Homily for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Mass, these lines from psalm 129, long associated with prayer for the dead, are heard twice: “From the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my prayer.” For in this month of November, we earnestly pray for the dead, crying out to God for the holy souls in the depths of Purgatory, that they may be released from all worldly attachments and so enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss. However, today’s Liturgy causes us to realise that we too, who are in this world, are all also dead in some sense. In the words of the Lenten antiphon much loved by St Thomas Aquinas, Media vita in morte sumus, in the midst of life we are in death. For our mortality, our weakness, our frail human condition always weighs upon us.
When we become sick, when the body experiences pain, when we are confronted by death, we recall the depths of our human neediness and dependency on God, and, like the woman in today’s Gospel we cry out to him, the living God. But we are also dead, all of us, because we sit in the shadow of death, enchained to our sins. The wound of our sins, both self-inflicted, as well as through the harm that is done to us by others, becomes like a wound that will not heal. Like the woman of the Gospel who was haemorrhaging for twelve years, so too, many of struggle with sins that oppress us and rob us of the joy of life. Hence, out of depth of our sins, like prisoners bound by the chains of sin, we cry out. “From the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my prayer.”
So in the Collect of the Mass, the Church prays that we will be absolved of our sins – that is, what we have done – and delivered from the bondage of sin, that is to say, from the attraction of sin, and from our sinful habits. The prayer, therefore is not just a prayer for forgiveness but for a change of heart, for the grace that transforms our very desires and our ways of behaving.
What this entails is suggested in the Epistle. For those who love their sins in fact glory in their shame – they not only have no remorse for their sins which offend God and the natural law, but they celebrate them with Pride even. Or they indulge every concupiscent desire, giving in easily to the pleasures of the flesh, obeying its every craving. Hence St Paul says: “their God is their belly.” We pray, therefore to be released from the bondage of sin through the power of the Cross. Every Mass, as we know, makes present the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, and from the Cross flows endless graces, merits, and benefits to those who participate in the Mass with ready and wholesome dispositions. We come to Christ experiencing the lowliness of our mortal bodies, and with humble and contrite hearts. And the Communion chant reassures us that “whatsoever we ask for, when you pray, believe that you shall receive and it shall be done to you.” In other words, if we share the faith of the woman in the Gospel, who reached out in humility to Christ to touch him, then we shall indeed be released from our sins and saved. For we hear in the Gospel that the Lord has the power to raise the dead to life, and so he can do the even more marvellous work of justifying sinners, or raising us who are dead through sin to new life in him. God and God alone can convert our hearts, and lift us up to the wonderful life of grace in union with Christ.
The Lord in fact does this and is doing this through the sacred Liturgy. In the Mass, we are lifted up into the prayer of the Son to the Father, and so we are formed in his disposition of loving obedience, and we make his words our own. As St Paul says somewhere, it is the Holy Spirit who prays within us, and he causes us to cry out, with Christ, “Abba, Father”. Therefore, when we pray the liturgy, it is the Holy Spirit within us, who, from the depths of our being, cries out to the Lord: “Lord, hear my prayer.” For the Holy Spirit, as St Paul says, “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) Therefore, when we do not know what to pray, when we are overwhelmed by life and its sorrows, when we feel far from God, we should nevertheless come to the Liturgy – go to Mass! – for here, in the sacred Liturgy, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit, we have the Holy Spirit interceding for us, putting the right words on our lips, and in our hearts, as it were. All that is required is a humble docility to the sacred action of the Liturgy. For here in the Liturgy, we touch something greater even than the hem of Christ’s garment. We touch Christ himself, or rather, it is he who reaches out to touch us, because it is he who is present and active in the Holy Mass.
And so, from the depths, here in the Mass, we cry out to the Lord: Lord, hear my prayer. The liturgy responds to the humble prayer of the repentant sinner by sounding again several notes of hope, of joy, of confidence in God’s saving work in the Mass. Firstly in the Officium or entrance chant, the Lord promises: “you shall call upon Me, and I will hear you; and I will bring back your captivity from all places.” So, God promises to hear us and to save us from the bondage of sin and of death. This is the promise of the Risen Lord who has conquered the grave and shattered the gates of hell. And then, in the Gradual, we hear the song of the redeemed, of those who has been raised to new life by the grace of Christ: “Thou hast delivered us, O Lord… In God we will glory all the day, and in Thy name we will give praise for ever.”
Only the Saints can sing like that, for only the Saints live for ever. So in the Liturgy we overhear this song of the Saints, as it were, and they are urging us onwards. In every Mass, as we know, the whole Church – the Church triumphant in heaven, and the Church militant on earth – participates. And so, from heaven, the Saints come to our aid, and they urge us, in St Paul’s words, to “stand fast in the Lord”; they direct us to imitate their example of humble faith; and they teach us to follow them in loving God and the things of heaven, above all, to love the Holy Eucharist. For although in this life we are in death, so it is that God, the Living God, has heard our cry. In mercy and love, therefore, he gives us Bread of Life that has come down from heaven. Christ gives us Himself; He, who is the Resurrection and the Life is planted in the depth of our being, as a pledge of immortality, as a foretaste of heavenly joys, as a promise of new life so that “even if [we] die, we shall live for ever” with him. For, as St Paul says, “our commonwealth [or our homeland] is in heaven, from whence also we looked for the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, today, together with the holy souls and also on their behalf, let us cry out from the depths to our loving Saviour: Lord, hear my prayer.