Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest
Wheeling-Charleston Priests’ Convocation
Feb. 28, 2019
As a child growing up on Southern Indiana, I faithfully watched Bishop Fulton J. Sheen every Tuesday evening. Most of what he had to say went over my head but one thing actually managed to stick. Bishop Sheen told millions of viewers one Tuesday evening what the greatest sin was. He said that the greatest sin of the contemporary world is the denial of sin. By denying the reality of sin, he said, we cede the playing field to the devil and we devalue the redemption which Jesus purchased for us by his saving death and resurrection, the Paschal Mystery.
If Bishop Sheen’s words were true in the mid-1950’s, I would hazard a guess that they are even truer in today’s world. We might bemoan the evils that beset the world – the plight of immigrants, the poverty in our cities and countryside, the atrocities that are committed against the innocent, including the unborn – but many people today, even those who account themselves believers, often think that their own sins are not serious and that they do not stand in need of forgiveness. As one author recently put it, he said: “We sin most often not by blasphemy or open rejection, but by living and acting as if God did not exist.” And living as if God did not exist, we nonetheless expect him to give us eternal happiness.
The name for this sin is presumption. In the course of the four-week psalter we encounter Psalm 19 where we read, “Who can detect trespasses? Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins. Also from the arrogant ones restrain your servant; let them never control me” (Psalm 19:13-14). Or, as the Grail Psalter puts it, “From presumption restrain your servant.” We read something similar today in the Book of Sirach. “Say not,” the author warns, ‘I have sinned yet what has befallen me?’ … Say not: ‘Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.’” How tempting to think that the medicine of mercy and unconditional love absolves us from the graced but arduous work of conversion and the ascent of holiness. As if to prepare us from the coming Season of Lent, Sirach instructs us: “Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day.”
And, as if to remind us of the situation in which the Church finds itself today, the Gospel reading from St. Mark confirms that the notion of God’s wrath is not an outmoded Old Testament concept. In speaking out against scandal, Jesus tells us that anyone who sins and leads others into sin will face God’s wrath on judgment day. Better to enter into eternity without an eye or a hand or a foot than to be thrown into the unquenchable fires of Gehenna able-bodied. This saying alone, which rings out anew in this era of scandal, should be enough for us no longer to take our worthiness for granted, to seek forgiveness, to beg that the sacrifice we offer may be worthy and acceptable in God’s eyes. We cannot hope to address the crisis that has engulfed the Church without a holy fear of God’s wrath coupled with deep-seated repentance for the harm that was done to the innocent both by perpetrators but also by negligence and complicity of their superiors.
The Votive Mass which we celebrate together this afternoon is titled, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest.” Its prayers remind us of what the Incarnate Son of God’s priesthood consisted in – namely, his passion, death, and resurrection – the outpouring of his blood by which he gained for the Father a holy people, the breaking of his body by which we are made whole, by which our sins are forgiven – a love that is unconditional but not un-demanding! When we stand at the altar day by day to offer this sacrifice we have no doubt that, in and of itself, our offering is acceptable to the Father for we offer anew Jesus’ gift of self to his Father and to us. The gift itself is eminently acceptable and efficacious but do we offer it worthily? That is to say, not merely free from serious sin but with a humble, contrite heart, with the Spirit’s gift of fear of the Lord fully engaged. As we offer this sacrifice do we take notice of how often the liturgy itself begs God that we might worthily partake in the sacrifice we offer and how often the liturgy asks that what we offer might be acceptable in God’s eyes?
If we, and our people, arrive at the Eucharistic table with a deep-seated and perhaps unreflective self-righteousness, imagining that we have nothing for which to atone, nothing for which to be forgiven, the infinite love expressed in Jesus’ human heart will pass us by. It will be there, just as the Lord promised, but it will fail to engage. To be sure the liturgy must be done well in all its aspects but its real impact is the Body given for the forgiveness of sins and the Blood outpoured for the forgiveness of sins. This is the Paschal Mystery and we must allow ourselves to be led into its depths, even as we manifest sacramentally the love of the Eternal Priest for his People.
And if we dig deep enough, sometimes just below the surface, we find many people struggling with ‘the furies of conscience’ as one author puts it. Not dealing with those furies of conscience, papering over them with talk of cheap grace and undemanding love does not help. Rather, it leaves people to their own devices and their unresolved guilt will punish them relentlessly and unforgivingly. We are mediators and our task is to link those who are so suffering to the One Sacrifice, the Paschal Mystery wherein the furies of conscience are quelled not by easy talk but rather by an infinitely powerful love, just as St. Anselm taught. How often have we encountered people in the Sacrament of Reconciliation who have borne terrible heavy burdens for years on end?
Transparency and Accountability
Transparency and accountability are the words du jour, dear brothers, and we must indeed be both transparent and accountable. But this is much more than shorthand for policies on reporting misdeeds. Rather, our own lives must be fully transparent as we stand before the Lord acting in the Person of the Eternal High Priest and we must be fully accountable to the Lord for our stewardship. We must allow the Lord who freely offered himself for us and our salvation to engage our freedom and so to transform us into an everlasting oblation.
This is where we find the strength to minister to our people day after day, and to do so, as St. Paul said, “in season and out of season, when convenient and inconvenient”. May Jesus, our Great High Priest, bless us in our priestly ministry and keep us always in his love!