The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, one of the lengthiest in the Bible, expresses God’s perspective in regards to some of the most momentous, indeed troubling events in the history of the Israelites. Kings and nations and fall. The people suffer triumph and tragedy. Hymns of praise and lament are sung. Monuments are raised and brought down. The prophets speak. And God acts. He acts in the midst of real world circumstances in ways that surprise and confound us.
Today’s excerpt from the Book of Isaiah speaks of a holy mountain upon which all Israelites will one day gather, but not the Israelites alone will be assembled in this sacred place. The Israelites will be joined by foreigners, those whom had been previously been excluded from the Israelite way of life and worship. This is God’s plan. This is God’s will. He means to gather his chosen people along with all the nations of the earth and once gathered, he will offer them the opportunity to worship him as he intends for them to worship.
The holy mountain that the prophet envisions is coded language for the temple, the great sanctuary in Jerusalem, where the divine presence dwelled and that was the singular place where the Israelites gathered to worship. But the holy mountain of Isaiah is a new kind of temple, established by the Lord not just for the Israelites, but for the nations. In this new temple, God’s presence would reside. In this new temple, the nations would be gathered for worship.
Christians believe that this new temple is the mystical Body of Christ which we experience as the Church and the worship of this new temple is the Mass. In these ways do we see and understand that the vision of the Prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled in reality, in the here and now. The house of prayer for all peoples is the Church and the prayer of the people is the prayer of the Mass.
Thus, do we believe that God in Christ is bringing the prophecy of Isaiah to its fulfillment.
The Church and its worship, the Mass, are not just constructs of culture, artifacts of history, or expressions of ethnic identity. The Church does not gather for worship to celebrate itself or express appreciation for the good deeds of the community. The Church’s worship is not intended as a form of peculiar religious entertainment.
Instead the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass is discerned in reference to the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Revelation of God in Christ. It is only in reference to these that meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass can be understood.
The prophet Isaiah testifies today that the Church is to be the gathering of the nations for worship in a new kind of temple. God in Christ reveals that this gathering of nations is his Church, and the worship he gives to this assembly, the worship he wants, is the prayer of the Mass.
This is the meaning of today’s first scripture.
The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Romans. The author of the Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul.
The great theme of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is the extraordinary way God has acted in Christ to draw both the Israelites and the Gentiles into a new kind of communion with one another, a new kind of communion the Apostle speaks of as a new kind of Israel, a new kingdom with a new king- a kingdom that is God’s that is meant to include all the peoples of the earth and a new king who is God in Christ himself!
This new kingdom and new king is offered to all people by God as an extraordinary opportunity, but while it is offered to all, God in Christ imposes it on no one. Our acceptance of communion with God’s new Israel, his new kingdom and the new king, God in Christ, is meant to be a free act of our will. God chooses us all for his kingdom, but then we must choose what our relationship to the king and the kingdom will be.
It is deeply mysterious to the Apostle Paul that some, who have been offered communion with the new Israel, with the new kingdom and the new king, have refused God in Christ’s invitation. Many refused in the time of the Apostles. And many refuse God’s invitation today.
St. Paul ponders this refusal in today’s excerpt from his Letter to the Romans. He wonders what such a refusal means and testifies that God must permit it to reveal something extraordinary and wonderful.
What this extraordinary and wonderful thing must be is that God reveals in the face of our refusals to accept an offer of his mercy. A mercy is an act of compassion that is undeserved and inexplicable. It seems, that God in Christ remains faithful even when we are unfaithful, and willing to forgive us, when we do not deserve his forgiveness. God’s mercy in Christ is revealed, not as a willingness to accept us simply as we are, but as a prompt for us to change. In his mercy, God in Christ does not meet our refusal with a threat, but with an open invitation. His offer of the gift of the new kingdom and the new king still stands, even should we refuse to take it. Christ reveals that God in his mercy offers us the possibility of another chance.
It is God’s mercy that is for St. Paul so extraordinary and wonderful. God reveals himself in Christ as being capable of an uncanny generosity, of giving to us his forgiveness, even when we do not deserve it, and imparting mercy, when what simple justice would require would be his wrath.
As believers in Christ, we accept that the privileged moment of God’s mercy, the sacred encounter where God offers us another chance, happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this Sacrament, God in Christ acts to meet our refusals with the extraordinary gift of his mercy. This Sacrament is a privileged encounter with Christ and the means by which his mercy meets and overcomes our refusals.
Finally, Christ speaks to us in his Gospel, which presents an extraordinary encounter between the Lord Jesus and a Canaanite woman.
The details that the woman Christ meets happens to be a Canaanite is not incidental. This person belongs to a nation that was one of the great enemies of the Israelites. Emnity and hatred between Israelites and Canaanites was ancient with both peoples bearing grudges and tearing open old wounds that went back generations to time immemorial.
And yet, this woman, an enemy of the Israelites, comes to Christ, who is himself the God of the Israelites, seeking his aid, confident of his help.
And to her surprise. and the surprise of Christ’s Israelite companions, Christ, the God of the Israelites comes to the aid of the woman and answers the pleading of a Canaanite.
The God of Israel will help. He will even help those who have been his enemies.
This confounds and confuses many Christians today as much as it confounded and confused the Israelites who knew God in Christ face to face.
Many believe that the power of God is a power that we can wield against those who might oppose us. Many believe that God will justify us in our hatred and sanction us in our pain filled unwillingness to ever forgive.
But God in Christ reveals something else about God. He is not a totem to be carried into our battles against our enemies or a power to be leveraged on behalf of our causes. He is not a force that we are to apply to those who disappoint us or a sentence of condemnation we pass on those who might disagree with us.
He trivializes our worldly divisions with the offer of his grace.
He intends to do to our enemies what he did for the Canaanite woman.
God in Christ intends to gather the Israelites and Canaanites (enemies) together for worship on his holy mountain. He wants to gather us there too…