holy cross sermon for the thirteenth sunday after pentecost, year c, august 18, 2013

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

“Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,  *  and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

“That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;  *  and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.”

For the past few weeks I have been discussing the mass. Today I would like to talk about he beginning of the mass.

Mass properly begins before mass. I often say that the best way to get ready to pray is by praying. Pray before you pray. This holds true for our private devotions at home. In order to acquire the right dispositions and affections that will make our prayer more profitable, it helps to prayerfully prepare for prayer by praying. A time-honored an excellent way to begin is through the invocation of the Holy Trinity, and with the sign of the cross. The kingdom of evil cannot bear the sign of the cross, and will flee from it. And all of our work, most especially our prayer, our most important work, should be “begun, continued, and ended,” in God, as the Collect for Guidance in the Prayer Book says (BCP p. 829). And so it is a good thing to invoke God and to make the sign of the cross at the beginning of any important work, and especially at the beginning of prayer.

And so should each mass begin. This is why it is important to arrive a few minutes before mass starts, so that you can kneel in your pew, and pray, as Jesus said, “in secret,” (Matthew 6.6). All of this is outlined in our mass booklets, along with suggestions for private prayer before mass, at the beginning of the booklet. Arriving on time for mass – which means arriving a few minutes early – isn’t just an arbitrary rule; nor is it just about being polite. The rule is there because it is good for us. Remember a general principle of prayer: God showers his grace on us like a sower sowing seeds, whether we like it or not, and however we may feel about it. But it is up to us to till the soil of our hearts, so that the seed of God’s grace can find a purchase within us, so that it can put down roots, and sprout and bear fruit. And the way we till the soil of our hearts is by prayer. So if you want get more out of mass, arrive a few minutes early, and use the time to quietly and prayerfully prepare for what we are about to do, this most important, most sublime of all works. Remember that Jesus said, “the measure you give will be the measure you get back,” (Luke 6.38).

So we should pray before we pray. And this is just how mass begins officially for me and for the altar servers. We gather in front of a cross in the sacristy and pray. We begin with the sign of the cross, and we invoke the Holy Trinity. Then we recite Psalm 43, which begins: “Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; * deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked,” (v. 1).

Here is another instance of our being caught up into the narrative of Israel, or rather another instance of the narrative of Israel being fulfilled by Jesus, brought into our present, and given its true meaning. This Psalm, together with the Psalm that precedes it (42), were together originally a single Psalm, and constituted (according to the editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible) a “prayer for healing in preparation for a pilgrimage.” The Psalmist speaks of living near Mount Hermon, near the intersection of what today are Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, and of being prevented by sickness from going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the temple of God which he loves. Thus, he says, because he cannot go to Jerusalem, he cannot rejoice in God’s presence there, and so his soul is disquieted and full of heaviness. Those around him look down on his weakness. But he says that he trusts in God to deliver him, and to vindicate him before those who malign him. He says that he trusts so completely in God’s goodness that he knows that despite his affliction, he will yet come to worship God in his temple at Jerusalem. He says to God:

“Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,  *  and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

“That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;  *  and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.”

The historical author of this Psalm is unknown. Some have thought that it was written by a companion of David, perhaps from the priestly family of Korah, during the king’s exile from Jerusalem during his sad dealings with his son, Absalom – which happens just now to be the Old Testament lessons at Morning Prayer. Contemporary biblical critics, arguing from the internal evidence of the Psalm are content with the author’s anonymity, noting merely that he was, as we have seen, unhappily exiled from Jerusalem, somewhere in the north.

Following the mystical interpretation of Thomas and many of the Fathers, the great priest-scholar and hymnographer, John Mason Neale, points to a deeper and truer meaning. Neale says that the Psalm is the voice of our Lord on the cross, calling out to his Father for divine light and truth to lead him into God’s presence:

“Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,  *  and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

“That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;  *  and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.”

Neale writes:

“Never, surely, [was there] more glorious and comforting [a] verse than this. To see the Man of Sorrows, – now His warfare almost accomplished, – now the sin He bare for us almost pardoned, – approaching to the Great Altar of the Evening Sacrifice of the world. And yet drawing near to offer Himself to the Father, that Father [who] is the God of His joy and gladness. O glorious example for His servants in all their sufferings!” (Commentary on the Psalms)

And now we approach the very crux of the matter – the reason that we recite this Psalm immediately before every mass, and the reason that it is important, more generally, to allow ourselves time prayerfully to prepare for every mass, and indeed for all of our important doings, cognizant that our lives in their entirety – all of our work, our desire, our recreation, all that we do, all that we have, all that we are – must be a living sacrifice to God, in union with the sacrifice of Jesus.

Mystically this Psalm is the voice of our Lord on the cross, offering himself to God, saying to his Father, even as he says to us, “This is my Body… for you.” Even so, it is his voice speaking within us, in our lives, giving voice to our own offering of ourselves to God in union with him. Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote:

“See to it, Christian, that when you are called to offer a sacrifice to God, that He is the fountain of gladness. See to it that you draw nigh, not with fear, nor reluctantly, nay, not even acquiescingly. – but rejoicing that you have it in your power thus to sacrifice to Him Who sacrificed Himself for you. See to it that you count nothing of any further worth than as it may so be made the matter of sacrifice; and say with Jesus, the Priest and Victim, as you draw near the time of your trial…” (ibid.)

“Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,  *  and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

“That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;  *  and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.”

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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