The Church’s first reading for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, a prophet whose writings are made all the more beautiful because they are so sad.
Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s word of truth and cast his spiritual vision during a great cataclysm- the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in the year 587 BC. In that year it seemed that the God of the Israelites had abandoned his people as they suffered the loss of everything that they had thought mattered most- land, king, city and temple were no more. The armies of Babylon swept through the lands of the Israelites and left nothing but destruction in their wake. Those who had survived this catastrophe either fled to the corners of the earth or would languish as slaves.
Everything that had been foundational to the Israelite way of life was destroyed. The Israelites had given themselves over the false gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, and these gods had betrayed them into the hands of their enemies.
All hope seemed lost.
The prophet Jeremiah surveys this dire situation and foresees that what seems like an end will ultimately be transformed into a new kind of beginning for the Israelites. An old world has been swept away and a new world will begin. God is working out a new plan for the Israelites and though it does not seem possible, suffering will one day give way to joy. The story of the Israelites is not over, a new chapter has begun.
The lesson here is often confounding to the worldly. The pain and suffering of our lives might not be precisely the kinds of things that the Israelites endured in 587, but all of us have known or will know grief and loss. It may seem in these moments that things are hopeless and we may experience that terrifying feeling that God has abandoned us and that our prayers to him are met with indifference.
It is precisely in these experiences that the spiritual vision of Jeremiah can be our own, a vision that is informed not only by the hope of a Biblical prophet, but by the revelation of Christ’s suffering and death- a catastrophe that seemed to be an end, but was transformed by the power of God into a new and surprising beginning.
For the Christian, suffering and death are accepted realistically- no one evades these raw facts of human existence and the revelation of Christ insists that God saves and redeems, not by exempting us from the raw facts of being human, but through them. The cross of Jesus testifies that as we pass through all the realities of what it means to be human, God in Christ is with us, and whatever suffering and death we might have to endure, can also become a route of access to God.
The hope of a Christian in the face of suffering and death is not merely optimism or positive feelings, but an act of faith in Christ. Thus the images of the Crucified Savior that are so prominently displayed and reverenced in our churches and homes are not merely testifying to the death of Jesus as a victim of politics. Christ is not merely a martyr who died for a cause. Instead, they testify to our faith that even though we endure the worst, God in Christ remains with us, and in the end it is his power to redeem and save, not suffering and death, which has the last word.
In the face of suffering and death, what to the worldly seems a defeat and a bitter end, the final chapter of the book of life, is revealed on the cross of Jesus to be, not the end, but the turning of the page and an unexpected twist of the plot.
The Church’s second scripture is an excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews. We have heard select passages from the Letter to the Hebrews for the past few weeks.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a densely textured theological essay that explores what the Church believes to be true concerning the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who the Lord Jesus is and what he is doing for us.
In these respects, the Letter to the Hebrews is clear that the apostles testified that the Lord Jesus is God and that God in Christ had done something quite extraordinary and unexpected- God in Christ had accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. It was through this human nature that God in Christ had experienced suffering and death.
The Letter to the Hebrews presents the extraordinary and unexpected revelation of God become man in Christ in terms that would have been familiar to the Israelites, terms that have their reference points in the worship of the great temple of Jerusalem with its priests, altar and sacrifices.
Christ is likened to the High Priest of the new kind of temple (the temple of the Church) who makes his offering his own life. The benefit of this sacrifice is his gift to us, and the benefit we can receive is that through the offering of Christ’s life, we are given a route of access to God.
We might be less familiar with these references to the worship of the Israelites, but their reality and truth is in the midst of our experience whenever we participate in the Mass.
The Mass is the moment on earth when Christ the High Priest acts to offer to his Church the gift of his life. We receive this sacrifice in the Eucharistic Mystery, in the Blessed Sacrament, which is not just a symbol of Christ, but really and truly his divine life and presence- the Body and Blood of Christ, the Holy Communion of the Mass, is our route of access to God!
The worship of the Church, the worship that God in Christ wants, is not simply songs and stories and sermons that we create out of our own cleverness and talent, but the temple worship that God in Christ gives to his Church. This temple worship is the Mass.
In this temple worship (called the Mass), Christ acts as priest, makes himself the sacrifice, and gives us the benefit of the sacrifice he offers. This is what the Mass is about and why the Mass is important. There might be faith-based experiences that we find more edifying or enjoyable, but none of these experiences can deliver to us what the Mass delivers.
The Mass is unique in what it is and what it offers and it is also the worship that God wants from us and for this reason it is the Mass, not something else that is the “source and summit of the Christian life”.
Everything that the Letter to the Hebrews describes about the Lord Jesus as High Priest, about the temple, about his sacrifice is displayed to you each time the Mass is offered. What the Letter to the Hebrews delivers in words, the Mass delivers in signs, symbols, gestures and ultimately, in the Blessed Sacrament.
In his Gospel for today, the Lord Jesus manifests his divine power and identity (remember, the Lord Jesus is God) through a miracle- he restores sight to a blind man.
Our affliction might not be physical blindness, but a darkening of our spiritual vision, by this I mean an inability or unwillingness to see things as Christ wants us to see. So many prefer this darkness to Christ’s light!
Unlike physical blindness, spiritual blindness is self-imposed and manifests itself in a narrowing of our concerns to self-interest, in the stubborn refusal to change, in the limitation of what it is possible to what I can do or want to do. These dispositions impose a kind of darkness upon us, in which we grope about for a satisfying life, but all we experience is endless grasping, rather than fulfillment. Spiritual blindness ultimately culminates in isolation and leaves us bereft of hope.
Christ can liberate us from the spiritual blindness that we impose upon ourselves, but we must want him to intervene in our lives. He always offers us his healing power, but he will not coerce us to accept his help- for his offer to us is an offer of love and love is only effective if it is offered and accepted in freedom.
It is only when we relinquish our grasp on the darkness of self-interest that we impose on ourselves that Christ casts his light, the light that enables us to see and illuminates his way…