Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the lengthiest and beautifully written books in the Bible. It illuminates the meaning of events that take place over hundreds of years of the Israelite history- events which culminate in the fall of the Kingdom of David and the aftermath of this cataclysmic event.
Isaiah interprets these events with a keen spiritual and theological outlook. His purpose is not simply to describe history in the matter of a modern historian or journalist, but to interpret history theologically- this means he considers what is happening to the Israelites and seeks to answer what God is doing and why he is doing it.
Thus, for Isaiah and all the biblical prophets, God is not some kind of cosmic force that exists somewhere far away from human experience, but he is active, interested, engaged in what is happening in the world. How and why God acts in the world is mysterious, but God is acting in the world. The greatest power is not worldly power, the power of politics, economics and culture, but God’s power. When we attempt to interpret our lives, our history only through worldliness, through politics, economics and culture, we miss the point. For what God is doing and why is of far greater significance than what we are doing.
That’s not a truth we like to hear or want to believe. It pulls the rug out from under the pomp and pretence of our worldliness. Most who believe in God prefer to act as if he doesn’t exist. Many believers would prefer that God remain benignly interested in what we are doing, affirming us in our projects, plotting and planning. But that is not the true God- certainly not the God is biblical revelation.
What God is doing is far more important than what we are doing.
The prophets were keen on reminding the Israelites of this truth. They continue to remind the Church of this truth as well.
Today’s excerpt from the Book of Isaiah is from a mysterious part of his visions that describes what is called “the suffering servant”. The “suffering servant” is someone who accepts great suffering and even sacrifices his own life so that the Israelites can be reconciled to God. The great sages of Israel understood Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant to be a description of the Messiah- a person of great power that God would send into the world to set things that had gone so wrong right.
It was considered to be alarming that the Messiah would accept the kind of treatment that the prophet Isaiah describes. In fact, for most, it didn’t make any sense until they saw with their own eyes the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus on the cross.
Therefore, when we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah today, we are meant to call to mind the suffering and death of Christ and consider the great mystery that it was in this terrifying event that the vision of Isaiah became real.
God acted and entered into history, into the real world, in Christ the Lord.
What was happening on the cross to the Lord Jesus was not simply a matter of politics, economics or culture, but God was acting to accomplish something more important than any of these things. Whatever human beings thought they were doing to the Lord Jesus in the cross was not as important as what God was doing.
And the prophet Isaiah tells us what God in Christ is doing- he is acting to reconcile us to God, to forgive us, to offer us another chance.
The cross of Jesus Christ is the most cataclysmic event in human history because it represents a darkness within each of us that refuses to love God, a refusal that manifests itself not just in rejecting God, but also in seeking to destroy him completely. How God in Christ responds to this refusal is the great surprise of the Gospel, a surprise that convinced the earliest disciples that the Lord Jesus was indeed the Messiah- the “suffering servant” whom the prophet Isaiah had foreseen centuries ago.
The Church’s second reading for today is about the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus on the cross. The insight comes from the New Testament text known as “The Letter to the Hebrews”, which is not simply a letter, but a densely textured theological essay about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who he is and what he has done and will do for us.
In today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the Lord Jesus is called not just a priest, but also “the great high priest”- meaning that everything the Church understands about priests and priesthood has its reference point in the kind of priest the Lord Jesus is.
Priests are those who offer sacrifice, and the great high priest Jesus offers his own life as a sacrifice. This is what is happening on the cross, the Lord Jesus is offering his life so that he can reconcile humanity to God. That’s his sacrifice. That’s how he is a priest.
Offering his life as a sacrifice meant suffering, and ultimately death, realities that he didn’t deserve, but in order to bring God and humanity together as friends, he accepted suffering and death, and made that experience his sacrifice.
And that’s what priesthood is about- making your life a sacrifice so that people might be reconciled to God. Making your life a sacrifice so that God and humanity can be friends.
One of the master themes of the Letter to the Hebrews is God, in Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. God did not need to do this, but we needed him to do it. There were profound implications for God to accept a human nature as his own, consequences that included that he experience for himself the raw facts of suffering and death. God in Christ accepted these implications and these consequences. This was his sacrifice. In his sacrifice, he showed that he loves us- for what greater love would there be for someone to accept suffering and death for his beloved?
This is also why the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that God in Christ can “sympathize with us in weaknesses”, and that we can approach him with confidence, and that he will be merciful to us and help us.
The great revelation of the Gospel is that God doesn’t need to love us but he does, and not only this, but that we all do things that would give God good reason not to love us, but he is still willing to love us.
And further, that God reveals that he loves us by accepting a human nature and living a real, human life. Because God doesn’t need to love us and we so often refuse to love him, his love for us is his sacrifice.
It is because of his sacrifice, that God in Christ is our great high priest.
In his Gospel, Christ the Lord’s disciples expose what happens when sacrifice is displaced by power as the ultimate end of Christian discipleship.
James and John aspire to power, not sacrifice. The power they aspire to is meant to serve their own ends, their own ambition. So great are their ambitions that they would even use God as a means to get what they desire.
Christ will have none of this and directs their attention away from themselves and towards him- particularly towards the visceral reality of his cross, where he will “give his life as a ransom for the many”.
True power comes from sacrifice, from acts of love, and not from the machinations of worldly ambition, no matter how successful or effective these machinations might appear to be.
So much of the vital energies of the Church have been consumed by arguments about power in the Church- who has it, who doesn’t have it, who deserves it and who doesn’t. The Body of the Church aches from all these neuralgic debates and in all these debates we are mimics of James and John.
The most powerful people in the Church are never those who aspire to be powerful as the world defines power, but instead are those who aspire to holiness, which means to be like Christ.
We Christians call these holy people the saints, and while the world esteems politicians, celebrities and financiers, the Church esteems the saints.
Today, in Rome, the Holy Father will declare two new saints- Louis and Zelie Martin. The Martin’s will be the first married couple to be canonized together as saints.
In the estimation of the world, Louis and Zelie Martin were insignificant. The cultural elites of our day would characterize the two as hopelessly irrelevant. Both sought to be Christ-like, to be holy, by living out their vocation as husband and wife as a sacrifice of love. They were the parents of nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood.
The purpose of the household the Martin’s established was to nurture disciples for Jesus and create future saints for the Church.
In this mission, God blessed them abundantly.
Their youngest daughter, a girl by the name of Therese, is herself one of the most powerful women in history of the Church- known to many as “The Little Flower”- St. Therese of Liseux.
The Church esteems Louis and Zelie Martin as exemplars of what it means to be husband and wife. If you want to know what the Sacrament of Marriage is about, St. Louis and St. Zelie Martin are your guides.
Their lives provide the thick description of what the Sacrament of Marriage really and truly is.
And what is the Sacrament of Marriage about?
It is about sacrifice.