15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 12, 2015
Eph 1: 3-10
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
This morning and for the next 6 Sundays our 2d reading is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Christian church at Ephesus in Asia Minor—a very important city in the 1st century as a port on the Aegean Sea facing Greece, and a market center. But now it’s more than a mile inland because of the silting up of its river, and nothing but an archeological and tourist site visited because the ruins of its temples and other public buildings, its association with the early Christian community, and the tradition that our Blessed Mother passed her last days on earth there in company with St. John the Apostle. It was still an important enuf city in the 5th century for the 3d Ecumenical Council of the Church to be held there—the one that defined the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and not mother just of the man Jesus of Nazareth.
|Excavated street at Ephesus|
(Wikipedia - Ad Meskens)
|Chapel at reputed site of the Virgin Mary's House in Ephesus|
(Wikipedia - Martin H. Fryc)
After the customary greeting of those to whom he’s writing (in vv. 1-2, which we didn’t read this morning), Paul launches into a prayer of blessing which apparently quotes extensively from some early Christian hymn or liturgy. That’s the text we heard a few minutes ago. In that prayer, Paul praises God the Father, who “chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him” (Eph 1: 4).
We all know about choice. It can be a political mantra or slogan. It certainly is part of our everyday life, as we choose wardrobes, TV programs, vacation destinations, whom we’ll treasure as close friends (cf. the adage “You can choose your friends but not your relatives.”).
St. Paul speaks of God’s choosing us. Another biblical term for that, by the way, is election—which means “choosing.” We are God’s elect, God’s chosen ones. That word elect turns up pretty often in our liturgy, e.g., in the 3d Eucharistic Prayer when we pray “that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect”—with the Virgin Mary, the apostles and martyrs, and all the saints. So now you have an idea of what elect means: being chosen by God.
God chose us, selected us, elected us—for what? Not for political office nor as a winner in a raffle or an American Idol contest. No, he chose us to be his children and to have an inheritance with all of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
St. Paul puts it this way: “He destined us for adoption to himself thru Jesus Christ” (1:5). But before he says that, he writes that “he chose us … to be holy and without blemish before him.”
God alone is holy, of course. That’s a radical distinction between him and us. When we sing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts,” at Mass, we’re quoting a hymn chanted by the angels in heaven, according to a vision of the prophet Isaiah (6:1-4). In Isaiah’s words, we are “unclean” (6:5) and doomed if we come near, except that God allow us. You might also remember Moses’ approaching the burning bush and being told to stop and remove his sandals because he’s treading holy ground (Ex 3:5); or St. Peter’s telling Jesus, after the big, miraculous catch of fish, to “depart” from him because he’s a sinner and doesn’t dare to remain in the presence of God’s agent, Jesus (Luke 5:8).
|Isaiah's vision of the All-Holy One (ch. 6)|
But Jesus chooses Peter anyway, and he chooses us, sinners tho we are: “In him we have redemption by his blood,” Paul says, “the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7-8). It’s precisely that forgiveness, that abundance of grace—that divine mercy, to use Pope Francis’s keynote—that transforms us from sinners into holy people, into saints. “This is the will of God, your holiness,” Paul tells the Christians at Thessalonica (I, 4:3). It’s a choice that God made for us long before we were born: “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4), part of his plan for the entire universe, his “plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ” (1:10). With this “spiritual blessing” of forgiveness, grace, holiness given to us thru our relationship with Jesus, we are renewed as images of God (which we were created to be) and can come near him and dwell with him, enjoying the inheritance that he has promised us and for which we pray.
To holiness, Paul adds “and without blemish.” That phrase is loaded with an overtone of ritual sacrifice. Both the Passover lamb and any animal offered up to the Lord as a holocaust had to be perfect, without blemish—no illness, no deformity, no physical defect. Only the best can be given to the Lord.
And God has chosen us to be without blemish before him—perfect sacrifices united with Jesus Christ thru “redemption by his blood”; perfect self-offerings who can be presented to the Lord in this Eucharistic sacrifice and who can offer ourselves to his service every day: the service of praise and thanksgiving and atonement for the sins of humanity and the service of charity toward our brothers and sisters.
But it wasn’t only the sacrifice that had to be without blemish, physically perfect. So did the priest. No one with a physical defect, a handicap, a deformity—or ritually unclean—could carry out the sacred rituals before God. This carried over into the law and practice of the Church, which until the last decades of the 20th century would not ordain a man with physical defects of some sort, or who had practiced certain trades considered disreputable, or whose parents had, such as butcher or public executioner. When St. Isaac Jogues was brutally mutilated by the Mohawks in 1642—they sawed off 2 of his fingers with clam shells—he had to petition the Pope, after his escape, for permission to resume offering the sacrifice of the Mass—which the Pope very readily granted, considering Fr. Isaac a living martyr. (When he returned to the Mohawks in 1646, they completed his martyrdom.)
All of which points to you and me as people who offer sacrifice to God. God, thru Christ, has rendered us without blemish, not in a physical sense but a spiritual one, capable then of offering him this pure and holy sacrifice, the Eucharist; and of offering our whole lives as a sacrifice to the Father—praising him and thanking him every day in whatever we do that is Christ-like, and offering atonement for the sins of the whole world. All of us have a share in the priesthood of Jesus and can do this, because God “chose us to be holy and without blemish before him” thru our union with Jesus.
In the Collect of the Mass, the opening prayer, we prayed that if we have in any way “gone astray” God might lead us back “to the right path,” the path of Jesus Christ, the path of holiness and blamelessness (“without blemish”), so that we might not only be called Christians (“accounted Christians”) but truly live as Christians by “rejecting whatever is contrary to the name of Christ and striving after all that does [that name] honor.” It is the power of that name, Jesus Christ, that saves us, makes us whole, makes us holy and worthy of living forever in the Father’s presence.