Homily for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021
Brothers and sisters:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry,
offering frequently those same sacrifices
that can never take away sins.
But this one offered one sacrifice for sins,
and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;
now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.
For by one offering
he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.
Where there is forgiveness of these,
there is no longer offering for sin.
-Heb. 10:11-14, 18
You offer many sacrifices to God. And here I do not mean just giving something up as a penance, but I offering sacrifices in worship. Did you know that whenever in worship you use holy water, or light a candle, or burn incense, or bow or genuflect, or place flowers before your crucifix, or sing a hymn, or pray out loud, that you are worshiping God by offering a sacrifice?
What is a sacrifice? In the simplest sense, a sacrifice is any use of a sensible thing—visible, audible, fragrant, edible, bodily, holdable, touchable, animal, vegetable, or mineral—to signify our dependence on God and our recognition of his greatness.
A sacrifice offers one of God’s gifts back to him in recognition of his goodness and our need. We can use our voice in praise and song, we can use the gestures of our body, we can use the many things he has given us to recognize that he is the source and giver of all the gifts we offer him. Water, oil, salt, beeswax, aromas of incense, flowers, fabrics, images of paint, stone, wood, precious and ordinary metals, all can be sacrifices if used in worship.
Our human nature requires sensible things for knowledge and the expression of knowledge, and so too it requires these for the expression of our will in honoring God. Saint Thomas Aquinas points out that to offer sacrifice is an act of the virtue of religion whereby human beings worship the Lord using outward signs. All religions have some kind of sacrifice as long as they offer worship. And we Christians offer many sacrifices in our worship of the True God whom we honor. If we worship God outwardly, then we are offering a sacrifice, whether we know it or not.
But wait a minute. We know that the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice, the one sacrifice, the only infinitely perfect one. In comparison to this one, other sacrifices do little more than point to it as their meaning and fulfillment. So wouldn’t our lesser sacrifices be like those of the priests of the Old Law referred to today in the lesson from the epistle to the Hebrews? Wouldn’t we too be “offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins”?
It is true that the sacrifice of Christ on the holy Cross is the one infinitely perfect and effective sacrifice. All our other ones simply point to it, and by themselves have little value to take away sin, to adore, to thank, to obtain all the great effects of the one, true, and perfect sacrifice.
But we should notice what today’s reading really says. We read that Christ, having offered the perfect sacrifice, “waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.”
Well, if his sacrifice is completed, then what is he doing while he waits until the overcoming of his enemies? What is he doing with those “who are being consecrated?”
The simple and powerful answer is that he is directing, willing, and accomplishing the application—the delivery, if you will—of that one sacrifice to all the billions of individual souls who are to be redeemed and set free from sin and consecrated by it.
How so? By the sacraments. Christ established his Church. And what did he give his Church to do? He commanded her to preach his gospel to all nations so that all those individuals could rightly receive the holy sacraments, first by baptism and then all the others, so that their whole lives could be encompassed by his work of salvation.
Each sacrament, insofar as it uses exterior things to worship God, is, according to St. Thomas, able to be called a sacrifice. This is because each one points, in its own way, to Christ’s past suffering and death, to his present bestowal of grace by that same passion, and to the future glory of the resurrection that is the full complement of his saving work in us.
Through the sacraments, Christ overcomes and subdues his enemies—sin, death, and Satan—and consecrates those he is perfecting with the grace won by his one sacrifice.
Unlike the Old Law, which did not offer the one, perfect sacrifice but only foreshadowed it, the law of the gospel is the law of the one sacrifice of the cross, from which flow the relative and dependent sacrifices that give us the grace of Calvary for the different aspects of our supernatural life in Christ.
All of the sacraments are thus efficacious: they can take away sin and consecrate for eternal life all believers since they are instruments of the crucified Son of God who wields them to create the marvelous effects of grace in us. New birth, strengthening growth, nourishment, restoration to spiritual life and full health, a community of believers, and their leaders in worship—all these are provided by the sacraments we receive and bestow and offer. These seven means of grace are what really make up the Church. All her buildings, schools, monasteries, ministries, families, exist to foster the full worship of God, removing obstacles and fostering goodness, so that the Holy Trinity may be worshiped rightly and dwell in and among us.
Of course, the sacrament we call supremely and most of all “our sacrifice” is the sacrifice of the Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord, the Holy Eucharist. It is this sacrament of sacraments we celebrate at Mass. For this outward sign contains not only the Lord’s gifts of grace; it contains and offers up the Lord himself. It is the act of perfect worship accomplished on the Cross, made available to us now. It is the source, the current, and the goal of all our other lesser sacrifices, of all the other sacraments, indeed, of our whole lives. How wonderful it is to know that Christ is perfecting us and consecrating us as he was himself perfected and consecrated. Only at the Supper of the Lamb in heaven will we understand what we are about to do here.
Each day we can direct our intention in the morning to the sacrifice of the Mass offered throughout the world, and then gather up all the lesser sacrifices we daily perform in union with Christ’s sacrifice, and then we will begin to live intentionally and powerfully as Christians, joining the Savior in conquering his enemies and confirming his friends in all that is good.