Saturday, August 31, 2013

Homily for 22d Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
22d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sept. 1, 2013
Heb 12: 18-19, 22-24
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
[at least 3/4 of the congregation on Saturday evenings in fact are laity]

“You have not approached that which could not be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them” (Heb 12: 18-19).

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, continuing his allusions to the Old Testament and his showing how the Hebrew Scriptures are either fulfilled or surpassed by Christ, now recalls the experience of the Jews at Mt. Sinai.  It was a fearsome experience, the power and majesty of God on awesome display, backed by a dire warning that no one, not even a stray goat, was to go near the mountain except Moses and his aide Joshua.  That prohibition is recalled in the one of the verses skipped over in our reading this evening (12:20), and even Moses was “terrified and trembling,” according to the 2d omitted verse (12:21).

Worship of the Golden Calf,
by W.C. Simmonds

When God spoke, the people were struck with fear.  Indeed, when their infidelity provoked his anger—e.g., with the golden calf—he struck them hard and threatened to exterminate them until Moses interceded for them.

Our sacred author contrasts all that with our experience of God thru the life and ministry of Jesus, and more especially thru his resurrection and his role as our intercessor at the heavenly court—our supreme diplomat, as it were.  He contrasts the ferocious presence of God at Sinai with the splendor of “the heavenly Jerusalem,” opened up by “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,” to his followers (12:22-24).

This heavenly Jerusalem is the dwelling place of “countless angels” (12:22) and of “the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (12:23).  It’s the home of “God the judge of all” and of “the spirits of the just made perfect” (12:23).

In Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (1:18) and in the Book of Revelation (1:5), Jesus is called “the firstborn of the dead,” the 1st to be raised to new, eternal life.  St. Paul also calls him “the firstborn of many brothers” (Rom 8:29).  In our passage from Hebrews, all those “many brothers” and sisters are now counted as “the firstborn,” as Jesus’ coheirs (a word we now use in our 2d Eucharistic Prayer, to the consternation of some who haven’t grasped its import).  The firstborn, you know, is the privileged one:  the one who inherits the kingdom or the estate, the blessings, the honors, rank, and titles, most of the wealth.

Thanks to Jesus, all who belong to the “assembly”—the Greek word here is εκκλησία—enjoy the privileges of being God’s firstborn, not thru a natural birth of course, but as God’s children by adoption, as Paul writes to the Romans (8:15-19).  With that adoption come all the privileges of a full inheritance!

The sacred writer refers to some of the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem as “the spirits of the just made perfect” (12:23).  The just are those in a good relationship with God, “the judge of all” (12:23).  They are those who please him thru their attitudes, intentions, words, and actions, who conform their lives to God’s will in all things, like St. Joseph, the just man (Matt 1:19).  Another translation of the word for “just” is “righteous,” which was in fact the last word of today’s gospel:  “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14).

But note the passive voice in the description:  “the just made perfect,” not “the just who attain perfection” or “who make themselves perfect.”  No, the agent is God.  (That’s good news for us, isn’t it?  An ordinary day’s experience is enuf to convince most of us of the impossibility of our living entirely according to God’s will, sinners that we are.)  St. Paul says, “It is God who justifies” us (Rom 8:33), who makes us just and upright and clean and holy.  Our part is to allow him to do that, to be open to what he wants to do in us.

And how does God do his work in us?  Thru Christ.  When the rich man came to Jesus seeking perfection (Luke 18:18-23), Jesus advised him, “If you would be perfect, sell your possessions, give to the poor, and come, follow me.”  Divest yourself of all that is your own, empty yourself—and follow me.  To follow Jesus, to be his disciple, to listen to his teachings, to imitate his actions, to embrace his cross, to accept his pardon—this is how we open ourselves to God’s work in our souls; this is how God justifies us; this is the path to citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The New Jerusalem, after Dore', by Laura Sotka
The letter notes that the firstborn are “enrolled in heaven.”  In the cities of the Roman Empire, we’re told, “citizens were registered shortly after birth to record their status and thus insure their legal and social privileges.”[1]  You may also remember that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because “Caesar Augustus had decreed that the whole world should be enrolled….  So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town” (Luke 2:1,3).  Likewise, the Book of Revelation refers numerous time to those whose names are written in the book of life—enrolled, in other words, as citizens in God’s kingdom.

In the Christian mysteries—in Baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments; in hearing and taking into our hearts the Word of God—we “have approached Mount Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” not with fear and trembling but with the confidence of having embraced Jesus Christ, “the mediator of a new covenant” (12:24), who leads us to his Father to present us as his gifts to the Father—a redeemed family of brothers and sisters, an assembly of holy children of God.

      [1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NY: Oxford, 2011), p. 424, on Heb 12:23.

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