Our Holy Father, Following in His Footsteps
October 19, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 53:10-11) Reading II (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Gospel (St. Mark 10:35-45)
In the second reading today from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, he talks about Jesus being our high priest and that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but rather one who was tested in every way that we are but never sinned; and, because He was tested in every way that we are, He is a sympathetic high priest. The idea of priesthood is two-fold. One is mediation, which is why Saint Paul would say that He has entered into the heavens and He is before the throne of God so we can have confidence to be able to approach Him in order to find mercy and in order to receive grace because He stands before the throne of God interceding for us, mediating on our behalf, showing to His heavenly Father the wounds that He endured for our sake and praying for us because He is the sympathetic high priest. He is that way because He has been tested. It is not like He is completely separated from us, because He is one of us; He knows our human weakness and He has lived it. The difference is that, because of Who He is and the fact that He never sinned, He not only understands the weakness because of the temptation He had to endure, but He stands as our priest because He never gave in to those temptations.
But before He could be that priest to mediate on our behalf, the other notion of priesthood had to come first, that is, the notion of sacrifice. And so as our high priest, He had to have a sacrifice to offer. Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, talks all about this. The Letter to the Hebrews is really a letter written to Jewish priests who had become Catholic priests. He is talking to them about the difference in the priesthood that they have and the sacrifice that they offer, how this new sacrifice so far surpasses the old one, and that there is necessity for a new priesthood and that there is necessity for a new sacrifice because there is a new priesthood. He talks about the fact that the blood of bulls and goats which was offered by the priests of old was never able to take away sin. It could cover it up but it could not take it away. The reason it could not take it away is because bulls and goats did not sin – we did. The blood of an animal, which is lower than we, could never take away the sins that we committed. So when Jesus came into this world He took on our human nature. He took on our human flesh and He offered Himself as a sacrifice for the many, which is exactly what we hear in the first reading, that it pleased God to crush Him in infirmity and if He offers Himself in sacrifice for our sins that He will see His descendants in a long line. His descendants are you and me, those who have become children of God, given rebirth at Baptism and having been incorporated into Christ.
So it is precisely because He was faithful in His suffering that He is our high priest. Again, Saint Paul even makes this very clear in his Letter to the Hebrews when he talks about how “for the sake of the joy that lay before Him, Christ accepted the Cross, heedless of its shame.” It is His suffering and His death that is the sacrifice He offered for us. That is the importance of coming to Mass. The Mass is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is the sacrifice of Christ which is offered still. It is not offered again; it is not a new sacrifice which is separate from the sacrifice offered on the Cross 2,000 years ago; it is the exact same sacrifice offered by the exact same Priest through God the Father for us, for our sins. The only difference between what happened on the Cross 2,000 years ago and what will happen on the altar here in just a few moments – and what will happen on the altars throughout the Catholic world today – is that in the Eucharist there is no suffering and it is offered mystically instead of physically. That is the only difference. Because the priest who offers the sacrifice of Christ stands in the very Person of Christ, it is Jesus Himself Who is the primary priest. That is why, in just a few moments at the consecration, I will not say, “This is the Body of Jesus which was given up for you,” but I will say, “This is My Body which will be given up for you.” It is because the priest literally and actually stands in the very Person of Jesus Christ. It is the divinity of Christ working through the humanity of the priest. Just as the divinity of Christ worked through His own humanity 2,000 years ago, so it is now through the humanity of the priest at the altar that He offers that sacrifice, that He exercises His priesthood.
Now the suffering of Christ also must continue. You cannot have sacrifice without suffering. He told us that He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for the many. He told us exactly the way that things need to be, that we have to take up our cross and follow Him. And so because the sacrifice of Christ is offered mystically in the Eucharist, the suffering of Christ must be offered mystically as well in union with the mystical sacrifice that is being offered. That suffering is offered in and through the Mystical Body of Christ, which is you and me. In the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, we will pray that the angel of God will take the sacrifice to the altar of God in heaven, but the sacrifice is not merely the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of Jesus is the sacrifice that I will offer at the altar, but the sacrifice of Christ cannot be devoid of the Cross, of the suffering – and that is the sacrifice that you offer.
