holy cross sermon for proper 21, year b, september 30 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s readings we find rules governing life in Christ. And I will just note, in passing, that according to the Fathers the references to cutting off hands and feet, and plucking out eyes and throwing them away, are about members of the Body of Christ. These injunctions from the Lord, in other words, concern the communion of the Church, and are not exhortations to self-mutilation for the sake of virtue.

But in the epistle reading from St. James, we find some pretty fundamental rules about life in Christ. Among the most fundamental of them is James’ instruction as follows: “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray,” (James 5.13).

“Is any among you suffering? Let him pray.” In this respect, it is useful to remind ourselves of the different kinds of prayer. We’re used to thinking about prayer in terms of asking God for things. And that is indeed one kind of prayer. But it is not the main kind, and its not the best kind.

St. John of Damascus said: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God,” (On the Orthodox Faith, quoted in CCC 2590). “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray.” If you have ever suffered very deeply in your soul, through something like betrayal or bereavement, and if you have asked God for help, you may have come to discover that, while God did indeed help you in the end, his help came in a form you would not have expected at the outset.

The cross of Jesus is the source and summit of Christian prayer. Those of you who came to our discussion last Tuesday evening will remember that we talked about the mass in this respect. Prayer, most fundamentally, is giving yourself to God – as John of Damascus put it, “raising one’s mind and heart to God.” And this lifting up of our hearts to God, giving of ourselves to him, is something that, in the course of human history, only Jesus and his Mother have done perfectly. Mary exemplifies perfect prayer in her fiat, when she says to God’s messenger: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And we know the consequences of that prayer, because we commemorate it at the Angelus after every mass. The consequences of that prayer were that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

And Mary’s perfect prayer comes about, as the Church’s teaching with respect to her Immaculate Conception says: “in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind,” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus). Because prayer is fundamentally the gift of our selves to God, the efficacy of all prayer, including that of the Immaculate Mother of God, has its source in Jesus, and more particularly in his cross, which was the earthly consummation of his eternal, loving gift of himself to his heavenly Father. We come into contact with this most basic and most powerful of all prayers in the mass, where the faithful are exhorted to “Lift up your hearts,” and where we then receive the broken body of Jesus, the one whose heart was perfectly and forever “lifted up to the Lord.” The mass is where we take into ourselves the blood that Jesus freely poured out on the cross. In the mass we come to the foot of the cross, and we take into ourselves what Jesus gives on the cross – we appropriate that gift of himself to his heavenly Father; we receive Jesus’ lifting up of his pure and loving heart to God – and that pure and immaculate sacrifice – HIS self-sacrifice – becomes a part of us; it becomes active within us.

“Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray.” Let him pray the pure prayer of Jesus on the cross: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit,” (Luke 23.46).

Father, in union with Jesus, in the name of Jesus, I give you all that I have and all that I am. I give you the circumstances that have caused me to suffer; I give you my heart; I give you everything. I unite it to the offering of your crucified Son, and I ask you to receive it – to receive me – as you received him.

The best, safest place to be, is in God – because he is omnipotent and all-merciful and all-loving. If someone loves you more than you can imagine, and if he is all-powerful, then you will be safe if you are “in him,” if he surrounds you. The Psalms are full of this kind of talk. The Psalms from the office of Compline are terrific examples:

He who dwells in the shelter o the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty. He shall say to the Lord, ‘You are my refuge and my stronghold…. He shall cover you with his pinions and you shall find refuge under his wings…. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you…. (Psalm 91)

This same Psalm (91) concludes with the Lord explaining the whole dynamic: “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him because he knows my Name.”

Jesus is the one who is bound perfectly to God in love, who “knows the name” of God. And the cross proves it. Jesus refused to walk other than in the way his Father, even when the world threatened him with murder, and then carried-out that threat. And because Jesus was bound so inextricably to God in love, therefore God delivered him. And the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the proof of that deliverance.

“Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray.” We should by all means ask God for good things – like deliverance from suffering. In fact Jesus commanded and taught us to pray that way in the prayer that he gave us, in which we as God to “deliver us from evil.” But more than anything else, if we are suffering, the form that our prayer should take is meditation on Jesus and his cross. We should seek to be drawn into, incorporated into, the person of Jesus on the cross, remembering that he endured this willingly for ME. We turn prayerfully to Jesus on the cross because THERE (and only there) do we find one bound perfectly to God in love. And therefore only there will we find deliverance.

God says, concerning his Son, “because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.” When we become one with Jesus, then the deliverance and protection that belongs to him, in virtue of his knowledge and love of God, becomes ours. Indeed, when we become one with Jesus, everything that is his becomes ours too.

Therefore: “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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