Saturday, March 3, 2012

Offering the Sacrifices God Asks of Us

Homily from the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2012

Last week, as you may have heard, Bishop Malone was in town for the Rite of Election.  It was a wonderful occasion as over 20 catechumens and candidates from our parish were enrolled in the book of elect in preparation for their reception into the Church this Easter.

During the homily, the bishop was talking about the process of conversion, and about St. Augustine and what he had said of his conversion in his book the Confessions.  “Late have I loved Thee, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee.”

Now I must admit that I thought the bishop might choose another famous passage St. Augustine penned as he was wrestling with his conversion: “Oh Master, make me chaste and celibate, but not yet.”

It is kind of a classic line from St. Augustine, and I think it is because it sums up a common theme of the spiritual life.  How many of us, myself included, have said to our Heavenly Father at one point or another, “I promise you can ask anything of me, but just not that.  Please just leave me this one thing, don’t ask me to offer it in sacrifice to you.  It might kill me.”

This, I imagine, was the prayer on Abraham’s lips as he walked into the land of Moriah with  Isaac, his only son.

Yet Moriah – the land of sacrifice, is also a land that must be walked by all who attempt to follow Christ.  Jesus has instructed us that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever wishes to lose it for his sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it. 
And that means walking through the land of Moriah, it means that throughout the Christian life we are asked each day to die a little more to ourselves, to embrace God’s will more completely, to worship him with more and more of our full heart and mind and strength, foresaking whatever would keep us from him. 

Some might say, “Well this is all very severe.  How is this the story of a loving God?  This is the story of a jealous God, a God who won’t let us love anything but him.  Why should I worship that God?  It just sounds like a path to misery – a recipe for feeling guilty about enjoying anything good in this life.”

And that would be true, if the sacrifice was the end of the story.  But we must keep reading – God did not actually have Abraham follow through with the sacrifice – he let him keep Isaac and he granted to him descendants as numerous as the stars. 

The purpose of his original command of sacrifice was not to take away the one thing that was more precious to Abraham than life itself, but instead to purify and test Abraham’s faith, to ensure that he was not worshipping false idols.  Why?  Because God was jealous?
No, because God loves us.  And he created us to love him.  And so he knows that if we try to worship anything other than him as God we will be miserable, that he is the only one who can satisfy the deep longing of the human heart for eternal love.  And so he works to purify our hearts of idols so that we can worship him freely and find joy. 

That’s what was happening to St. Augustine – the Holy Spirit was working on him, testing his heart, telling him what he needed to offer on the altar of sacrifice in order to worship the true God.  Unlike Abraham, St. Augustine wrestled with the Spirit for many years.  He tried to bargain with him “I’ll do all of these other good things instead” “I’ll put up with this or that difficulty, I’ll make these sacrifices instead.”  Anything to keep from offering the sacrifice that God was asking of him, the one that God knew he needed to make in order to find freedom and peace.

But all of St. Augustine’s attempts at bargaining and justifying and substituting and avoiding failed.  God is relentless, and he continued to place the altar before Augustine, continued to speak to him: offer the sacrifice, offer what I have asked of you, offer it.

And finally he did.  Finally St. Augustine broke down and gave up what he thought would kill him.  And what he found was that instead of dying, he was filled with an inexpressible joy and peace and freedom. 

Now every Sunday we approach this altar, or maybe we should say that this altar approaches us.  And every Sunday our Heavenly Father asks each of us for an offering.  Sometimes we try to avoid it, sometimes we bargain, or try to offer other things, or we fane ignorance.  But at least in my heart of hearts, when I stand here and look upon the altar, more often than not I know exactly what the Father is asking me to place upon it.

The question is, will we offer what is asked of us?  Will we follow Abraham, or will we follow the young Augustine and say ‘not yet, not that.’ 

After Jesus Christ was transfigured before his disciples, the voice of his Father in heaven told them “Listen to him.”  What did he tell them?  He told them about his sacrifice, he told them about how he would offer his life for us.  He revealed himself as Lord of the eternal sacrifice of praise that unites all of us to the Father.  He revealed himself as the priest, the altar, and the victim of sacrifice, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham our father in faith.

As priest, Jesus offers all sacrifice to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
As altar, Jesus is the one through whom all sacrifice is offered to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
And as victim, Jesus is the perfect sacrifice that is offered to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is revealed to us as Priest, Altar and Victim: one Lord of the Eternal Sacrifice of Praise, of the Mass.

We receive him, the Lord of this eternal Sacrifice, in a few moments.  He is the one in whom every sacrifice is made pure, through whom we are given the grace to offer to the Father what he asks of each of us. 

What is Jesus asking to help you to offer, along with his body and blood, to the Father today?  Let us ask him for the grace we need to place whatever God asks of us on this altar, to resist the urge to say ‘not yet.’

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