The Latin is very clear in the prayer at the Offertory when the priest says to the people: Orate, fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem omnipotentem – “Pray, my brothers, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” It does not say “Pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable” but “My sacrifice and yours”. The English translation, as they did it throughout the Mass, was terribly unfortunate because it sounds like all of us together are just simply offering the one sacrifice. That is not what is to happen at the Mass. My task is to offer the bread and wine to God and to offer the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, standing in His very Person, speaking in His voice, and offering His sacrifice to the Father. Your task is to bring your sufferings, to bring the struggles of your life, and to place them on the paten with the bread, to place them into the chalice with the wine so that the sacrifice of Jesus is going to the Father united with the suffering of the Mystical Body of Christ, so that your human suffering is transformed to become the very suffering of Jesus Himself. Just as the bread and wine are transformed from being something which is natural to something which is supernatural – into the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Himself – so your human suffering which is natural is transformed into something which is supernatural and literally and actually becomes the very suffering of Jesus Himself. That is your sacrifice. And because that is united with the sacrifice of Christ, then you can have confidence as you come forward to the communion rail to receive Jesus because you are already united with Him, not only as a member of His Mystical Body, but you are united with Him in His sacrifice and therefore you can be united with Him in the fruit of that sacrifice.
Now when we look on the earthly level, we also have a high priest here on earth, and that is our Holy Father. And as this week we celebrated a very rare occasion, the 25th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II (only three popes in history have reigned longer than he), we really need to stop to think about the attitude of this man. One of the titles of the Pope is the “Servus Servorum Dei” – the Servant of the Servants of God. Each one of us is called to serve God, and the Holy Father, who is the greatest among us, is the Servant of the Servants of God. He recognizes that the authority which has been given to him by God Himself is given to serve; it is given so that he may pour out his life for the sake of those entrusted to his care, which is the nature of all authority. His office is not so much one of power but of authority, and it is the very authority of Jesus Himself. When we look at this poor man who at 83 years old has Parkinson’s disease, having been hit by a truck back in the ‘40’s, being thrown into a concentration camp, being shot by a terrorist, having literally to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders because he is the only one in that position to do so, people look at him and ask the question, “Why doesn’t he just resign?” And he tells us very clearly, as clearly as he is able to speak now, that he not only will not but he cannot because this is God’s Will for him, to carry the Cross with Jesus, to accept his share in the suffering of Christ, and to offer that suffering for the Church, for the world, for each one of the sheep that follows after the Shepherd.
He shares in that shepherding task of Christ, he shares in the priesthood of Christ, and he is offering his life in sacrifice for the many. Rather than looking at things in a natural way and thinking that somehow he might not be able to fulfill his office because of his physical suffering, we need to understand that it is precisely because of his physical suffering that he is fulfilling his office. He is the one who shows to us the way to suffer with Christ. Jesus asked in the Gospel, “Can you drink the cup that I drink? And can you be baptized with the same baptism with which I am to be baptized?” His disciples James and John said, “We can.” And He said, “You will.” Our Holy Father, who carries on a schedule with all of the sufferings which he is enduring (which probably none of us would be able to handle without the sufferings that he is enduring!), is literally sharing in the cup of Christ and in the baptism of suffering of Christ. In so doing, he is giving to each one of us an example of the way we are to live our lives, to unite ourselves with the suffering of Christ so that we can offer ourselves for others. That is what Jesus did. That is what our Holy Father is doing. That is what every one of the saints has done throughout history. That is what we are called to do, to look beyond the natural level where we would say that this man could have retired years ago. He could be living a pretty comfortable and easy life right now if he wanted to be, and instead he is choosing suffering over all the comforts that could be offered. He is choosing to offer his life for us rather than to seek himself. That is an attitude that goes contrary to what most of us have been taught, and certainly completely contrary to what we live in this nation. But he is following in the footsteps of Christ and he is offering his life as a ransom for the many.
We, each one of us who through Baptism shares in the priesthood of Christ, are called to that same task. For those of you who have children, you are called explicitly to offer your life in service to and in ransom for your children and your spouse, the person to whom you have vowed to give your life that way. You are called to offer up your suffering, not to try to escape it, and by all means not to try to be angry and rip everybody’s heads off in your family because you are suffering, but rather to bear that suffering in service to the people in your care and to bring that suffering and unite it with the sacrifice of Christ to transform your life, to transform your family, and to transform your suffering, to make you holy, to make them holy, and to make your suffering holy.
We have a living example right before us in our Holy Father. We need to pray for him, but we need to follow in his footsteps as he follows in the footsteps of Christ. Look at those readings again for today and ask yourself, “If we are going to be members of Christ, and it pleased God to crush Him in infirmity and He is to offer His life in sacrifice for the many, why is it that we have the unfortunate idea that somehow we can escape it all, and that since He already did it for us we do not need to do our part?” That, again, goes exactly opposite of what Scripture tells us. So when Jesus gives to us a share in His Cross, rather than pushing it away, we need to try to accept it and to embrace it and to carry our cross right back to Mass where we can offer our sacrifice in union with His and make it holy and be transformed into the very holiness of Jesus Himself.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.