This homily was given at the church of the Epiphany in Georgetown, D.C.
Grant us, O Lord, we pray,
that the course of our world
may be directed by your peaceful rule
and that your Church may rejoice,
untroubled in her devotion.
(Collect for the Sunday XIII of the year)
In certain old European churches, particularly in areas of Poland and Bavaria, it is possible to find a large and ornate pulpit built to represent a sailing ship. From here the priest guides the faithful through the readings and prayers of the Mass during the homily, explaining and teaching the faith in order to bring about a deeper and more profound relationship between the individual Christian and the mystical body of Christ, the Church.
This somewhat maritime theme, however, is not restricted to the architecture of southern European pulpits. The main area of a church building is usually called the ‘nave’, from the same root as the word ‘navy’; designed – at least in traditional architectural styles – to represent an upturned ship. As God rescued Noah from the devastation of the flood in the old testament by having him build an ark, so the Church is the new ark by which God offers salvation – the means to reach the dry land of our heavenly inheritance. By the waters of the flood the earth was purged, and by the waters of holy baptism we are purged of original sin and incorporated into the life of the Church to be saved from death itself.
The collect at this Mass reflects something of this. We pray, ‘that the course of our world may be directed by [the] peaceful rule’ of the Lord. Just as a ship is steered on its course, so we ask that the world in which the Church necessarily exists may allow us to rejoice untroubled in our devotion. As we approach the start of Lent this week, we might reflect on this prayer and ask that our own lives may now be steered by the will of our heavenly Father, that we might reach the place offered to us through the sacrifice of his beloved Son.
In the reading from the gospel according to Saint Matthew, the Lord instructs us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. If the ship of our lives is looking for direction then this is it. The Christian, first of all, then, is to orient himself toward the life of heaven and the kingdom of God. We are to set ourselves on a course for the life of the world to come by, even now, turning away from this world and directing our entire selves to God. Saint Martin of Tours, as he lay dying, is said to have asked to be turned onto his back in order that he could face heaven: “Allow me, my brethren”, he said, “to look towards heaven rather than to earth, that my soul may be ready to take its flight to the Lord”. That journey into the Lord’s presence, which begins at the point of our baptism, must now guide all that we undertake and do; only then, in the words of the psalmist, can we rest in God alone.
In the ancient Roman liturgy the three Sundays preceding the season of Lent are marked by a special air of preparation. Not only do the names – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima – count down to the celebrations of Easter itself, but they also provide a time in which the Church orients herself toward the impending journey of the Lenten season. So this Sunday before Lent hints at the coming pilgrimage of forty days and forty nights – prefigured, in fact, by the forty days and forty nights of Noah’s flood – calling us to conversion from the world and back to the Lord. In the prayers for this Mass we – the very members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ, the Church – are summoned to return to a steady course and set sail toward our native home once more, the place where by virtue of our baptism we are called to be: the kingdom of God. Through her sacred liturgy the Church calls us, on the threshold of Lent, to reorient ourselves toward God and the salvation – the safe harbour – that awaits our arrival.
So may the Lord indeed continue to guide the world and his Church, and by so doing guide us. May we be set firmly on course toward the safety of the kingdom of God; our rightful home. And may our coming observance of Lent, by unwavering devotion and love of the Lord, be a true moment of conversion and purification that by sharing in the sacrifice of the cross of Christ, we might come also to share in his resurrection.