32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached November 11, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Once again this Sunday we have heard from the Letter to the Hebrews. Last Sunday I spoke about the importance of that Letter for understanding the work of Jesus Christ and indeed for understanding the whole word of God. The Letter to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice he offers, the sacrifice of the Cross, through which he reconciles us to God. Through our baptism we have all been given to share in the priesthood of Christ and we are all called to offer spiritual sacrifices through, with, and in him. (cf. 1 Pe 2:4-5)
A key theme that we hear repeated in the Letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus offered his sacrifice “once for all”.
Protestants say that because Jesus died ‘once for all’ there is no need for the Catholic sacrifice of the Mass. Further, they say that we can’t make satisfaction for our sins, only Jesus can do that and he did it once for all with his sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore we don’t need to do anything. Over the past half-century Catholics have been listening to Protestants on this subject, and believing them.
We need to relearn our proper Catholic understanding of ‘once for all’ together with its consequences in regard to such things as the sacrifice of the Mass, satisfaction for sin, purgatory, and prayer for the dead.
Jesus sacrifice is ‘once for all’ because he died once, but what he did ‘once for all’ on the Cross needs to reach and touch each one of us in every time and place; we each need to share in his ‘once for all sacrifice’. Further, his ‘once for all’ sacrifice is perfect and sufficient in itself, but it should be evident that it does not bring us to perfection all at once, but through time, during the course of our life.
So, first through our baptism we share in Jesus’ ‘once for all’ sacrifice; as a result we receive the forgiveness of all our sins and the gift of the life of grace. At the same time we are freed of all temporal and eternal punishment due to sin. We completely die with Christ, so as to live with him. Now, just as Jesus died only once, we can only be baptized once. If we sin after baptism, we can still be forgiven, but we will have to bear the burden of the temporal punishment due to our sin.
Next, through the Mass the ‘once for all’ sacrifice is made present in every time and place precisely so that people of every time and place can share in Jesus’ sacrifice. In this way, his sacrifice becomes our prayer and our worship; in this way we can offer his sacrifice, his Body and Blood, to the Father both for the living and the dead, for the forgiveness of sins.
Further, it is true that as human beings, by ourselves, we are incapable of doing anything that has merit before God. Likewise it is true that we are saved not by our own merits, but by the infinite merit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, coequal and coeternal to the Father. The source of all merit before God is the infinite merit of the head of the Body, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Nevertheless through baptism and the life of grace, which is a sharing the very life of God through Jesus Christ, we are given to share also in the merit of Jesus Christ. Our works have merit before God through our union with him; they have merit not because they are our works, but because they are his works in us, the members of his Body. The hand reaches out to help someone it shares in the merit of the head from which the movement took its origin.
So the Church praises God saying, “You are praised in the company of your Saints and, in crowning their merits, you are crown your own gifts.” (Preface I of the Saints)
The Christian life, we could say, is a process of purification and transformation whereby God takes a sinner and makes him to become a saint.
Baptism completely cleansed us from all sin, both as to guilt and punishment, temporal and eternal, but it did not completely free us from the effects of sin in our lives. We are left with a battle against sin and we fall; sometimes they are only slight falls, but sometimes they are serious falls, mortal sins.
Mortal sin, among the baptized, is particularly serious, both because of the ingratitude involved and because we can only be baptized once. Only if we understand the seriousness of postbaptismal sin can we also appreciate the great mercy that is given us in the sacrament of penance, “the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace”. (Tertullian, cited CCC 1446)
What is mortal sin? Mortal sin is a knowing, deliberate violation of God’s law in a grave matter that brings about the loss of the life of grace. There are two aspects of mortal sin: turning our will away from God and turning our will in a disordered manner to some created thing that is put ahead of God’s law.
When a person freely turns his back on God, he separates himself from God and deserves to be separated from God (guilt); if he dies in this condition that separation will be eternal (eternal punishment).
Further, when a person turns his back on God, he also freely attaches himself to a created reality in a disordered manner. For example a man who commits adultery attaches himself to another man’s wife in a disordered manner.
Thinking of something like adultery, people ask with amazement, “How can God condemn a person to hell for a single mortal sin?” Well, using that example of adultery, the single unrepented act of adultery can land a person in hell, not because of the human disorder of adultery, but because of the rebellion against God that is involved. It is not because a man decides he wants another man’s wife, but it is because in doing so he also decides that he doesn’t want God.
