The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Early last week, I had the privilege of celebrating a funeral liturgy outside of Mass for a man who was recently received into the full communion of the Catholic Church, but whose family is largely not yet Catholic. For this funeral, celebrated in the funeral home, I wore the black cassock, the white surplice, and the black stole. As I walked amidst the family, I knelt down to pray for a few moments at the casket, and then went to the lectern. As I set my book down, a toddler – probably about four years of age – asked his father, “Is that the Lord?”
His question naturally elicited some laughter from those of us who heard it, but even as I laughed I recalled the words King David spoke to God: “You whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babies and infants” (Psalm 8:2). That little boy may not have fully realized the importance of the question he asked, but his intuition was not too far off, at least as far as Catholic sacramental theology goes.
A few weeks ago, the Holy See released an Instruction on “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church.” This document reminds us that a parish
is a community gathered together by the Holy Spirit to announce the Word of God and bring new children of God to birth in the baptismal font. Assembled by the pastor, the Parish celebrates the memorial of the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord, bearing witness to faith in charity, living in a permanent state of mission, whilst ensuring that no one is excluded from the salvific, life-giving message (29).
It is curious to note here that the parish is both gathered by the Holy Spirit and assembled by the pastor. What are we to make of this? There is much to ponder in that toddler’s question, “Is that the Lord?”
If we look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are reminded that at the head of the Eucharistic assembly
is Christ himself, the principal agent of the Eucharist. He is the high priest of the New Covenant; it is he himself who presides invisibly over every Eucharistic celebration. It is in representing him that the bishop or priest acting in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi capitis) presides over the assembly, speaks after the readings, receives the offerings, and says the Eucharistic Prayer (1348).
As such, one could answer that boy’s question, saying, “no;” and yet, from a sacramental perspective, one could also answer his question, saying, “Yes, in a manner of speaking” because Christ joins his priests to himself, to his own self-offering.
If this reality is not properly understood, if a priest does not recognize that the priesthood he has received is not his own, a priest can be tempted to make the Eucharistic celebration – and the other sacraments - about himself. But if a priest recognizes that the priesthood he has received is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, then he remembers that “the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” What is more, he remembers that “the victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” This is the great mystery of the Eucharist that the Church’s understanding of the priesthood both undergirds and protects because it keeps the focus always on Christ the Lord whose self-offering to the Father is ever acceptable on his altar (cf. Isaiah 56:7).
Yet the priest never offers this great sacrifice solely for himself, but always also for and with the faithful, for
in the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are all united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.
Joined to the self-offering of Jesus, our offering of ourselves also becomes acceptable to the Father. This is why the priest invites you to “pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”
Yet there is something more in that toddler’s question, “Is that the Lord?” What prompted him to ask it? Was it simply the look of my clothing, or was there something more?
To be sure, the priest’s cassock and the Roman collar point to something more than this life; they stand as reminders to those who see them that there is something more yet to come. At the same time, they also point beyond the individual priest who wears them, hopefully directing hearts and minds to the Lord. Just as these articles of clothing are meant to do, so, too, is the life of each of the baptized meant to do: our lives are meant to point beyond this life to the life of Christ Jesus.
When the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch, they were understood to be other Christs, other anointed ones (cf. Acts 11:26). In Baptism, you and I were anointed by Christ, through the hand of his priest, “with the Chrism of salvation, so that you may remain as a member of Christ, Priest, Prophet, and King, unto eternal life.” We live out these aspects of the life of Jesus in various ways, but principally by offering ourselves with him to the Father. When have conformed our lives to Christ in a complete manner, then we can say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). How different would the world be if you and I lived a life of discipleship so intently, if we so closely united ourselves with Christ, that wherever we walked someone would ask, “Is that the Lord?” because they saw not us, but Jesus in us?
Such a union with the Lord is possible for each of us, and it is to such a life that we are all called. In his poem “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed this union well we he said, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Through this offering of the Eucharist, may we allow ourselves to be drawn by Christ and joined to his self-offering to the Father, so that we might truly become what we will soon receive. Amen.