17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 26, 2015
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
“O God, protector of those who hope in you, … bestow in abundance your mercy upon us” (Collect).
Abundance can be seen as the key word of today’s liturgy. I just quoted it from the Collect (what we used to call the “opening prayer”). It will turn up again in the Prayer over the Gifts. It’s evident in the meals provided by the prophet Elisha and Jesus in the OT and Gospel readings. (As an aside, the Latin word used in the liturgy is the same word that we translate as “bounty” in our traditional blessing before meals—“from your bounty.”)
|Multiplication of the loaves and fish|
Hours of the Duc du Berry, 1413
In the Collect we pray for an abundance of God’s mercy. The gospel story of Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fish is the sequel to our gospel reading last Sunday, in which we heard how a crowd of people—today we hear them numbered at 5,000 men (males, according to the Greek word used by all 4 evangelists; Matthew adds, “not counting women and children” [14:21])—this crowd greeted Jesus at the supposedly deserted place where he wanted some R&R with his apostles. And “when he saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
So there’s mercy in this story, not only in our prayerful plea. Jesus shows mercy 1st by teaching the crowd hungry for God’s word—“he was moved with pity for them,” with compassion; and then by feeding them with the physical food they’d not had the foresight to bring with them. (Wouldn’t most of us have done what the apostles suggested in Mark’s telling of the story [6:36])—send them away to hunt up their own supper? How many of you would be willing to throw a spontaneous picnic for 5,000 men—besides women and children?)
Our Collect today began, as the collects almost always do, by singling out some praiseworthy quality of God—in this case, “protector of those who hope in you.” Certainly Jesus is doing that for the crowd, for “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and he took them into his pastoral care with food both spiritual and physical. We, of course, are among those who hope in God. We look to him to protect us—come to mind those constant biblical refrains that God is our strength and our helper, that we look to God to save us from our enemies. The Bible also tells us not to put our trust in princes, in human beings in whom there is no salvation (Ps 146:3)—in people who are powerful—for human help is vain against so much that can go wrong in life. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. And human help is completely useless in the ultimate issues that we face—the 4 last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We need God’s protection against our own sins and their consequences; against the claim that the Prince of Darkness tries to make against our souls.
|Perseid meteor shower|
The prayer continues, “without whom nothing has firm foundation.” That could be taken in a universal sense: God created the universe and thus is its firm foundation. Without him creation would collapse; the Big Bang would be reversed, if you will. It could also be taken to refer to our individual lives or to human society. Both society and our lives collapse when they’re not founded on God. Jesus tells us in one his short parables (it’s in the Sermon on the Mount) that whoever hears his words but fails to act on them is like a man who built his house on sand (or on a barrier island); when a storm came, that house had no foundation and collapsed or was swept away (Matt 7:26-27).
So we pray that God’s protection will be the sturdy foundation of our lives and of society. The prayer then adds, “nothing is holy”; that is, without God nothing is holy. That phrase doesn’t seem to follow from the preceding one about a firm foundation. But we should take it, in fact, as a kind of parallel. In other words, holiness is the firm foundation of our lives. The whole purpose of our lives, of our existence, is to become saints, to become God’s friends forever. Most of us learned in our catechism a long time ago that “God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next world.” Those who base their lives on God are striving to be saints, striving to be joined forever with Christ in our Father’s house. We depend for that on God’s goodness, on his sharing his holiness with us, because obviously holiness doesn’t come from ourselves. Did you ever read Lord of the Flies, and see what supposedly innocent human beings do, even in a tropical paradise, when left to themselves? “Lord of the Flies,” of course, is the translation of Beelzebul, another name for the devil. Oh, we need God’s protection, all right!
|The Samaritan woman experiences Christ's mercy|
So after acknowledging all this about God, we come to the prayer proper: “bestow in abundance your mercy upon us.” We sinners need that mercy, and lots of it, to be transformed into saints, to be made worthy of dwelling with God in his home. It was precisely to give us that mercy that God’s Son came down from heaven, became a human being, lived with us, died for us, and offers us forgiveness of our sins and the possibility of being raised up on the Last Day.
We continue our prayer: “that with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.” That’s a big mouthful!
We confess again that we need God’s help: “with your as our ruler and guide.” It’s more than help invoked here, tho. God’s is our ruler. He guides us in the right ways of living. If he’s our final destination—being happy with him forever in eternity—then we depend on him to show us how to reach that destination. We subject ourselves to his rule. We follow his roadmap. We’re guided by his Scriptures. We’re guided by Jesus his Son, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We’re guided by the Church that Jesus founded to preserve and spread his message and link us all with him.
We pray that with all that governance and guidance “we may use the good things that pass”: use everything that is created but has no permanence, all the wonderful things in our world and in ourselves, things like health, beauty, intelligence, wealth, leisure, relationships, material things—use all these “in such a way as to hold fast even now to those [good things] that ever endure.” There are good things that last forever, and those are the things that matter, the things that we must “hold fast to,” must cling to, must make a part of ourselves: things like virtues (e.g., faith, hope, charity, purity, patience, honesty), things like truth, things like our relationship with our Lord Jesus. If we have these goods, anything created is secondary—useful, even good, but “passing,” as the prayer says, fading, undependable. So we pray that we might set our hearts and our souls on what lasts, on what really counts toward eternal life.