09 October 2017

Homily - 8 October 2017 - The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

At the beginning of every Mass, the celebrant invites those who have gathered at the altar of the Lord to pray. He does so with this simple invitation: “Let us pray.” It happens so often that we sometimes take it granted. Because it is so familiar, we do not also listen to it and we do not always enter into prayer at that very moment. Perhaps it happens because we do not know for what we are to pray at that moment.

In the Order of Mass, this particular prayer is called the Collecta, a Latin word meaning a collection, whether it be a monetary collection, a collection of people as in a meeting, or simply a collection of things. It is in this third sense that Mother Church makes use of this word and calls what we colloquially call the “opening prayer” the Collect because it collects our individual prayers together and offers them as one to the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

If we take the time to study the texts of the different Collects, “we are struck by one thing: their strict formality. They are terse and austere, the more so the older they are. Here are not elaborate thoughts, no moving images, no emotional outpourings. Nothing but a few clear, terse sentences.”[1] We see this in the Collect of today’s Mass.

After an address to God “who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,” we placed our request before the Father. We asked him to “pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.” Though the words may be few, there is a lot packed into them which often takes some work to unpack.

To our ears, this prayer might seem stiff, formal, and even a bit stand-offish. This is intentionally so with the Collects because they are the prayers not of an individual, but of the whole Church. We might well say that, “inclined as we are to lose ourselves in the irrelevant and the all-too-subjective, their clear-cut objective piety maintains an important balance” so that each person present can make the prayer his or her own.[2]

Once the priest says, “Let us pray,” what is to happen? Something more should be happening than simply looking around, something internal to each person. Following the invitation to prayer,

there is silence for a good while, during which the individual believer, taking the mystery of the day as his theme, prays for his own intention and for the intention of the congregation. This silent manifold praying is then gathered up by the priest and expressed in the few sentences of the Collect, so that its brief words are filled with all the vitality that has just silently lifted itself to God. Now its terseness no longer seems inadequate, but rich and recapitulative. By studying the Collects beforehand, we could make them the vehicles for our intentions, as they were meant to be.[3]

It is at this moment especially that we should follow the teaching of Saint Paul and “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

By its very nature, prayer is seeking the Face of God and the Psalmist prayed today, “O Lord, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:20). In the midst of this search for the Face of God, the Collect for today takes on a special significance.

Again, in the first part of our petition we asked God to “pardon what conscience dreads.” We usually think of the conscience as a little voice inside of us telling us what is right and what is wrong. This is true, but it is also something more. The word conscience comes from two Latin words, con and scientia, and literally means “with knowledge.” It is not enough, then, to simply listen to Jiminy Cricket and “always let [our] conscience be our guide.” Because it is possible that our conscience might lead us to make the wrong decision, it is important that we seek to form our consciences properly in the light of what God reveals to us both through natural reason and through the teachings of his Church.

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born from human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.[4]

The properly formed conscience not only leads us to do the good, it also “enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If a man commits evil, the just judgment of the conscience can remain with him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice.”[5] This is what we might call guilt. “In attesting to the fault committed, [the conscience] calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God.”[6] All of this is present in today’s Collect. What is it, then, that conscience dreads?
The conscience dreads the just judgment of God upon us. We know ourselves to be like that vineyard spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. We know the Lord has, with much loving care, “spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press. Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:2). The conscience knows that, with the Psalmist, we have frequently promised the Lord, saying, “Then we will no longer withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name” (Psalm 80:19). Despite our promises, we know that have in fact withdrawn from God and have not called upon his name. Knowing, then, that we have not always produced the fruit expected and required of us, the conscience dreads to hear the Savior say, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (Matthew 21:43).

Yet because the conscience knows the Lord would be perfectly just to speak these words of condemnation, we humbly implore the Lord’s mercy and beg him “to give what prayer does not dare to ask.” What we dare not ask is the quiet pleading of heart, the great longing present within each one of us: “O Lord, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.” To look upon the face of God is the deepest yearning of the human heart, but we cannot do so if we do not yield the proper fruit, if we do not cooperate with his grace, if we do not continually seek his face (cf. Psalm 105:4).

When he contemplated what it means to constantly seek the face of God, Saint Augustine asked:

I know indeed that to cling unto God is good for me, but if He is always being sought, when is He found? Did he mean by “evermore,” the whole of the life we live here, whence we become conscious that we ought thus to seek, since even when found He is still to be sought? To wit, faith has already found Him, but hope still seeks Him. But love has both found Him through faith, and seeks to have Him by sight, where He will then be found so as to satisfy us, and no longer to need our search. For unless faith discovered Him in this life, it would not be said, “Seek the Lord.” Also, if when discovered by faith, He were not still to be diligently sought, it would not be said, “For if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Romans 8:25). And truly this is the sense of the words, “Seek His face evermore,” meaning that discovery should not terminate that seeking, by which love is testified, but with the increase of love the seeking of the discovered One should increase.[7]

To put it, perhaps, more simply, the quest for the face of God is a quest for the face we will

ceaselessly rediscover. The more deeply we penetrate the splendor of divine love, the greater will be our discovery and the more beautiful it will be to travel on and know that our seeking has no end, hence, finding has not end and is thus eternity – the joy of seeking and at the same time of finding.[8]

This vision of the face of God is what prayer does not dare to ask because took look upon his face is to look upon truth (cf. John 14:6). Let us, then, not turn away from the Lord or interfere with his work in the vineyard of our souls, but let us, rather, strive to follow him in all things and entrust ourselves to his merciful love because “if [his] face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.” Amen.

[1] Romano Guardini, Meditations Before Mass, (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1993), 90.
[2] Ibid., 91.
[3] Ibid., 91-92.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1784.
[5] Ibid., 1781.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalm 105, 3.
[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to German Bishops during Apostolic Journey to Cologne, 21 August 2005.

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