28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached October 13, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
A typical homily for today might talk about the importance of giving thanks to God in all the little things of our daily life. It might recommend taking some time to ‘count your blessings’ and give thanks to God. That is a very simple, good, and important lesson.
There is, however, much more here. Jesus cleanses ten lepers and tells them to show themselves to the priests. These are the priests of the Old Testament, not the New, but Jesus is already speaking to us symbolically and prophetically about the sacrament of penance, confession. Sin is the leprosy of the soul and through the ministry of the priest in the sacrament of penance, Jesus does not just verify our healing, but actually heals us, actually forgives us.
When the priest forgives, it is Jesus who forgives, it is God who forgives, and with the forgiveness the life of grace, the life of the Holy Spirit enters in to renew and transform us.
So the forgiveness of sins also points us to the kind of life that is healed, the kind of life that was threatened by the leprosy of sin, namely the supernatural life of grace, a real sharing in God’s own life and nature, what St. Peter speaks of as the precious and very great promises. (2 Pe 1:4) This is what Jesus himself compares to the great treasure hidden in the field or the pearl of great price, a reality that is worth all we have to give and more. (cf. Mt 13:44-46)
Returning to the ten lepers, we could say that nine of them are forgiven, but failing to appreciate the greatness of the gift, they return to their life as it was before. Only one, the foreigner, returns and gives glory to God. He not only recognizes the benefit received, he is amazed at the sheer greatness and goodness of the giver. He is actually coming to know God in Jesus Christ and learning to gaze upon him with a sort of contemplative amazement.
When we lose the contemplative focus of giving glory to God – which in fact benefits us, not God – then our religiosity and our ‘spiritual life’ soon becomes focused purely on filling human needs, my own and others, and the different needs produce conflict that leads to discouragement and burnout.
Indeed, in our faithless age, religion has turned away from giving glory to God and become a propaganda machine in the service of human need, which is like trying to fill a leaky bucket of others with our own leaky bucket. In the end, man himself is not served, because his deepest hunger, his hunger for God is left unsatisfied.
Today, I want to illustrate this point about what has happened even within the Catholic Church by a single hymn found in our Breaking Bread hymnal (368). I am referring to the well-known Latin hymn, Panis Angelicus, and its English translation.
The words of the Latin hymn were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middles Ages and is completely focused on the wonder of God’s love in the Holy Eucharist. The contemporary translation is a commercial for service to the poor produced more recently by Owen Alstott.
First let me say a word about these two witnesses.
Owen Alstott is a priest who left the active ministry, was dispensed from his commitment to celibacy, and then married. Everything was done with proper dispensations and today Owen Alstott serves on the board of Oregon Catholic Press.
Nevertheless, since the priesthood marks the soul forever with the sacramental character, any departure from the active ministry is always a sorrow from the Church and any dispensation from celibacy still speaks of a wounded vocation and a counter-witness.
We live in a time when celibacy, a gift from God through Jesus Christ, is declared impossible and when it is said that the attempt only distorts a man’s humanity.
Cardinal Sarah writes: “Priestly celibacy is not a psychological mutilation. It is the free, joyous offering of one of our natural potentials. If it is lived out in intimacy with Christ, then far from creating any frustration in the priest, the gift of self develops our ability to love and expands it to the dimensions of Christ’s heart.” (“The Day is Far Spent”, pg. 81)
So celibacy does not distort our humanity, rather sexual sin that distorts our humanity, infecting it with a true spiritual leprosy. If these words seem harsh, remember that Jesus Christ came to heal the sick and cleanse the lepers.
As for St. Thomas Aquinas, however, he is a true witness to the life of grace. He was renowned for the perfection of the virtue of chastity and the calm peacefulness of his soul – hardly a distorted or truncated humanity.
The gift of celibacy is a truly supernatural gift of God that bears witness to the supernatural quality of the life of grace and the fulfillment of that life in eternity. The supernatural quality of priestly celibacy also bears witness to the supernatural reality of the Holy Eucharist, the nourishment of the life of grace.
