holy cross sermon for the eleventh sunday after pentecost, year a, august 24, 2014

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

Last week I talked about the offertory, the part of the mass that’s the beginning of the “main action” – the liturgy of the sacrifice – wherein bread and wine are brought forward, to be offered to God with prayer, and then received back from him as the “bread of life” and “our spiritual drink,” the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Having spoken last week about the meaning of the offertory in broad terms, today I would like to narrow our focus a bit, and consider some of the prayers and ritual actions prescribed in the missal for the offertory, which are inconspicuous, because they are typically done quietly by the priest, while the congregation is singing.

After the bread and wine are brought to the altar, the priest first places the bread on a dish. The Eucharistic bread is called a “host” from the Latin word “hostia,” which means a victim. The dish is called a “paten.” The priest takes the host on the paten to the center of the altar, where he makes the sign of the cross over the altar with it, and prays quietly:

“Receive, O holy Father, almighty everlasting God, this spotless host, which I, thine unworthy servant, offer unto thee, my living and true God, for my numberless sins, offenses, and negligences, and for all who stand here around, as also for all faithful Christians, both living and departed: that to me and to them it may avail for salvation unto life eternal. Amen.”

He then places the host directly on the altar, and hides the paten under a cloth. Pouring wine and a little water into the chalice, the priest prays quietly that, even as Christ assumed our human nature, he might make us partakers of his divine nature. The priest then makes the sign of the cross with the chalice over the altar, saying quietly:

“We offer unto thee, O Lord, the cup of salvation, humbly beseeching thy mercy: that in the sight of thy divine majesty it may ascend as a sweet-smelling savour for our salvation, and for that of the whole world. Amen.”

The priest sets the chalice on the altar. Then, bowing down, he prays quietly:

“In a humble spirit, and with a contrite heart, may we be accepted of thee, O Lord: and so let our sacrifice be offered in thy sight this day, that it may be pleasing unto thee, O Lord God.”

This prayer shows that humility and contrition are the foundation on which the Christian life must be built. We have to be willing to bow down to a volition other than our own, to let go of our sins, and not just our sins, but also our prerogatives and agendas, and to allow God to take the reins in our lives. And this can begin with the recognition of what theologians call God’s prevenient grace – the recognition that God is already there in our lives, empowering us to seek him. Augustine of Hippo wrote eloquently of this paradoxical dynamic in his great work, “The Confessions.” The fact that we are even seeking God is proof that God is already there in our lives, working and guiding.

I sometimes catch myself thinking that there is some impediment, extrinsic to myself, inhibiting me from doing what God wants me to do; but the truth is that God has already equipped me to do what he would have me do. I don’t need to look for something I don’t yet have before beginning the task of serving him; I need to take stock of what I already have, and ask how God wants me to use it, and what impediments there are in my own mind and heart that may be preventing me from getting a move on. God only asks from us what he has already given to us. We cannot offer to him what we don’t already have. An important facet of Christian humility is my recognition that I don’t have to save the world – that has already been done – I just have do the next good thing, make the next good choice, in cooperation with the salvation that Jesus has wrought.

With everything arranged on the altar, the priest then makes the sign of the cross with his hand over the bread and the wine, praying quietly:

“Come, O thou Sanctifier, almighty, everlasting God: and vouchsafe to bless this sacrifice, made ready for thy holy name.”

Notice the dynamic that undergirds all of this. We are offering something to God – bread and wine (and money, as I mentioned last week). And we are praying that God might bless our offering, our sacrifice, such that it may be acceptable and pleasing to him. Here again we have a microcosm of the spiritual life, and proof again that the whole of the Christian life is Eucharistic – that the mass itself is the “source and summit” of authentic spirituality.

The offering of our whole life consciously and prayerfully to God, marked by the sign of Jesus’ cross, is a necessary condition of our transformation, of our becoming creatures that are no longer inhibited by sin or poverty. And the crucial dynamic here is the cross. Being marked by it means allowing our lives to take on the character of Jesus crucified, to take on the character of SALVATION.

I encourage you to come to the church some time, preferably when nothing is going on, and to sit quietly in front of the painting in the chapel at the back and meditate on it. This is something I have done from time to time, always pondering the words of the Lord, that seem to be exemplified in his gesture in that painting. The Gospel says that Jesus “called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,’” (Mark 8.34).

The offertory, as microcosm of the spiritual life, is the point at which we are asked, in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, to “lay aside every weight, and sin that clings so closely, and… run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (Heb. 12.1). This “laying aside every weight, and sin” is what Jesus means by self-denial. Let us put off every inessential thing; let us let go of our sins by confessing them; let us abandon every agenda and preconception about what my life is supposed to look like, and let us take up the work that Jesus has set before us. That work is the title of this church: it is the holy cross of Jesus. Let us focus all of our attention on him and set off after him to accomplish with him the great work of salvation.

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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