Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
22nd Sunday: The City of the Living God
The ancient Hebrews were well versed in the prophets. They knew their Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the shorter books of prophecy very well. And they read with fear and trembling as each of the prophets proclaimed the gloom and doom of the Last Judgement Day. Gabriel would blow his trumpet. Words of punishment would be shouted; words so terrible that those who heard them would beg the angels to be silent. There would be fire, and gloomy darkness, and storms. It was all scary stuff.
“But not for you,” the author of Hebrews tells the second and third generation Christians who read his long sermon. “No, you have not drawn near to these terrors. Instead you have approached Mount Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” There will be countless angels there, all celebrating God’s presence. And there will be people there, good people, the spirits of the just made perfect. And Jesus is there. He is the One who has brought a new relationship with God into being, a New Covenant. He has sprinkled us with His Blood, the blood that speaks more eloquently then the blood of Abel. For the blood of Abel cried out for vengeance against his brother and killer, Cain, but the Blood of Jesus calls out for peace to all who have accepted His Baptism.
These words of comfort were written for us, for all of us who are trying our best to serve God. Yes, the world will come to a terrible end. But if we have done our best to make the Life of Christ real in the world, we have no reason to fear the end. We will not suffer the terrors of hell. Instead, we will enjoy the rewards of heaven.
Nor are these words just about the future. They are about our present lives. We have been admitted into the Presence of God. We have God inside us by virtue of our baptism. We listen to His Words in Scripture. And the Power of these Words, the Holy Spirit, transforms us. We possess God’s Presence when we receive communion. We take Jesus Christ within us. He comes closer to us than our skin. Our bodies become living monstrances of the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord. There are angels around us, myriads of angles tending the Presence of the Lord. The angels are incensing this Presence as we walk back to our seats and pray after communion.
One summer one of our youth ministers had a wonderful conversation with some of our Edge children, our Middle School students. The conversation took place at Covecrest Camp in Georgia immediately after a very deep experience of God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The 11 to 14 year olds shared what they experienced during Eucharistic Adoration. The young ones were each telling how they felt the Presence of the Lord, each in a different way. “Do you understand now,” the youth minister said, “God is real, and He is here.”
And He is ours.
And we are His.
Can there be any more reassuring statements in our lives? The One who promised us that He would be with us always, is with us right here, right now. We live in the Wonder of His Presence. And this is just the beginning. We are limited mortals. We are often distracted from savoring His Presence. Even when we are at our best, when we are the most spiritual, we just experience a small part of His Presence. But if we continue to be open to His Presence in this world, we will experience being totally consumed by His Presence in heaven.
The people to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was addressed were tempted to question their faith. They feared persecution from the Romans, the pagans who controlled their world, and even from their own people, those Jews who had not accepted Jesus Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Last week’s reading told them to lift up their drooping hands and firm up their knocking knees. This week’s reading tells them to try to understand the gifts that God is giving them. His Presence, His Life, His Peace, His Eternal happiness, are all there for them. They need to firm up their knocking knees and walk to the Lord.
And so do we. There are many people and many organizations who want to destroy us because we are Christians, because we are Catholics. We have no reason to be afraid of them. No matter what they do, or attempt to do, they cannot take Jesus Christ away from us. They cannot keep us away from His Presence here and hereafter. St. Paul put this so beautifully to the Romans in chapter 8 verses 31-39:
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was often quoted as saying, “I expect to die in my bed. My successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” The statement does not end there. The cardinal went on to say: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." Like the second reading told the Hebrews, the cardinal is reminding us: we have no reason to fear other people.
We should only fear God. What is this Fear of the Lord that scripture tells us to nurture? The Letter to the Hebrews has told us quite clearly in today’s second reading, that our fear of the Lord should always take the form of respect, and never take the form of terror. A little child might need some form of punishment when he disobeys his parents, but as the child grows older, becomes a pre-Teen, and then a teenager, the child’s love for his parents becomes his motivation to obey them. He is less concern with their punishment then with their disappointment in his actions. His fear is based on respect not
on terror. The Fear of the Lord of the mature Christian must be based on his desire for God’s Love, not fear of God’s punishment.
Our lives should radiate Christian optimism. For we have been drawn to Mt Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.
There are angels there.
There are saints there.
Jesus is there.
And if we allow Jesus Christ into our lives, we also are there.