“Beloved, we are God’s children now” (I John 3:2).
Returning home is something we do. We do so for the holidays. We want to taste mother or grandma’s cooking once again. We reconnect with relatives we seldom see. Perhaps our father or a wise aunt gives us a little advice. Home is where the roots are, and this is true because home is where the family is. The same is true of the Church.
Jesus Christ consistently used the analogy of a child to describe our relationship with God, our Father. “Amen, I say to you,” Jesus taught, “unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). A child in the ancient world had no rights. The child depended upon his parents for absolutely everything until he reached his majority. Therefore, everything was pure gift from the parents. The child earned nothing. In an essential way, this is what Jesus is teaching us. The Father provides us with everything. Our Christian life is based on our ability to receive humbly. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). This attitude is best learned within the family, and that family is the Church.
Jesus again pointed this out in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother’” (Matthew 12:49-50). Just as in a family we meet people who look alike and share a similar outlook on life, in the Church we encounter others, made our brothers and sisters through Baptism in a common faith, who should share our beliefs and a common goal—“the kingdom of heaven.” At the same time, we acknowledge that even in a family there can be disagreements and tension causing disunity. Certainly this is not the ideal. When we encounter unpleasant moments in family life, we seek peace and reconciliation because we know a higher purpose—the preservation of family life. There is a better way. We know it, we seek it, and we must achieve it.
In my opinion, the heart and center of that passage from St. Matthew is “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father.” What does it mean to do the will of God?
To do the will of God we must begin with what we know, and what we know are the commandments.
The Ten Commandments tell us basically what the will of God is. They are divinely revealed. We find them in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 20), but they reappear throughout the Bible and especially in the teachings of Jesus Christ (cf. The Sermon on the Mount). I would like to concentrate on one particular commandment, the third, “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8).
Keeping the Sabbath day holy lies at the center of our Christian lives. When I was a child, I recall being taught by catechism teachers and parents alike that in “keeping the Sabbath day holy” we were imitating God. How was this possible? I remember they taught that just as God had rested on the seventh day, having completed His work of creation, so we did as He had done. Our week had been a participation in His creation, and now it was time to rest. “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested” (Exodus 20:11). The Lord’s Day, which for us as Christians is Sunday, the day of Resurrection, is also a day of worship.
On Sunday we return to the Lord something of what He has given us. Worship involves after all a gift, a sacrifice, and a return. We give God our thanks, praise, and adoration. We celebrate our Eucharist, a word in English taken directly from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” In the Eucharist, we imitate our Lord in the most perfect way possible. As He took bread and wine and transformed them into His Body and Blood, so we imitate Him and do as He instructed us, by the power of His priesthood. “Do this in remembrance of me” (I Corinthians 11:24, cf. Luke 22:19). This is exactly what we do at every Eucharistic celebration, especially at our Sunday celebration. “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2177). Nothing is as important. Nothing should be as important. Just as at holiday time we return home to the source of what made us who we are, so too on Sunday we return to our Creator in a way not like any other in our week. We drink from the well. We eat from “the table of the Lord.” Therefore, we must ask ourselves, “How seriously do we take this obligation?”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.” To ignore our obligation by missing Mass deliberately on Sunday is not only a serious sin but also a denial of the call to be childlike. I would go so far as to say that to miss Mass on Sundays and days of obligation is to deny an essential relationship—that of child to parent. It would be like being invited to grandmother’s for Christmas and refusing the invitation, because we would rather stay home and look at her photograph! That is how serious the refusal is.
God awaits us. He has something to say to us in His Word. He has prepared a feast for us—nothing less than the Body and Blood of His Son Jesus Christ. As I said earlier, the question is and remains always, “How seriously do I take this obligation?” It is an obligation only because it is so tremendous a gift. Who could think of ignoring it? It is a gift that begs for gratitude.
In his message for Lent, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, quotes the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). The Holy Father goes on to comment, “The author states that to sustain this life shaped by the Gospel it is important to participate in the liturgy and community prayer, mindful of the eschatological goal of full communion in God.” The next verse in the Letter to the Hebrews reads as follows: “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
In other words, there is in our Christian worship, the Holy Mass, the “assembly” as the early Christians called it, something of the here-and-now and the not-yet. The worship is filled with God’s gift to us now but also with a promise of a gift to come, “the day drawing near.” That “day” will be a day of fulfillment. However, here-and-now we experience a foretaste, a preview as it were, of the heavenly banquet of eternity. It is a supreme gift that cannot be ignored, one we dare not refuse.
On our part the “response of love and good works” must be the best we have to offer God. Our worship cannot be secondhand and commonplace. Our charitable offering must be real and generous. Our “assembly” must reflect—in the words of Blessed John Paul II—the “heaven on earth” that it is and that we believe it to be.
I would wish to conclude with a short word on “spiritual communion.” There are those who are able to attend Mass but cannot receive Holy Communion. Perhaps they need the Sacrament of Penance or they are prevented from receiving the sacraments by certain circumstances in their lives. They may also be in need of cooperating with the grace of conversion more fully. For whatever reason, they should make a “spiritual communion.” This involves an opening of heart to God, an admission of fault and the need for forgiveness, and above all a deep desire to receive our Lord. Remember always that God loves the sinner and desires the sinner’s conversion. “[T]here will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7).
God’s grace is an amazing thing. Throughout my life I have seen Grace work in truly marvelous and astounding ways, at times unexpected, often in answer to prayer. Our Lord stands at the door and knocks. He promised this, when He said, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). He comes to us at many times and in many ways but most especially in every Eucharistic celebration. There we catch a glimpse of something extraordinary. We open the door and He enters. “After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven” (Revelation 4:1).
To those who attend Mass faithfully, realize what a gift you have. To those who do not attend Mass, come home. And to all of you, I extend my blessings for a holy Lent and remain with prayers for your intentions,
Devotedly yours in our Lord Jesus Christ,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles