02 March 2007

Stoking the fires of Gehenna

2nd Friday of Lent: Ez 18.21-28 and Matt 5.20-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club and Church of the Incarnation


The third century martyr, Cyprian, said it best: God does not receive the sacrifice of a person who is in disagreement, but commands him to go back from the altar and first be reconciled to his brother, that so God also may be appeased by the prayers of a peace-maker. Our peace and brotherly agreement is the greater sacrifice to God…” The sacrifice of the Mass is a sacrifice that makes our peace with God. If that sacrifice is spoiled, in some way tainted or injured, then we are not offering to God our first fruits, our best. And what, exactly, are we offering anyway? Finest wheat? Spring lamb? No. We are offering to God what God Himself has said he truly wants as sacrifice: a contrite heart! A heart burned clean of resentment, vengeance, nursed hurt, anger, pettiness, willful disobedience, murder, self-righteousness, judgment, any sort of rank wickedness. The pure victim of this sacrifice of the altar is your heart laid bare to God, open and free, without the blemish of a foul motive, and cleaned from any contention or disagreement. The fires of Gehenna are stoked with the wooden hearts of those who will to not turn from their childishly nursed hurts and petty resentments. How sad to burn for a lack of a will to love.

Add your broken heart to Christ’s sacrifice! Add your doubtful heart, your mournful heart, your anxious heart…add your joyful, thankful, peaceful heart to the sacrifice and add them for the good of others. But keep your unrepentant heart until you find the will to crack it open and do what is necessary to be reconciled to your brothers and sister in Christ. Jesus cannot be clearer: “…if you bring your gift to the altar, and there you recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Odd, isn’t? Notice that Jesus says, “if you recall that your brother has anything against you…” He didn’t say, “if you recall that you have anything against your brother…” The burden of a faithful man or woman in Christ is to be first in seeking out reconciliation not just waiting for reconciliation to just show up. Jesus is laying on us a righteous obligation beyond being merely open to reconciliation; he is telling us to search for those with whom we have malfunctioning friendships and make them right.

Are you having trouble finding the Good News in any of this? I hope not! First rule of the Christian life: Jesus will not require of us anything that he is unwilling to give us the grace to complete. The Good News of today’s gospel is that in the Holy Spirit, carried above the death-dealing sins of hatred and anger, we are gifted with the fiery graces of Christ’s love to burn our hearts clean, wash away the ash, clear the air of smoke, and to see with crystalline clarity all the bonds we must mend in order to offer to God those same hearts as acceptable victims for the altar. There is nothing we must do that we can do without Christ. He is our advocate and guide, our servant and Lord!

If you are impeded in your task of heart-washing, let the Psalm remind you: “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” If our Lord kept notes on our sins, if He added them up like columns of debits, which of us would long stand under the accumulating bill? We are weak alone. We are strong together. We are invincible with Christ. No, we are more than invincible! We are victors already. Put that victory against iniquity to work: seek out those with whom you have an “against” relationship. Be reconciled. And come back to this altar with your contrite heart, stand open and free before Christ, ready for the sacrifice that will change who you are into Who He Is.

May your righteousness surpass the angels and the saints.

1 comment:

  1. "If that sacrifice is spoiled, in some way tainted or injured, then we are not offering to God our first fruits, our best."

    Thank you for mentioning this, Father Philip.

    This is why I LOATHE the worst of modern "hymns," that Lenten lump, "Ashes." Particularly its second verse:

    We offer you our failings
    We offer you attempts
    The gifts not fully given
    The dreams not fully dreamt


    Everything in our tradition says that the BEST is needed for the sacrifice. The unblemished ram, the first fruits, et cetera. Ultimately, the Perfect Sacrifice was offered. And now, these kooks are saying we should offer failings as sacrifice? No, no, NO!