Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Homily for 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 2, 2016
2 Tim 1: 6-8, 13-14
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Beloved:  I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have thru the imposition of my hands” (2 Tim 1: 6).
Sacrament of Holy Orders: Priesthood
St. Catharine's Church, Spring Lake, N.J.
For the last 3 Sundays, we’ve read from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy.  Starting today, we hear for 4 Sundays from his 2d Letter to Timothy.  Our 2d reading selected 5 verses from the 1st chapter of that letter.

Those 5 selected verses follow the letter’s typical formal greeting in which the Apostle, in v. 2, addresses Timothy as his “dear child.”  Hence the word Beloved that opens our reading today—which is not actually part of the sacred text but an opener supplied by the compilers of the Lectionary—stands in for “dear child.”  Paul’s addressing Timothy in particular; in fact, the you’s and your’s that follow in the text are in the singular in the original Greek text, its Latin translation, and old English versions like the KJV and the 1582 Rheims NT that many of us grew up with in the ’40s and ’50s.

As we read in the Acts of the Apostles and in various letters of Paul, from his youth Timothy had been a companion and collaborator in Paul’s apostolic travels.  According to tradition, Paul eventually left him in charge of the Church at Ephesus with the responsibility of episkopos, “overseer”—later translated as “bishop.”  (For those who are interested in etymology:  bishop derives from episkopos.)

This passage isn’t in our Sunday liturgy, however, because you and I are bishops or at all likely to become bishops.  But in different degrees and for different purposes, you and I have received the same gift of God that Timothy did from the laying on of Paul’s hands.

The laying on of hands is a powerful liturgical gesture, so powerful that in the rite of priestly ordination it’s done in complete silence by the bishop and then, perhaps with musical accompaniment, done by all the priests who are present.

You, too, brothers and sisters, have been blessed by the imposition of hands, this symbol that invokes the Holy Spirit, that calls down the Spirit upon a person or a thing such as water, oil, bread and wine over which hands are extended.  Besides Holy Orders, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and Anointing explicitly involve the laying on of hands or the extension of hands over the one receiving the sacrament, usually invoking the Spirit of God to confer his gifts—forgiveness, healing, strength, or various virtues for living our Christian lives.  At every Eucharist the celebrant—and any concelebrating priests—extends hands over the bread and wine and invokes the Spirit, that those gifts might be transformed—in classical theological language, transubstantiated—by the power of the Spirit to become God’s gift to us, the Body and Blood of our Savior.

According to the NT and the Fathers of the Church, Jesus of Nazareth was mystically anointed—became the Christ, God’s Anointed One—when the Holy Spirit descended upon him.  The gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed so abundantly upon Timothy and us renders us Christ-like.  It gives us a share in Christ’s offices of priest, prophet, and king.  Paul urges Timothy, “Guard this rich trust [the sound words you heard from me] with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us” (1:13-14).

As Christian priests we’re privileged to take part in Christ’s sacrifice:  to come to the Eucharist and worship the Father together with Christ and to partake of his Body and Blood.  As Christian prophets we’re charged to “testify to our Lord” and “bear [our] share of hardship for the Gospel” (1:8), which, in the 1st place, means living both publicly and privately as disciples of Jesus—letting everyone observe by our conduct that we adhere to God’s Law, the Beatitudes, etc.; “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice” (1:7).  In the 2d place, prophecy means spreading the Gospel, e.g., by catechizing our children, teaching them to pray, and responding to inquiries from people.  As Christian kings or rulers, our 1st task is to govern ourselves—not with “a spirit of cowardice but rather [with] power and love and self-control” (1:7); i.e., we strive with the help of the Holy Spirit to rule our own passions, to defeat the Devil’s temptations.  Secondarily, we govern our households according to Christian principles and, as citizens, we bring those principles into public life.  We don’t surrender to our faults or our sins but ask the Spirit’s help to master them—a lifetime’s work, to be sure.  Hence the need for courage and not cowardice.

Paul also exhorts Timothy to “take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13).  Two norms are at work here.  The 1st is the Word of God, the Gospel that Paul has preached and Timothy has believed; it’s the total doctrine and morality of Christianity.  These are to be the norms of Timothy’s life and teaching, and the norms of every Christian.  We don’t invent our own Gospel, our own doctrine, or our own moral code.  To do so is to invent our own religion, distinct from the religion of Jesus Christ and the Church to which Jesus has entrusted the Gospel.  In the rites of Baptism and the renewal of baptismal promises, after affirming the Creed we’re reminded, “This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.”  This is the faith by which we are saved “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Later in 2 Timothy, Paul warns Timothy that “the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths” (4:3)—to false teaching, to misleading ideas, to lies.  Contemporary examples of such falsehood:  a certain Catholic candidate for vice president has predicted that like him (and others) the Church will come around to the “wisdom” of accepting gay “marriage”; the so-called Catholics for Free Choice spread the lie that abortion is a legitimate moral choice; some people hold that it’s un-Christian to teach and practice a priesthood restricted to males.  No, the norm of our Christian faith isn’t public opinion, the opinion of academics, the opinion of the Supreme Court, the opinion of the entertainment industry, contemporary mores, or the worldly wisdom of “if it feels good, do it” or “look out for No. 1.”  The norm of our Christian faith is “the sound words you heard from me,” i.e., from Paul and the other apostles, our apostolic faith—preserved in the Sacred Scriptures and safeguarded by those who have succeeded to the apostolic office, starting with the bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter and custodian of the teaching of both Peter and Paul.

The 2d norm at work in Paul’s words to Timothy here is Paul himself.  In other places—e.g., in 1 Corinthians (4:16, 11:1), Philippians (3:17), and 1 Thessalonians (1:6)—Paul implores his readers to imitate him.  His own behavior, his own dedication to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel, is a norm.  For us in the 21st century, this is one of the reasons for saints, one of the reasons for canonizations:  to hold up to us authentic, trustworthy models to imitate.  We may be sure that in imitating the virtues and lifestyles of Mother Teresa, St. Edith Stein, St. John Bosco, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, St. Dominic Savio, St. Gianna Molla, Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed Frederick Ozanam, or your own particular patron saint, for example, we put the Gospel into practice and so “guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”  (This is one reason why it’s important to give your children saints’ names.)

A final word, from the 1st verse of today’s reading:  “stir into flame the gift of God that you have thru the imposition of my hands.”  Like starting and keeping a fire going, the gift of God’s Spirit needs to be tended to, to be stirred up—by prayer, by avoiding the occasions of sin, by constant effort and practice to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to let the Spirit guide our choices and our actions.

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