32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
Today you get two homilies, both short.
First, we have the discussion of the priesthood of Christ and the Heavenly Liturgy in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Two weeks ago, I preached about the three priesthoods in Christianity: the perfect priesthood of Christ, the universal priesthood of the baptized, and the ordained priesthood of the hierarchy.
Well, priesthood is always associated with liturgy, so where does liturgy show up for these three priesthoods? The liturgy of the ordained priesthood is obvious, as that is what we are celebrating right now. But where does the liturgy of the baptized happen? I would argue it happens in our homes. The daily routines of praying when we wake up in the morning or before we go to sleep, of prayers over meals, of prayers before travel – these are a true liturgy, a true offering of the world up to God. For those who live with families, oftentimes the family rosary or the prayers at bedtime constitute a profound liturgy that they would do well to cultivate. When I am at family homes for dinner, my rule is always that the homeowners, as the priests of the household, offer the prayer before the meal.
Of course, just as the baptized and ordained priesthoods merely participate in the perfect priesthood of Jesus, so too both of these liturgies – the liturgy of the home and the liturgy of the Church – merely participate in the perfect liturgy of Jesus Christ. And what is the perfect liturgy of Jesus? “Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.” In the Book of Exodus, when Moses first erects a tent in which to offer sacrifices to the God who saved his people from Egypt, it is clear that the very exact measurements given to Moses are intended to mimic something that exists in a higher realm. Moses’ sanctuary, and the sanctuary of the Jewish Temple, were both copies of the Heavenly Sanctuary. So let’s continue the analogy. In Jewish ritual, in order to enter into the presence of God housed in these sanctuaries, the Jewish priests had first to make atonement by sprinkling the blood of sacrificed animals. So when Jesus the priest offered himself as a victim on the altar of the Cross, his shed blood admitted him, not into a copy of the Heavenly sanctuary, but into the eternal, heavenly sanctuary itself. The perfect liturgy of Jesus is the liturgy of the Jews, carried out by Jesus once-for-all in Heaven – a liturgy that atones for sins through offerings and sacrifices made to the Father.
This is the perfect liturgy in which our own priestly liturgies participate. When we offer our liturgies, at our home altar or on the altar of the church, we are joining with Jesus in offering ourselves to our Father in Heaven. Whereas before Jesus, our offerings were always imperfect, mere copies of the true liturgy of Heaven, now through Jesus through our baptism, our offerings are perfectly offered by him eternally. At Mass, Jesus offers himself as the community, united under the headship of the ordained priest. At home, he offers himself in each individual soul. In both cases, he is offering, on our behalf, in the presence of his Father, all of our worries and our thanksgivings and our joys and our pains.
One last note on this theme: It is this idea that the Mass is merely a participation in the Heavenly liturgy that makes me so hesitant to add anything into the celebration of the Mass itself. If we are doing a special event or a celebration, unless it is another sacrament, I try very hard to keep it either before or after the Mass. The Mass is not something that we create, therefore it is not something that we have the authority to change. Though the Mass has developed somewhat over the centuries, its basic form has always remained constant, and even the changes we see are slow modifications over time, prompted by the Holy Spirit working through the entire world-wide Church. Anything that I, individually, might want to add to the Mass seems to fall flat and ring hollow when I consider that the Mass is a participation in Heaven itself.
Now, theme number two, from our first reading and Gospel.
It is my privilege as a pastoral minister to walk with people in difficult situations. Sometimes we might be discussing a terminal diagnosis, or a family member living a dangerous lifestyle, or a death of a loved one, or economic hardships, or any other number of things that make someone feel like their entire world is ending. And as I walk with these people, I know that there is nothing I can do to fix their hardships. These are rarely solvable problems.
So instead, I focus our conversation what God has actually promised us. He never promised us a life without suffering or hardship; in fact, he promised the opposite to his followers whom he commanded to take up their crosses and follow him. He never promised us that our families would be perfect or that we would never have to confront disease or death. Instead, it seems to me that the only thing he ever promised us was that he would be with us always, until the end of the age.
Which is to say that it is rare that God miraculously solves our problem. Instead, he almost always removes the power of the problem over us. Because he remains with us always, we can always find faith, hope, love, consolation, and peace in him. Even when we confront suffering or hardship or worry, we know that we are not alone and that he is helping us carry our crosses, which means we no longer have anything to fear. I have seen people endure tremendous distress with grace, because they have remained faithful to the Lord.
So now consider the two widows from our readings. Both destitute, both down to their last meal. And yet, motivated by their faith, they keep God first even if it means their own destruction, because they know their only hope is in him. The widow of Zarephath explains the situation to Elijah, but when she is given the assurance that God will take care of her, she unhesitatingly gives her last meal to the prophet. And the widow at the temple, even without explicit assurance, trusts that the Lord will surely look with favor on her lowly sacrifice.
