24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 15, 2019
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s readings talk about turning.
What we have in all the readings are people turning away from God
and going their own way,
but then God calls them back, and they return to Him.
So in the first reading from Exodus, when Moses is up on the mountain
receiving the Law from God,
God tells Moses:
“Go down at once to your people…,
They have soon turned aside
from the way I pointed out to them…”
And then in the Gospel, when the prodigal son comes home,
the servant says to the older brother,
“Your brother has returned.”
In both of these readings, this turning away from God, or the father,
involves moral corruption:
In the 1st reading God says:
“Go down at once to your people,…for they have become depraved.
And in the Gospel, Jesus tells us the prodigal son
“squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation,”
and “swallowed up [his] property with prostitutes.”
But notice, something about the first reading.
The moral depravity of the Israelites reflects itself in the way they worship.
“They …turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God…”
They not only don’t behave the way God “pointed out to them”,
but they also don’t worship the way God “pointed out to them.”
Fundamentally this reflects that the fact that
when they don’t obey God’s moral law they, in effect,
make themselves greater than God
—they know better than He does.
So, in effect, in their moral lives, they worship themselves.
And this is reflected in the way they actually liturgically worship, :
they invent a God out of gold, of their own creation,
what they want God to be,
and they worship him the way they want, not how He wants.
Of course, this is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.
Worship is not supposed to be some empty ritual
that somehow entertains God or satiates His need for praise,
much less entertain us or satiates our need to praise.
Rather it’s supposed to essentially reflect the reality of our lives,
and, in turn, effect the reality of our lives.
For example, for the ancient Jews and for Christians today,
the most important form of liturgical worship is the sacrifice.
The sacrifice of the Old Testament was usually the ritual slaughtering of animals, and the sacrifice of the New Testament is Christ’s death on the Cross.
But God isn’t pleased by simply killing and giving Him dead animals.
As we read in Psalm 50:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
And He certainly isn’t pleased by the death of His Son.
What sacrifice is all about in both the Old and New Testament
is a symbol of the actual giving to God of the whole life,
not of the animal,
but of the person himself.
So when someone sacrificed a lamb, it symbolized giving themselves to God.
But a person doesn’t give themselves to God if they don’t obey Him.
So when Jesus died on the Cross, He didn’t just die,
but rather gave Himself up in total obedience to the Father:
“not my will, but thine be done.”
When the Hebrews in today’s first reading disobeyed God’s moral laws
they were not giving themselves to Him,
they were obeying themselves and keeping themselves to themselves.
So their sacrifices reflected that:
they sacrificed to a fake god of their own making:
they worshiped themselves.
The same is true of the prodigal son in the Gospel:
his disobedience of his father by the actions of his immoral life
is reflected in his leaving his father.
But his rejection of immorality, his desire to obey his father,
is reflected in his returning to his Father’s home
and promising to serve him.
All this is captured today as we read part of Psalm 51:
“My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
And if we could continue reading the rest of that Psalm we would find the words:
“Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.”
Of course, as Catholics we believe that the sacrifice of the New Testament
—Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross—
is re-presented at every Mass, in the Eucharist.
But actually, there are two sacrifices in the New Testament:
Jesus’ sacrifice of the Cross,
offering Himself in total obedience to the Father,
and the sacrifice of every Christian,
offering ourselves in total obedience to the Father
As St. Paul says in Romans:
“offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God
–this is your true and proper worship.”
At every Mass that’s what we do: the bread and wine represent us
—our bodies, our lives, everything we do: US.
And so we offer up, or “lift up our hearts to the Lord,” in sacrifice.
But as we all know, the only sacrifice of real consequence,
the only truly worthy sacrifice, is Jesus’ sacrifice.
And so we ask Christ to take our sacrifices and unite them to His own:
and so He takes the bread and wine that symbolize us,
and unites our sacrifice to His own sacrifice
by changing them into His Real Body and Blood sacrificed on Calvary.
But what good are our symbolic offering of bread and wine
if we don’t really give ourselves?
And how do we give ourselves if our lives are disobedient
to His teachings and His moral law?
If our lives out there in the world are not united to the life of Christ,
how can we ask Him to unite the gift of our lives to His in the Eucharist?
How do we worship Him when we do not obey Him
—when we really worship ourselves in the false gods our sins create?
Sadly, the words of God to Moses so often apply to us:
“…they have become depraved.
They have …turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God.”
It’s fascinating to me that this same phenomenon seems to manifest itself
throughout the life of the Church as well.
Over the centuries as we look back and see
the ebb and flow of the moral life of Christian peoples and cultures,
we usually also see a corresponding ebb and flow in their liturgical life
—as people worship God less in their hearts and lives
we see them worship Him less in the liturgy.
And conversely, when we see the great liturgical reforms of the Church
—in the Gregorian reform of the 6th century,
the Carolingian Reform of the 9th century,
the 2nd Gregorian reform of the 11th century,
the Tridentine reform of the 16th century—
all of them were intimately connected with the reform of morals
of the people and, especially, priests.
In a certain way, the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s
also had this in mind,
as they called for all the faithful to take up
a more active participation in the Mass.
But by “active participation” they didn’t mean something that was
merely exterior, not just moving around and doing things at Mass,
but it meant something principally and primarily interior.
As Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy tells us:
“Before men can come to the liturgy
they must be called to faith and to conversion…
Therefore the Church announces the good tidings of salvation …
so that all men may know …Jesus Christ …
and may be converted from their ways.”
“Called …to conversion…”
“Converted from their ways.”
The word “convert” comes from the Latin, “conversio”,
from 2 Latin words: “cum” meaning “with,” and “vertere” meaning “to turn.”
So “covert” means to “turn with,” or “turn toward.”
So that in Christianity, to “convert” means to turn toward the Lord.
And conversion is not something reserved for non-Christians:
it is the calling and the constant striving of every Christian, every Catholic,
to recognize, that like the ancient Hebrews, we have, in so many ways,
“turned aside from the way [Christ] pointed out to” us.
Like the prodigal son, every day we must recognize that we have,
in so many ways,
turned away from our father and squandered His inheritance.
And that we must once again come home, we must, re-turn to Him.
We must convert.
This conversion begins in the heart, but it is proclaimed at every Mass,
as we, all and each of us, lift up our hearts to the Lord in sacrifice:
pledging Him our lives, our love, our humble obedience.
And pray to the Lord Jesus to unite our little tiny imperfect lives,
to His magnificent and perfect life
offered once for all on the Cross,
and made present to us, once again, miraculously, on this altar.
As we now enter more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
let us, dear friends, now “turn aside” from sin, and disobedience,
and re-turn to the Father.
Let us turn away from the false worship of ourselves.
And let us together turn toward the Lord and worship Him in truth.