When a person repents and turns back to God, the disordered attachment to the creature also needs to be broken, which is painful. In addition, on account of that disordered attachment to the creature mortal sin incurs a sort of debt, an obligation to undo the damage he has done to the created order. This is called the ‘temporal punishment due to sin’.
We can think of it like this: A mother tells her daughter to clean her room; she returns three hours later and the room still is not clean. She says, “Cindy, I told you to clean your room.” Cindy replies, “I’m sorry.” The mother answers, “Cindy, I forgive you. Now, clean your room.”
St. Thomas Aquinas puts it more formally when writes: “It is just that he who has been too indulgent to his will, should suffer something against his will, for thus will equality be restored.” (ST IIIa, Q. 86a4)
The need for satisfaction applies also in the case of venial sins, because while venial sin does not involve turning away from God, it does involve a disordered turning towards created reality.
Now, through baptism Jesus Christ freed us not only from the guilt of sin and the eternal punishment due to sin, he also freed us from the temporal punishment due to sin. He cleaned the room for us. In his mercy, he fulfilled all the demands of justice on our behalf. In the Cross of Jesus Christ we behold a perfect union of the justice and mercy of God.
Nevertheless, we can only be baptized once. In the case of mortal sin committed after baptism God forgives the guilt of sin through the absolution given in confession and he restores us to the life of grace, but he leaves us with the obligation to make up for the damage we have done; he requires that we clean the room; he requires that we make satisfaction. The penance assigned by the priest is only the beginning of the path.
We must always keep in mind that this path of penance or satisfaction is a path of love, love that wants to repair the damage that we have done by our sins. It is the intensity of love, in the grace of the Holy Spirit – love like the love of the sinful woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears (cf. Lk 7:36-50) and like the love of the poor widow in today’s Gospel – that gives value to our works of penance.
Because we have lost sight of the truth about sin, forgiveness, and satisfaction the Christian faithful have been lulled to sleep with a sense of false security and at the same time we have failed in the duty of love and charity to assist the souls in purgatory through our prayers.
The requirement for satisfaction for sins committed after baptism is reason for the existence of purgatory. We cannot enter into heaven until the demands of justice are fulfilled in our life. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words: You will not be released until you have paid the last penny. (Mt 5:26) If demands of justice are not fulfilled during the course of our earthly life, they must be fulfilled in purgatory. Purgatory is nothing else than a place of purification for those who depart from this life in a state of grace and friendship with God, with their sins forgiven as to the guilt, but still carry the burden of debt of temporal punishment due to sin. Purgatory is the vestibule of heaven where we must wash and get ready before entering into the great wedding feast of the Lamb.
We can assist the souls in purgatory by our prayers, by having Masses offered for them, and by gaining indulgences. In all these ways we perform spiritual works of mercy.
The prayers are our own and God in his mercy hears us; through having Masses offered or by gaining indulgences, we apply the merits of Christ’s one for all sacrifice.
The sacrifice of Jesus is meritorious both for the increase of grace and for the satisfaction of sin. That merit is always offered anew to God in every sacrifice of the Mass. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is, in general, meritorious for the living and the dead, though it needs to be applied to and received by each soul in particular.
When we ask that a priest offer a Mass for a particular intention, whether for the living or the dead, what we are asking is that, acting in his priestly capacity, he apply the merit of Jesus Christ, offered in that Mass, to that intention. That is why requesting the offering of Masses is such an important part of Catholic devotion.
We can also help the souls in purgatory by gaining indulgences on their behalf. What is an indulgence? By means of an indulgence the Church, making use of the authority granted her by Jesus Christ, applies the satisfactory merits of Christ and the saints to designated works performed by the baptized who are living in a state of grace. (cf. CCC 1471) In effect an indulgence, granted by Church authority, increases the satisfactory merits of the indulgenced action.
Normally, as members of Christ’s Body, we can pray for others, including the dead, but we can merit only for ourselves. When we gain indulgences, however, we can apply them either for ourselves or for any soul in purgatory.
There is much more that can be said on the matter of indulgences, but let me refer you to my short essay “From the Pastor’s Desk” in today’s bulletin for a fuller explanation.
Let me sum the whole matter up with the scene of Jesus nailed to the Cross, with his Blessed Mother standing at the foot of the Cross, accompanied by St. John, who represents the priesthood, and St. Mary Magdalene, who represents the repentant sinner. That gives us an image of the reality of the Mass and of the Catholic Church. It is the Blessed Mother herself who brings us from the circle of disciples who are standing far off in fear and leads us in close to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and to offer ourselves through him, with him, and him, for the glory of God and the conversion of sinners.