The Bible does not tell us how these women fared. Sure, the widow of Zarephath ate for the duration of the famine, but that is far from any type of comfortable lifestyle. She was barely hanging on when she met Elijah, so we have to assume she was still living right on the edge of collapse even after he arrived. And we have no idea what happened to the widow at the Temple. Jesus says that she “has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Does that mean that she went home from the Temple and died of starvation?
I will say that I have seen the dynamic of the widow of Zarephath play out lots of times with the people I accompany. God may allow them to go right up to the edge, but if they remain faithful to him, I have never seen them go over. The Lord really does look after his people.
Which forces us to ask the question: if we are down to our last two coins, literally or emotionally or spiritually, do we think that giving those coins to God is going to be a waste? Do we jump into an attitude of self-preservation, where we stop relying on God and only rely on ourselves? Or do we go for broke, and give God everything we have left? I refuse to believe that this widow, who has been memorialized for two millennia in the Gospels, was allowed to go home to die after her whole livelihood to God. So, too, I refuse to believe that the Lord will fail to look after and accompany any of you, no matter how bleak your challenges may be, if you simply give yourselves to him.
Es un privilegio para mí como ministro pastoral caminar con personas en situaciones difíciles. A veces, podríamos estar discutiendo un diagnóstico terminal, o un miembro de la familia que lleva un estilo de vida peligroso, o la muerte de un ser querido, o dificultades económicas, o cualquier otra serie de cosas que hacen que alguien sienta que su mundo entero se está acabando. Y mientras camino con estas personas, sé que no hay nada que pueda hacer para solucionar sus dificultades. Estos son problemas raramente solucionables.
Entonces, en cambio, enfoco nuestra conversación en lo que Dios realmente nos ha prometido. Él nunca nos prometió una vida sin sufrimiento ni dificultades; de hecho, prometió lo contrario a sus seguidores a quienes ordenó que tomaran sus cruces y lo siguieran. Nunca nos prometió que nuestras familias serían perfectas o que nunca tendríamos que enfrentarnos a la enfermedad o la muerte. En cambio, me parece que lo único que nos prometió fue que estaría con nosotros siempre, hasta el fin de los tiempos.
Lo que quiere decir que es raro que Dios resuelva milagrosamente nuestro problema. En cambio, casi siempre elimina el poder del problema sobre nosotros. Porque él permanece siempre con nosotros, siempre podemos encontrar en él fe, esperanza, amor, consuelo y paz. Incluso cuando enfrentamos el sufrimiento, las dificultades o las preocupaciones, sabemos que no estamos solos y que él nos está ayudando a llevar nuestras cruces, lo que significa que ya no tenemos nada que temer. He visto a personas soportar una tremenda angustia con gracia, porque se han mantenido fieles al Señor.
Así que ahora considere las dos viudas de nuestras lecturas. Ambos indigentes, ambos hasta su última comida. Y sin embargo, motivados por su fe, mantienen a Dios primero incluso si eso significa su propia destrucción, porque saben que su única esperanza está en él. La viuda de Sarepta explica la situación a Elías, pero cuando se le asegura que Dios la cuidará, sin vacilar le da su última comida al profeta. Y la viuda en el templo, incluso sin una garantía explícita, confía en que el Señor seguramente mirará con favor su humilde sacrificio.
La Biblia no nos dice cómo les fue a estas mujeres. Claro, la viuda de Sarepta comió mientras duró el hambre, pero eso está lejos de cualquier tipo de estilo de vida cómodo. Apenas estaba aguantando cuando conoció a Elías, por lo que debemos asumir que todavía vivía al borde del colapso incluso después de su llegada. Y no tenemos idea de lo que le pasó a la viuda en el templo. Jesús dice que ella “ha echado todo lo que tenía para vivir.” ¿Significa eso que se fue a casa del templo y murió de hambre?
Diré que he visto la dinámica de la viuda de Sarepta jugar muchas veces con las personas a las que acompaño. Dios puede permitirles ir hasta el borde, pero si permanecen fieles a él, nunca los he visto pasar. El Señor realmente cuida de su pueblo.
Lo que nos obliga a hacernos la pregunta: si nos quedamos con nuestras dos últimas monedas, literal o emocional o espiritualmente, ¿creemos que darle esas monedas a Dios será un desperdicio? ¿Entramos en una actitud de autoconservación, en la que dejamos de confiar en Dios y solo confiamos en nosotros mismos? ¿O vamos a por todas y le damos a Dios todo lo que nos queda? Me niego a creer que, a esta viuda, que ha sido conmemorada durante dos milenios en los Evangelios, se le permitió irse a casa para morir después de todo su sustento para Dios. Así que, también, me niego a creer que el Señor no cuidará y acompañará a ninguno de ustedes, sin importar cuán sombríos sean sus desafíos, si simplemente se entregan a él.