Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Ps 40; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
What does it mean to be ”holy”? In today’s second reading from First Corinthians, we heard the Apostle Paul admonish the quite troublesome congregation of Corinth in Greece, to live up to their vocation as a holy people “among all the saints everywhere who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Saints – are they not in heaven, in retrospect canonized by the Church? Yes, that they are too. But no-one can be holy in eternity, i.e., alive in the total presence of God, without striving for holiness already here in time.
To be holy is simply to be set apart for God, by God; to allow one’s life to be aligned to the will of God. As acclaimed by today’s responsorial psalm: “Here am I, o Lord, to do your will”. This is to be permeated by divine love, which is the will of the good. The one to whom this becomes fully manifest in his or her life here, will enter the joy of heaven at the moment of death. The one who was on the right track, actively cooperating with grace in living faith, but failed to integrate full penance for his or her sins, needs the final cleansing in purgatory. And on the one who says no to Christ here, God, although condolent, will not force Christ in eternity.
When we soon in the Creed profess to believe in the “communion of saints”, we acknowledge this connection between our pursuits in faith here, and the eternal state of salvation when all earthly struggles are over; between actively strivingfor holiness, helped by grace, and finally obtaining it. A connection sustained by our prayers for the souls in purgatory, and in the prayers of the saints in heaven for them and us.
In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we heard how the journey of holiness to salvation begins by an affirmation of God’s offer of a covenant with himself. God first elects a people, the Jewish, and forms them to a collective of servants, in holiness, through which God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”; be offered all nations. And Isaiah prophesies about an individual servant who will arise from the elected Israel: God’s incarnation in human flesh, Jesus Christ, who will gather all believers in a New and eternal Israel, the Church.
Later, Isaiah will describe Christ as God’s suffering servant. It is through suffering and dying by and for our sins that the Son of God opens a path beyond our human suffering and death, to divine, eternal life. Precisely this is what St. John the Baptist refers to by calling Jesus “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” in today’s gospel.
Influenced by Walt Disney’s sweet and talking film animals, we today associate “lamb” with something sweet and kind. Of course, Jesus was sweet and kind in the sense that he was innocent of sin. And of course, innocence was ascribed to a little lamb, also in the pre-Disney Hebrew world. But in the understanding of the time, “lamb” first and foremost is related to sacrifice. And this is the key to our understanding.
St. John the Baptist viz. speaks with temple terminology, himself being of priestly descent. John was very critical of the corruption of the Jerusalem temple priesthood, from the currency dealings for the priests’ personal gains, to the watering down of the proclamation to avoid unpopularity among the worldly rulers. Therefore, John performed the ritual cleansing as a conversion symbol in the waters of the Jordan river, and not, as customary for priests, in the pools of the temple.
The central duty of a priest was – and still is – to mediate reconciliation between God and humanity through the performance of sacrifice. In the Old Testament, the prescribed sacrifice was that of animals, as a sign of the willingness of humans, in an agricultural society, to sacrifice something valuable that they owned, and therethrough express the willingness to be reconciled to God, at the expense of all that we find valuable. A lamb had a special status due to its role in the celebration of Passover as a remembrance of the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
When John calls Jesus “the lamb of God” he accordingly identifies Jesus as the true sacrifice, of which all animal sacrifices have been but foreboding signs. It is God in his chosen, personal servant that will be the sacrifice. The most precious, which God owns and can offer up for the liberation of all mankind from slavery under sin and death, is his own Son, himself as man, thereby enabling all to partake by faith in his final victory.
The starting point of the Apostle Paul in the second reading was a fact that all Christians know too well: Also we who try to walk the pathway of holiness, towards salvation, opened by Christ’s one, true and eternal sacrifice, do not always manage to live up to our vocation as baptized. We renegade and we commit sins. Sin is foremost a breach in the relationship with God, expressed as breach of commands – without which we would not recognize sin. But Jesus continuously reconciles us to God, restores us on the path of holiness, if only we ask and allow him, in the Sacrament of reconciliation.
Thus, Jesus Christ, who is the perfected sacrifice, is also the perfected priest. To be a priest in the Apostolic succession, i.e., in an unbroken faith and order from the apostles who were directly ordained by the Lord himself, is not a job among others, and cannot therefore be measured like jobs, e.g., in terms of gender equality. Instead, it means to sacramentally share in the priesthood of Christ, by being put in Christ’s direct and visible place to continuously offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, making the one and only sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, at one particular historical moment, present on the altar at every succeeding moment, wherever and whenever celebrated. This sacrifice turns into a sacred meal so that holiness truly can be imprinted in our physical matter, i.e., our concrete, human existence.
A priestly life in the Apostolic succession also means to ontologically, in one’s own existence, enter into Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of himself to the Father, in Holy Spirit, divine love, for the Church; as shown by Jesus’s whole life, with the Cross as climax but not the only manifestation. Such an entering means that the priest assumes Jesus’s sacrifice as life form; in other words, offers himself as sacrifice.
Priestly celibacy, the priest’s sacrifice of family and bodily intimacy, is therefore the foremost and strongest sign of participation in the self-denial of Christ. Not for fun or the joy of asceticism, but for everybody’s reconciliation with God. Out of love.
When priestly celibacy is lived in a profound way, which mostly is the case throughout history and today, it becomes a living and visible reminder of, an illumination to, all faithful, of the vocation of every Christian, in the general priesthood of all baptized, women and men alike, to a life of self-sacrifice for truth and divine love, wherever we live, whatever we do. A manifestation of a living and thus saving Catholic faith, not as a spiritual “top-up” to otherwise unchanged lives, but as a life to share. Only then, the identity and the task of every Christian can be merged into one. And when that occurs, there is holiness. Amen.