This homily was given at the Solemn Mass on the XVI Sunday after Pentecost at Old Saint Mary’s church in Chinatown, Washington, D.C:
Sit down in the lowest place: that when he who invited thee, cometh,
he may say to thee: Friend, go up higher.
This week the Church celebrated the feast of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa, whose life and example of service to the poor is – much like our beloved Holy Father – held up in example by many outside, as well as inside, the Church. Her dedication to her work, though, cannot simply be reduced to a series of kindly deeds; hers was a life dedicated entirely and completely to the service of her Master, in whose Eucharistic presence she would spend hours each day. Speaking of the Eucharist, Mother Teresa said, “I know I would not be able to work one week if it were not for the continual force coming from Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament”.
That correlation between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the compunction to serve him in the poor and the destitute is one which, in recent years, has often drifted apart. Too regularly we have seen devotion to the Eucharist – to a reverent and beautiful celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, and to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – as irreconcilable with works of genuine social justice. And we have seen movements that focus on the important work of serving those most in need, without any real connection to the gospel; a sad situation that often leads to a compromised faith, leaving aside the Church as the mystical Body of Christ and reducing her to the status of a charity or an NGO.
To allow this attitude to take root is not only the antithesis of traditional Catholic piety and life, but it is also to reduce Christianity to a mere tokenism in which the Christian either tries to live without the Church, or tries to live a life that fails to integrate the worship of Almighty God into the day-to-day life of the believer. We cannot and must not allow such a mindset to take root in us.
For those of us who seek to serve the Church through a liturgical apostolate – by our particular love and devotion for the Sacred Liturgy – a very serious risk appears when we do not allow that love and devotion to properly focussed. It is too easy to focus on one aspect of our life as Christians, and fail to see the fullness of what the Lord is calling us to. It is too easy to live a life in which our worship of the Lord is limited to an hour or two on a Sunday, giving the rest of the time over to pursuits and situations that do us no good in our desire for eternal salvation. We cannot hope to say Amen with the sincerity it deserves, if the reality of that to which we give our assent fades within moments of leaving the Church building. We cannot live two lives – a disintegrated existence; we cannot be, as one friend of mine amusingly and light-heartedly put it, John Bosco by day, and John Travolta by night.
Such a call to live a life in which our worship and our actions are united, is at the heart of today’s reading from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians. We are urged to know the charity of Christ, which means having within ourselves the love and heart which the Lord models. That is to say we must set aside our own desires and will in conformity to the Lord, and in obedience to his example of selfless love – giving himself up for us on the cross. This conformity – the twofold binding our selves to the Lord’s natures (his human sacrifice and divine will) – is at the heart of what it means to live the Christian life. If we love the Lord but we do not follow what he asks of us, we deny his divinity; if we live in slavish obedience to the law but we do not allow that to transform us into the saints our baptism calls us to be, we deny his humanity.
How, then, can we ensure that this imbalance does not take hold? First, we must ensure that our life of prayer is not a fleeting thing. We must be certain that our daily prayers, our regular use of the sacrament of confession, and our attendance at Holy Mass are more than simply habits of culture, but are in fact deeply rooted in a desire to serve and love the Lord above all things. If we enter into this relationship with God in the Eucharist and in the devotional life of the Church, then we truly open our hearts to his grace and his mercy.
Secondly, we must seek to serve those do not have the privileges that we enjoy. This includes an active and positive attitude to evangelisation – sharing the treasure of the gospel with those we meet in our places of work or leisure – but it also includes sharing our time and our material wealth with those less fortunate than ourselves, either by our own initiative or by supporting the initiatives of the diocese and the wider Church.
This is what the Lord means when, in today’s gospel, he says he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted, because – just as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords humbled himself to the point of accepting his own crucifixion and death for us, so we are called to offer what we have in this world, in order that we might more closely resemble the Lord, in whose eternal presence we desire to remain in the next.
Our Blessed Lady, whose nativity we commemorate today, is the first and greatest example of this humility. She, who gave herself unreservedly to the service of the Lord, shows us how to truly and freely serve him. May her example stir up within us a renewed desire to serve Christ in his Church, and in those who share in the dignity he has given to all mankind, that we may come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity, and one day hear ourselves, those words, Friend, go up higher.