19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached August 11, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
The “Declaration of Independence” concludes with the words, “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” The Founding Fathers of the United States made a pact with each other, a sacred pact even, a covenant, invoking God’s protection and blessing for the success of their enterprise, which all of us today are in some way part of simply by our presence here in this country.
When they undertook this pact, however, the United States was by no means the great world super-power, rather they were taking a great risk to their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, because their pact was sent in opposition to the great world super-power of the time, the Kingdom of Great Britain. Once those Founding Fathers put their signature to the Declaration there could be no going back, at least not for them; in case of failure, other residents of the 13 colonies might hope to receive pardon from the King, but the signers of the Declaration were henceforth marked as outlaws and traitors.
The closing words of the Declaration are thrilling for their courage and daring, together with their expression of solidarity and friendship. It was indeed a noble undertaking and by way of intention a sort of sacred undertaking.
Nevertheless, no one would suggest that it was undertaken by way of answer to a direct command of God. They made a covenant with each other, calling upon God, but no one would suggest that God was entering into a covenant with them.
Now why am I talking about the Declaration of Independence today at Mass? July 4 was more than a month ago.
Because the Declaration, which is so familiar and close to us, can help us understand the power of today’s 1st reading, which we might otherwise miss. The 1st reading also contains the memory of a sort ‘Declaration of Independence’, a group of slaves in Egypt – one of the great world powers of the time – declaring their independence from the might of Pharaoh. This is the story of the first Passover, when God delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Now, 3,000 years later the Jewish people are still among us; I am descended from them on my father’s side.
As the people of Israel gathered by torchlight and marked their doors with the blood of the lamb, God himself was beginning something new. In secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.
In a world, represented by Egypt, a world plunged into spiritual darkness, hostile to God, the Creator, the people gathered together and pledged themselves to God, entrusted themselves to God, committed themselves to God, consecrated themselves to God; the sacrifice, offered according to God’s command and institution, was the outward sign, the expression, and ratification of the covenant. Yet everything the people did was a response to God’s initiative; it was God who, through Moses, had called them, received them, and bound them together as his people.
The next day, the people went out, leaving behind all that was familiar, in order to follow God and seek the fulfillment of his promise.
Just as there was a thrill of courage and daring, solidarity and friendship, in the signing of the Declaration, there was a thrill of courage and daring, solidarity and friendship in the celebration of that first Passover, a sacred pact, a covenant, not just among themselves, but first of all with God.
Despite all of our efforts to make the world a safe place we live in a dangerous world and will always have need of courage and, without courage, hope will never amount to much.
The celebration of the first Passover, the offering of the sacrifice and putting into effect the divine institution, was of one accord with the faith that is praised in today’s 2nd reading – the foundation of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Like Abraham and Sarah and all the other holy ones of old, they went out of Egypt looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and maker is God. Though they went out to journey to the land known today as Palestine or Israel, in truth, had they known it, they too were stranger and aliens on earth.
Does anybody think that that the celebration of the Mass, in which we offer the Precious Blood of the true Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is boring? The celebration of the Passover, an historical event, was by comparison little more than a figure of the reality that has been given to us in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The reality is that we too, even more than they, in the midst of great danger, are in mystery offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.
The Sacrament always remains a secret because those without faith, or whose faith is asleep, see what to them seems an empty appearance and hear what seem to be meaningless words. Only those only those with a living faith an penetrate and be joined to the invisible reality of the Body and Blood of Christ. By taking part in this secret, this mystery, which is the Mass, we are or should be making a bold Declaration of Independence from the mighty power of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
With our loins girt with the virtue of chastity and with the lamps of faith shining forth in our good works, we should be awaiting the return of our Lord, who when he comes will bring judgment on the Egypt of this world and salvation to those who await his coming.
The celebration of the Mass is truly a revolutionary act. In England, by a law of Parliament enacted in 1584, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, priests became guilty of treason by their mere presence in the country and those who harbored priests were also guilty of treason. While the law was strictly enforced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it remained in effect until 1791. That was not the only time and place that the celebration of the Mass was regarded as a crime; despite our present freedom of religion, the time could come here in the United States as well.
Every time we celebrate Mass and offer the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, in the midst of the spiritual darkness of a world that does not know God, that is hostile to God, we band together to renew a solemn pact, to renew the covenant, to pledge ourselves, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to God in Christ; we commit ourselves, entrust ourselves, and consecrate ourselves to God in Christ. The very sacrifice of Christ, offered according to his command and institution, is the outward sign, expression, and solemn ratification of this new and eternal covenant.
Nevertheless, the initiative is not ours, but Christ’s. We did not choose him, but he has chosen us. (cf. Jn 15:16)
In fidelity to this covenant we must go out in faith, leaving behind the things of this world and the ways of this world, the thinking of this world, and seek the fulfillment of the promise of Christ.
The Founding Fathers bound themselves by a sacred pact, pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the great enterprising of establishing these United States. The danger of that pact established a powerful bond between them, but undoubtedly there was found among them many rivalries, conflicts, and power struggles.
The same is true of the Fathers of ancient Israel, who gathered their families in their homes for the celebration of that first Passover. They were united in the accomplishment of the sacred rite, in the midst of great danger, but there remained among them rivalries, conflicts, and power struggles.
That should not be so among us who are bound together in the new and eternal covenant in the Blood of Christ offered upon the altar. When we enter the doors of this Church, at least, it should no longer be important whether we are American or Mexican, rather we should become one in Jesus Christ.
Such as it is, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor should be bound together in the great warfare that lies at the center of all history, the great combat against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, our Captain and Commander, laid down his life for us on the Cross and gave us the new commandment: As I have loved you, so must you love one another. (Jn 13:34) We must truly live as brothers and sister in the Blood of Jesus Christ, pledged to his covenant, to his sacred enterprise of salvation; we must truly fight together and support one another in the great combat of faith, as we go forth in faith, hope, and love as strangers and aliens on earth, looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and maker is God.
The Founding Fathers went forth from the Continental Congress and faced a long and difficult war for Independence. The people of Israel went forth from slavery in Egypt and faced the great hardships of the desert journey to the promised land. We too, when we go forth from this assembly, in our daily life, must not expect any less of a struggle, any less hardship as we aim for a much greater good, a much greater goal: to be joined to Jesus Christ at the right hand of God, enjoying with him eternal life in the heavenly kingdom.
For this reason also we have the confidence that whatever we might lose for the sake of Jesus Christ, whether our life, our fortune, or our honor in this world, will be restored to us a hundredfold and more in his Kingdom.
We did not choose Christ; he has chosen us. We have been consecrated to him in our baptism and in our confirmation; that consecration is renewed in every sacrifice of the Mass. For our part we must enter with living faith and take hold of our inheritance, consecrating ourselves with gladness and joy, saying ‘yes’ to the will of God.
More than anyone else, the Virgin Mary can help us to say ‘yes’ to God, precisely because her whole life, from her Immaculate Conception to her glorious Assumption, was a continuous ‘yes’ to God.