So now let me give you a literal translation of St. Thomas’ hymn, which you will not find in the hymnal, then I will make some brief remarks on the distortion found in the translation.
St. Thomas begins: “Angelic bread becomes the bread of men; the heavenly bread brings an end to the figures.” The opening words set in dramatic contrast the bread upon which angels feed and which men feed, showing amazement that what belonged to the angels should be given to men, while men should be raised up to the level of the angels.
St. Thomas continues: “O wonderful reality, the poor, servant, and lowly eats the Lord.” This is the most stunning and beautiful passage of the hymn. St. Thomas began with the contrast between angels and men, now he goes a step further to the contrast between men and God. Here St. Thomas in an expression of praise and gratitude, gives expression to a truly contemplative amazement at the ‘wonderful’ and ‘miraculous’ reality, namely, that a created human being, who by nature is poor and lowly, a servant in relation to God, should have the very Lord of hosts as his food, nourishing the life of the soul, the life of grace. This is the reality of holy communion.
We should note here that those who possess the poverty of spirit expressed in these words will be truly generous to the poor. The rich are not so inclined to be generous, but tend to exact a price for their gifts, either in terms of recognition or control.
St. Thomas continues: “We beg you, o Godhead, one and three, to visit us in the very way we worship you.” The contemplative amazement of the first verse leads here to a truly contemplative prayer in the second verse; completely focused on the reality of the Mass, in which the Body of Christ, beneath the appearance of bread, is both offered in sacrifice (“the way we worship you”) and received in communion (“you visit us”).
The marvelous reality of holy communion, however, is but a foretaste of the even greater reality of heaven. So, St. Thomas concludes: “Lead us through your paths to the place we are going, the light in which you dwell.” St. Thomas, then, has sacrifice, leading to communion, leading to the eternal light of heaven. He closes on this note of longing to be forever with God. This hymn truly exhibits the sort of contemplative wonder that returns and gives glory to God.
At the end of his life, Jesus appeared to St. Thomas and said, “You have written well of me Thomas, what do you want as a reward?” St. Thomas replied, “Only you my Lord.”
It would be nice to stop there, but we have to consider Jesus’ sad comment on the nine lepers who did not return.
The translation provided by Alstott keeps the ‘lepers’ from returning, by betraying the meaning of the hymn, losing sight of God, and turning the hymn into a cheap commercial for serving the poor, so that we ourselves can thereby be hope for the world. True and humble generosity does not come from ourselves but from the love of God.
The betrayal of the Latin original that remains hidden behind the translation is symptomatic of what has actually happened in the life of the Church during the course of the past half-century.
We have not been threatened with hell, but neither have we been told about heaven (except to say that it is a wonderful place and, in any case, we are all going there). We have not been led to worship God in spirit and truth, because we have not been taught to gaze in amazement at who he is and what he has done. We have not been led to return and give glory to God.
Instead, we have been exhorted to go out and change the world, working for justice and peace
– without having any clue as to what that means. At the same time, we have thrown away all the protections to chastity and been swept away in a flood tide of filth that has been destroying families, families of the poor, wreaking havoc, and causing untold misery, a true plague of leprosy.
But what about the poor? Let me say this: St. Teresa of Calcutta did not and her Missionaries of Charity do not just go out and serve the poorest of the poor; first of all they spend hours in adoration and contemplation of the love of God given us in the Holy Eucharist. Their service to the poor is the overflow of their love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Only if we understand how Jesus has loved us, receive his love in the life of grace, and learn to give thanks to God through him, will be able to love one another in the same way.
If we truly let the grace God wants to give us enter our lives, we will be transformed from within, our daily life will be transformed, our families will be transformed, we will begin to live a heavenly life upon earth, after the pattern of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. Then we will truly return and give glory to God who has saved us. The we will be able to join with the Virgin Mary in her eternal canticle of glory: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. (Lk 1:46)