The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
“In Jerusalem,” says the Lord, “you shall find your comfort” (Isaiah 66:13). He speaks these words just after telling his chosen people Israel that, “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). What, then, is the connection between the Lord and the City of David? While we give little thought to Jerusalem, the Psalmist sang of her:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy (Psalm 137:5-6)!
What made Jerusalem a surer comfort than the highest of joys? What makes Jerusalem a surer comfort for us, as well?
Pliny the Elder - a Roman author, philosopher, commander, and friend of the emperor who died in A.D. 79 - called Jerusalem “by far the most famous city, not of Judea only, but of the East.” The city of Jerusalem is indeed ancient and has been inhabited for more than 6,000 years. In the Middle Ages, its importance was demonstrated by depicting Jerusalem at the center of world maps, with the rest of the world - and even the cosmos - surrounding the City of David. Yet its importance is not to be found in its age, nor is it be found in its having been conquered by King David around the year 1010 B.C. Rather, Jerusalem is important because it was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was housed and, as such, was the place where God dwelt with his people, especially after the year 962 B.C. with the dedication of the Temple built by King Solomon. The Ark of the Covenant, God’s throne on earth, was kept in the Temple in the Holy of Holies for some four hundred years before it disappeared and was lost.
After “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim,” “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (I Kings 8:6, 10-11). The comfort to be found in Jerusalem was to be found in the Temple, in the very presence of God who comforts us with a mother’s love. Therefore the Psalmist held Jerusalem above all other joys.
However, all of this changed around the year 586 B.C. when the Ark of the Covenant was lost and the prophet Ezekiel saw a distressing sight: “Then the glory of the Lord left the threshold of the temple” (Ezekiel 10:18-19). To make matters worse, the Temple itself was destroyed in A.D. 70. What, then, are we to do? Where are we to experience the motherly love of God? Where are we to find our comfort?
Pilgrims today to the city of Jerusalem do experience some comfort, but certainly none greater than all other joys, but there is another Jerusalem in which our comfort is to be found. When he saw a vision of heaven while he offered the Holy Mass on the island of Patmos, Saint John “saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Who is this bride? Saint Paul, when he tells husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” explained that Jesus sanctified the Church so “that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25, 26-27). So it is that the new Jerusalem is the Church, the Bride of Christ, and, as Saint Paul also tells us, the Church “is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). In the waters of Baptism, you and I were born from the womb of the Church and incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
It is, then, in the Church that our comfort is to be found and in the Church in which we experience the maternal love of God, most particularly in the spiritual nourishment that is the gift of his own Body and Blood. When we come to the Holy Mass, how conscious are we that are in the new Jerusalem, in the very presence of God? Do we hold the Eucharist above all other joys and find comfort in the very presence of God? We certainly should, because the Church is indeed the most famous city, not only of the East, but of the entire world.
Sometimes, just as we do with our family, we take the Church for granted. We grow perhaps too familiar with the mystery of the Church and forget that it is in the Church that
We are in some sense embraced by God, transformed by his love. The Church is this embrace of God, in which men and women learn also to embrace their brothers and sisters and to discover in them the divine image and likeness which constitutes the deepest truth of their existence, and which is the origin of genuine freedom.
This is why we are to “rejoice with [the new] Jerusalem and be glad because of her” (Isaiah 66:10).
We know all too well in these days that, make up as she is by sinful men and women, the earthly image of the Church is often marked by stains and sins and failures to love. When he considered this sad reality, Saint Augustine of Hippo looked toward the heavenly image of the Church, the Church when her full reality is at last revealed as the Bride of Christ. He said,
This city is said to come down out of heaven in the sense that God created it by means of heavenly grace… Indeed, its descent from heaven began with the beginning of time, since it is by God’s grace coming down from above through the ‘laver of regeneration’ in the Holy Spirit sent from heaven that its citizenship has continuously grown up on earth. Yet only after God’s last judgment, the one he has deputed to Jesus Christ his Son, will his tremendous gift of grace be revealed so brightly in [the heavenly Jerusalem] that in this new brightness there will remain no traces of its earthly blemishes. For then its members’ bodies will pass over from mortal corruptibility to the new immortality of incorruption.
The recognition of the sins of others – and especially our own sins – gives us greater reason to strive to imitate Saint Paul who bore “the marks of Jesus on [his] body” (Galatians 6:17). What does this mean, if not to say that Saint Paul began to look more and more like Jesus until he could rightly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). For this reason, he prayed, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
When a new pastor arrives in a parish, many of the parishioners wonder what program he will enact, what agenda he will pursue. The only program, if you will, which I hope to enact is to help you enter more deeply into the life of the Church. My only agenda is to help you offer yourself completely to the Father, to place yourselves upon the altar with the bread and wine until you, too, bear the marks of Jesus on your bodies until you also look like him. My mission as your pastor is to prepare you to take to see the face of Christ more clearly, to help you draw near to him and bask in the light of his face, a light which can transform us and make us like himself. I hope to help you seek the Lord not in mere curiosity, but in sincere love, to not only hear his voice speaking in the quiet of our hearts, but to see his face and become witnesses of his majesty and to take your places within the Father’s house by placing his Body, the Church, the new Jerusalem, at the center of your lives.
Let us, then, strive to imitate the example of Saint Paul and of Saint Peter, who both, in the end, gave themselves entirely to Christ, holding nothing back from him. May they intercede for us and teach us how to set the new Jerusalem above our highest joys and so find our comfort in the Church and in her Sacraments until at last we stand before Christ and he knows us to be his own. Amen.