24, 17.) Saint Basil the Great wrote, “What is the distinctive mark of the faithful? Conforming their lives with complete certainty to the meaning of the words of Scripture, not daring to remove or add a single thing.” (Moralia, Regula LXXX, XXII: PG 31, 867.)

Sometimes, however, our lack of comprehension discourages us from reading the Bible. But we are not alone in this feeling! In fact, even the Bible itself says this about the Bible! In St. Peter's second epistle, speaking of the letters of St. Paul, he says: “There are some things in them hard to understand” (3:16). But although there are many things in the Bible we may not understand at first, if we allow the clean sea breeze of the Scripture to continually blow through our minds it will clear away the stagnant air of our worldly thoughts, and gradually all our reflections, our very way of thinking, will be filled with the scent, with the sweetness of Scripture. [For this image I am indebted to C. S. Lewis.]

This is, for me, difficult to illustrate. I might take as an example the verses from the 24th chapter of the Book of Exodus which serve as the Offertory Verse of today's Mass: “Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness.” If we are inclined to throw away that which we do not understand, these words might pass in one ear and out the other, for there is much in them that may seem strange to us: “Why did God command animal sacrifice? What does it mean to consecrate an altar? Why were these sacrifices done in the evening?” While it is important to answer such questions, it is not always important to answer each of them immediately. One of the great advantages I have enjoyed in the Christian life is that I started reading the Bible, book-by-book I mean, in seventh grade, before I was old enough to let this constant stream of abstract questions distract me from the central concepts that were being communicated by the text. Gradually, the ideas I gleaned from the Bible formed the way I thought about God. This reading and re-reading of the Scripture laid the foundation for my subsequent conversion to Catholicism: 

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord,”
just as our worship of the Lord happens in sacred places set apart from the rest of our neighborhoods, on altars consecrated by a bishop;
“offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims,” which offering was a prefigurement, a foreshadowing, of the perfect offering made once for all by Christ on the Cross, the offering which we re-present to the Father sacramentally on this altar each Sunday;
Moses “made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness;” just as the Lord desires that we should pray to Him at certain times throughout the day.

This brings me to my final point, the third spiritual practice we stand in danger of throwing away when we do not understand its value: the sanctification of the hours of the day. Throughout the Scriptures, we see that God's people render Him homage at fixed times. The morning and evening sacrifices of the levitical priesthood as we have just seen in Exodus; the Apostles Peter and John “going up to the temple at” what the third chapter of the book of Acts calls “the hour of prayer, the ninth hour,” or what we call 3pm, the hour at which Our Lord died on the Cross; in the Psalms we read, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee”.

Sometimes we do not understand how much our human nature thrives on regularity, rhythms, and habits. For this reason, the Scripture and many of the saints exhort us to punctuate the day with planned, regular moments of prayer: to rise at a fixed time and make the first word of each day a prayer: “Serviam!”, “I will serve!”; to pray the Angelus at mid-day; to offer thanks to God in the evening after the close of the day's labors; to pray before bed, beginning at a very young age with the prayers we recite with our parents, and as we grow older transitioning to an examination of conscience in which we review the actions of the day and ask God's forgiveness for our shortcomings.

In monastic life, “the best and safest” of all vocations (St. Teresa of Avila, Life, 3, 5), religious follow a fixed and unvarying schedule of prayer each day, one which revolves primarily around the recitation of the Psalms. The more we imitate that ideal, the more we share in the fruit of that way of life.

I fear that these brief explanations can do little to help us understand the excellence of these spiritual practices, which means that we may still face the great danger of throwing them away. But although my words have fallen short of their task, I ask that you would take these things to heart all the same: Daily silent prayer, daily reading of the Scriptures, and daily prayers of all kinds recited at fixed hours of the day. If these elements are present in our lives, God will do great things through us.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Irondequoit, New York on 18 September, 2016.

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