15 November 2009

Who will I die for today?

[NB.  This is an attempt at "doctrinal preaching."  Let me know if you think it works.]

33rd Sunday OT: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Your best friend discovers that you and your spouse have cashed in your vacation savings so that your children can continue in their Catholic school. Your friend notes with admiration, “That's quite a sacrifice!” It's final exams week and you rush to be with your sick mother. Your professor, though sympathetic, says, “Unfortunately, your sacrifice will not help your grade.” You read in the Sunday paper that a well-trained German Shepherd in the local police force “sacrificed its life to save its human partner.” In that same paper, the stories from Iraq and Afghanistan are littered with references with the sacrifice of our soldiers in combat. Each time, the word “sacrifice” rings nobly in your ears, and you note that something has been lost so that something more important might be accomplished. We understand sacrifice in terms of loss and gain, in terms of “giving up mine” so that you might “have yours.” Something ends and something begins. Almost always absent in these descriptions is the sense of the holy, that taste of the transcendent that gives sacrifice a religious flavor, some deference to a time and place other than this one. For Christians, sacrificium, means sacrifice, oblation; an offering to God. The Latin word comes from sacer (holy) and facere (to make). To sacrifice is to make holy. That which is sacrificed is made holy; the one making the sacrifice is made holy. Most importantly for us, the ones for whom the sacrifice is made are made holy. Christ is the High Priest who sacrifices. He is the Victim of this sacrifice. And we are the beneficiaries: “For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.”

In Hebrews this morning, we read, “Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” The author of this letter is writing to the Jews who have come to Christ. He is using images and language that they will immediately understand. Having spent most of their lives in the temple-worship of the Father, offering animal sacrifice for their sins, these converts will know that the author is alluding to the ineffectiveness of those same animal sacrifices in relieving them of their sin. In obedience to the Covenant, they carry out their religious duties and demonstrate a fidelity to God. However, these sacrifices do not and cannot wipe away their sin. Though God may account them holy before Him, they are not, in fact, made holy through in their temple worship. God alone is holy and only He can make what is unholy holy in fact.

To accomplish the sanctification of all creation, God sends His only Son among us as a Man, one like us in every way except sin. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, is sacrificed on the cross for us. As the incarnate Son, he is already holy. As the priest, he is holy. As the lamb on the altar of the cross is he holy. He offers himself to God as the one, perfect sacrifice for all that need not ever be repeated, that cannot be repeated. We can understand this sacrifice for in any number of ways: substitutionary, existential, exemplary. Christ died for our sins so that we need not die in sin; he died instead of us. Christ experienced the death of sin as a man so that all men might be saved from such a death; his experience reveals the hope of eternal life. Christ on the cross shows us the meaning of love: to die for one's friends; his death is our model for life. Wherever we want to place the emphasis, one element of his sacrifice is clear: our holiness is not our own, but rather a gift from the altar of the cross given freely by our great High Priest. We have only to accept this gift and follow him.

By one perfect offering of himself on the cross, Christ united us again with the Father, and we persevere in the presence of the Holy Spirit, striving against already-vanquished sin to achieve our perfection in the promise of holiness. Our constant failure to perfect his promise of holiness does nothing to revoke the promise. His offer of holiness made from the cross is universal and permanent: for all, forever. No tribe, tongue, nation, people, race, or class is excluded from the invitation. No one is missed out because he was born Man to save all mankind, and nothing broken is left unfixed. No sin, no fault, no vice, no deviance, no crime, nothing torn or damaged among his human creatures is left unhealed. Nothing in the entirety of His creation is left to chaos or disease. Where we find disorder, look for disobedience. Where we find strife, debauchery, disregard for life, anxiety and distress, look for men and women without hope. But as time grows short, look for Christ's return. What has been woven together will unravel when left uncared for and the weaver will return to repair the damage of our carelessness.

We care best of ourselves and one another when we sacrifice, when we “hand over to make holy.” As priests of the New Covenant, we offer oblation to God when we lay our worry, our sickness, our poverty, our arrogance, our sin on his altar and leave ourselves freshly vulnerable to being made again in his image and likeness, to being made over as Christ for others. It is not enough that we sacrifice as priests. If we are follow him, we must the victim of our sacrifice as well. Not my sin only, but yours too. Not your sin only, but mine as well. The Body must sacrifice for the Body, all its members for one another. We are holy together or not at all. This is the danger of being Catholic, of being one Body baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ: we are saved as a Church, bound together by the chains of God's sacraments. “Me and Jesus” is the Devil's lie that makes our faith into a religiousy version of the “Lone Ranger.” We rise or fall as one in the One who made us one by dying on the cross.

Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves upon waking each morning is: “Who will I die for today?”


  1. It works. But it something I'm going to have to chew on... indefinitely. That's not criticism, it's affirmation.

  2. Anonymous5:06 PM

    I understand that as a faithful disciple of Christ I must carry my cross, but I don't enjoy carrying it. I don't know that I will ever enjoy it, despite Christ's assurance that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I sometimes begrudgingly carry the cross more out of a sense of duty than love.

  3. Anon., maybe one of the tricks of holiness is learning to love your duty...how many people don't even bother with doing what they've actually freely promised to do?

    Monica, good question! I'll ponder it a bit. Keep watch.