Sunday, September 3, 2017

Pagans, Saints, and the Cross of Christ

Homily: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A
          As we know, Saint Paul lived in the first century AD, when the dominant religions were all pagan.  Pagan religions were based on a belief that gods were fickle beings who, while wielding great power, could, nonetheless, be swayed to use that power for a person’s benefit if they made a pleasing offering to them.  Thus, these pagan religions emphasized and relied on the power of external rituals.  These rituals sometimes consisted of sacrifices in which animals were slaughtered, grain was burned, or wine was poured out.  They also sometimes consisted of ritual dances, prayers, songs, or similar actions.  In every case, however, the power of the worship, and its (supposed) ability to convince the false god to send blessings on the worshipper, depended on the exact performance of the ritual.  It was kind of like a gymnastics routine in the Olympics: if the ritual wasn't performed with perfect precision, the worshipper would get a bad score, and the gods would either ignore the prayer or, worse, get angry.
          This pagan focus on external rituals had also seeped into Jewish practices at the time.  Throughout his writings, therefore, Saint Paul is constantly warning the early Christians against falling into an excessive focus on the externals, or, what we might call, ritualism.  Paul sought to train the early Church to have a close personal relationship with God: not a cold, distant one, made up entirely with empty formalities.  This is why he writes to the Romans, as we just heard, "offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship."  In other words, he was teaching them that the Christian's relationship with God isn't reducible to a few rituals and prayers; rather, everything he/she does is meant to be worship.  One’s actions, words, and decisions—the way one lives his/her daily life—all these things are ways for one to show that he/she loves Christ and wants to follow him.  This was a radical new concept of religion—a religion built on a personal friendship with the one true God who became man in Jesus Christ—and it required, as Saint Paul wrote, that Christians "be transformed by the renewal of their mind."
          This “new-at-the-time” concept of religion helps us to understand so much of our religious tradition.  In particular, it helps explain one of our Catholic traditions that a lot of non-Catholic Christians have trouble understanding: namely, our devotion to the saints.  You see, some non-Catholics think that the statues of saints in our churches are there because we worship them, as pagans used to do, who would worship a sacred statue (like that of an animal) or an image of an ancestor as if they (the animal or the ancestor) were divine.  Devotion to the saints, however, is different.  We use images of saints for the same reason that we use family photographs: to remind us of some of the great members of our Christian family who have gone before us.  The example of their faith, courage, and holiness, of which the image reminds us, is meant to inspire us to strive for holiness, too.  So, no, we don't worship statues; and, no, we don't worship the saints either.
          We know the saints; and we know that they were normal, everyday people just like us, and that they aren’t gods.  They had personality flaws, family problems, and plenty of headaches, but they allowed God's grace to touch those things, and to sanctify them.  They recognized that God's offer of friendship in Christ was able to make them not only better church-goers and pray-ers, but also better husbands and wives, generals and lawyers, carpenters and nurses, scholars and artists.  These men and women followed Saint Paul's advice, trying to make every activity of their day—whether folding laundry or writing theological treatises—into a "living sacrifice" of "spiritual worship."  That's why we have named patron saints for almost everything and everyone, like Saint Barbara, the patron saint of mathematicians, and Saint Brigid, the patron saint of midwives, and Saint Wolfgang, the patron saint of those suffering from paralysis, and Saint Martin de Porres, the patron saint of public schools.  For those connected to any one of those situations, these saints provide an example of how to make their lives into a “living sacrifice” of “spiritual worship”.
          Friends, we aren't superstitious, nor do we believe in good luck charms, but we do recognize that, when God comes into a life, he has the power to fill every little nook and cranny of it with everlasting meaning, if we let him; and our devotion to the saints helps to remind us of this by reminding us of how he has already done this in the lives of countless men and women before us.
          No, my brothers and sisters, we do not worship our ancestors or pray to multiple gods for multiple many things—and our relationship with the one God who we worship is not based on external rituals alone—rather, it's based on an internal identity, often expressed externally.  I believe that this truth can help us to understand one of life's great mysteries: that is, the mystery of suffering and the cross.
          In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus said to his disciples (and, so, he says to us): "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."  Jesus doesn’t promise that following him will lead to a problem-free life, even though that's what all the pagan religions claimed to offer.  We know that such a promise is empty, because we know that, in this fallen world, no one can avoid suffering and loss.  What Jesus does promise is that, at the end of history, he will "wipe away every tear" and put an end to evil, suffering, and death for those who have endured such things patiently on account of him.  He demands this of his disciples not because he is some fickle god, looking for external proofs of their commitment to him, but rather because he knows of suffering’s redemptive power: power that he activated when he, himself, took up the cross.
          Just before telling his apostles “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”, we hear that Jesus showed his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly … and be killed and on the third day be raised”.  Jesus did not make himself immune to what his disciples would suffer; but rather embraced it, in obedience to the Father’s will, as the means of salvation for humanity.  And so, when we unite our inevitable sufferings to his through faith and prayer, we tap into this means of salvation.  This gives our crosses internal meaning, even though externally they remain painful.  Our crosses then become part of the "living sacrifice" and "spiritual worship" that please God, reverse sin, and spread God's grace.
          My brothers and sisters, Jesus has redeemed the world and has turned our sorrows into paths of salvation, just as in a few minutes he will turn our offerings of bread and wine into his own grace-filled body and blood.  If we are at all feeling down and defeated because of the crosses that being a Christian demands that we bear, let’s look to our friends, the saints, for inspiration to persevere in carrying them, and to this Eucharist—which re-presents to us the saving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—to find the strength we need to bear their weight until our Lord returns in glory.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – September 2nd & 3rd, 2017

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