4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached January 28, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
St. John, in his Gospel, tells us that when the Jewish officials came from Jerusalem to question St. John the Baptist about his identity they asked three questions: whether he was the Messiah, whether he was Elijah, and whether he was the Prophet. John the Baptist answered ‘no’ to all three. (cf. Jn 1:19-21)
We can leave aside the question of Elijah today and observe that Jesus Christ himself is both the Messiah and the Prophet about whom the Jewish officials asked. Their question about the Prophet refers to today’s 1st reading in which God speaks about a future prophet like Moses.
There is a lot packed into this short reading.
First of all, there is the background. When God first gave the ten commandments, he spoke to all the people, in the voice of thunder coming forth from the fire on Mt. Sinai. The people were terrified hearing God’s voice in such a direct, unmediated fashion – something to reflect on for all those who want an unmediated ‘spirituality’ – and so asked Moses to handle all their dealings with God.
As for Moses, he was a unique prophet in the whole life of Israel. The five books of the Law of Moses, the Torah, which includes the whole story of Moses, conclude with these words: Since then [Moses’ death] no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He had no equal in all the signs and wonders the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and against all his land, and for the might and terrifying power that Moses exhibited in the sight of all Israel. (Dt 34:10-12)
This leaves the whole of the Old Testament with a sense of expectation: in terms of today’s 1st reading, the Old Testament People of God await the Prophet like Moses.
Indeed, Jesus Christ fulfills the prophecy by excess; there can be no comparison between Moses and Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us: Moses was ‘faithful in all God’s house’ as a ‘servant’ to testify to what would be spoken, but Christ was faithful as a son placed over God’s house. (Heb 3:5) Jesus was not just the servant of Lord who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he is the Lord himself who, through his death and resurrection, leads all mankind out of the slavery of sin and death into the true promised land of the Resurrection.
The people had asked Moses, a man like them, to be a mediator because the direct experience of God terrified them. Sending Jesus to us, God gives us a new mediator, a man like us, who is also God himself. When Jesus speaks, it is one of our own kind, a man like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15), who is also God.
Moses spoke from an intimate relation to God that is likened to a face-to-face conversation, but Jesus speaks to us from the very face of God. So St. John, right after mentioning Moses, tells us, No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him. (Jn 1:18)
In the 1st reading we told that we are to listen to the Prophet like Moses. On the mount of the Transfiguration the Father’s voice declares, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him. (Mt 17:5) He is truly the one who teaches with authority.
What does Jesus command us? The obvious answer is love one another. (Jn 13:34) Curiously, though, Jesus gives us some other rather peculiar and concrete commands.
He said to his Apostles, Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Mt 28:19) In other words, he clearly establishes and commands the sacrament of baptism. Indeed, he also says, He who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mk 16:16)
He said to his Apostles, Take and eat; this is my Body; (Mt 26:26) and Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins; (Mt 26:27-28) and Do this in memory of me. (Lk 19:19) He thereby established the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders. This is so important that he also says, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (Jn 6:53)
It would not be difficult to trace the remaining four sacraments back to the words of Jesus, whether directly or indirectly.
Last week, I began a series of seven homilies on the basics of the Catholic faith. The subject of my homily was grace, especially sanctifying grace, which is a real participation in the life and nature of God. Jesus, who won the gift of grace for us by his death on the Cross, sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church to sanctify us through the gift of his grace.
Nevertheless, just as the Holy Spirit descended in the visible form of a dove upon Jesus in his baptism, so the Holy Spirit normally makes use of the sacraments, given us by Jesus, as the instruments by which he gives us the life of grace and helps us to grow in that life. After Jesus died on the Cross, the soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and blood and water poured forth. The real blood and water that came from Jesus’ wounded side was itself a symbol of the life of grace given to us in the sacraments, above all through Baptism (the water) and the Eucharist (the blood); it reveals the life of grace in the sacraments as a gift of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
We want to ask here for the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding. Without this gift of understanding the teaching of the faith is nothing more than a set statements that we know we must believe, but have little meaning or importance for us. When the Holy Spirit, however, fills our minds we grasp from within the meaning of all that we are taught by God, and the connection between the different truths of the faith. The gift of understanding will enable us to understand the greatness and importance of the gift God has given us in the sacraments of the Church, their connection with one another, with God, and with our life in God.
A sacrament is defined as a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace; that means that it is more than just a sign or symbol, it is also an instrument, an efficacious instrument. (cf. CCC1131) Each of the sacraments communicates sanctifying grace to those who receive it and place no obstacle to the action of the Holy Spirit, and also actual graces in accordance with the character of each sacrament. That is a minimum, but the more we actively collaborate with the Holy Spirit by living a life of faith, hope, and charity, the more we will receive the abundant grace from the sacraments that he wants to give us..
We will remember the sacraments more easily if we learn the reason for their order. There are three sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist; there are two sacraments of healing, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick; and there are two sacraments at the service of communion, Holy Orders and Matrimony.
The sacraments help us to grasp the invisible life of grace by means of an analogy with our natural human life – indeed according to a famous saying “grace builds upon nature”.
Baptism is thus the sacrament of spiritual birth in which we first receive the life of grace and begin to live as children of God.
Confirmation is the sacrament of strength in the Holy Spirit. A newborn baby is frail and vulnerable, so also a newly baptized Christian. The sacrament of Confirmation makes us strong in the Lord.
The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of nourishment; it nourishes the life of grace in us by giving us the fervor of love and giving us the ability to fulfill Jesus’ New Commandment to love one another as he has loved us, giving himself to us on the Cross and in this very Sacrament. (cf. Jn 13:34)
Of course physical life not only is born, grows strong, and is nourished it is also subject to weakness and disease. The disease of the life of grace is sin. The death of the life of grace is mortal sin.
The Sacrament of Penance heals sin with God’s forgiveness and by forgiving mortal sin even restores those who have died in sin to the life of grace.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick attacks the roots of sin by converting the grave physical sufferings of the sort of illness that could lead to death or simply the weakness and burdens of old age, into sort of spiritual medicine, by uniting them to the Cross of Christ.
Human life, though, is never just the life of an isolated individual; human life is always lived in community. Indeed, God himself, the God who is love, is the eternal communion of life and love that is the Holy Trinity. So the life of grace is always lived in the communion of the whole Church.
So we have the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which is at the service of the life of grace in the whole Body of the Church.
And the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which set a man and woman in the service of the life of grace in each other and in their children. According to the dictum that grace perfects nature, the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony elevates and transforms this beautiful creation of God into a path of holiness for husband and wife, indeed it turns marriage into a pilgrim path to the heavenly kingdom.
The seven sacraments give structure to the whole life of the Church, make the Church herself a visible and tangible reality here in this world; they are as seven channels through which the life of grace comes to us, or seven paths through which we go to God, through Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Today we celebrate National Catholic Schools Week. Catholic education, by educating for the life of grace, for the life of the sacraments, for the life of heaven, is a truer and fuller education.
The secular standard of education is summed up in the acronym of STEM for (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). All that is good, so far as it goes, but it is very minimal. None of it will make anyone to be a ‘good person’, nor is it even the greatest sort of knowledge. The STEM education considers only the material and quantifiable aspect of reality.
A true Catholic education considers the whole of reality, including the supreme reality and source of all reality, God himself. When we consider the whole of reality in the light of the Catholic faith we discover that the physical world has a profound meaning precisely because of the analogy it offers to the invisible spiritual world. Considered in the light of the Catholic faith, the physical world becomes a sort of window onto spiritual reality. When we acquire a truly ‘sacramental’ view even of the physical universe, we will readily grasp the importance of the sacraments themselves and be more readily disposed to frequent them and draw fruit from their use.
In today’s Gospel the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. He gives a command and the unclean spirit departs from a man. Nevertheless, casting out the devil is only the lesser work of Jesus’ authority; it is the cleansing of the vessel so to speak. Jesus teaches with even greater authority when he gives a command, through his Sacraments, and the Holy Spirit enters into the man and gives him life.
Let us then take upon our lips the words of St. Paul and give thanks to the Father, who has made us fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. (Col 1:12-14)