28th Sunday of the Year – SMC
On Mount Zion in the Holy Land is the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, a name which refers to the cock crow that sounded the end of Peter’s denial, when he said he had never met Jesus. Jesus had just been arrested and would die the next day. Now was the time for His disciples to remember all those teachings that had been given about the suffering that would come. But no, instead St Peter denied the friendship He had with Jesus. He was given three chances to make a public statement of belief in Jesus but just couldn’t do it. Three times by the light of the fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house.
Next to the church of St Peter in Gallicantu are some stone steps. They wouldn’t pass health and safety legislation in this country and you’d feel safer walking down the dry grassy slope alongside them. They’re roped off these days, but not because they’re a bit worn with being very old, but rather because apparently tourists quite like to come and chip a bit away from them to take home as a souvenir! These steps may well have been those on which our Lord was led from His night spent in prison on the first Maundy Thursday. They are holy steps.
Our first reading from II Kings has Naaman removing not bits of steps but soil, “as much earth as two mules may carry.” He’s been cured from his leprosy, having washed in the waters of the Jordan, a test of his humility because he thought they were inferior waters, a bit beneath him. He takes the soil because of the Old Testament’s assumption that you had to worship God on home territory, on the land of Israel, hence we see in our Study Group going through the book of Exodus on a Tuesday evening the Hebrews carrying Joseph’s bones to the land where they could be buried, because they asked Pharaoh to set them free so they could worship in the land which the Lord will give them.
Back to the steps on Mount Zion. While it’s a pious and devout proposal to want to take something of them away, it surely fails to take seriously the need for gratitude in our hearts. Gratitude will appreciate the nature of these things as gifts and therefore our response will be less to hoard and rather allow others to enjoy it too. It’s a problem we see in Simon Magus in Acts 8. You’ll remember that he’s very impressed when he sees the Holy Spirit given by the Apostles, and in particular James and Peter. He’s so impressed that he wants some of Him too. Again, it’s a pious and devout longing. But he thinks he can do it through the wrong means because he thinks he can buy this authority. Peter rebukes Simon Magus, saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money.” Incidentally, it’s where we get the English word ‘simony’ from, meaning the sale of ecclesiastical offices or benefits.
Peter and James will come, of course, to pass the gift of the Holy Spirit on to others, just like Paul laid hands on Timothy, the recipient of the letter, some of which we heard as our second reading. But it would never be sold, it can’t be taken or demanded, it can’t be bought with money. It can only be given within the proper order, in the same way that I couldn’t have bought the privileges and authority of being a priest with money. We cannot buy these spiritual gifts, as the psalmist says, “No ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it” (Psalm 49:8). When we give to the church through the bags at the collection, or through the contactless card machine or through our standing order we don’t do it to buy God’s favour, but because it’s all His anyway.
The virtue of gratitude is proposed to us in the Gospel today. More people receive the effects of God’s love than those who can be bothered to go and say thank you. In our daily examination of our self we ought quite properly to consider to whom we might have said thank you or shown gratitude and how we have failed to do that. St Francis de Sales wrote a meditation on the gifts of God and I include it at the end of this sermon for you to reflect on, spending maybe ten minutes going through the thoughts he wrote down some four hundred years ago. After considering how we fail to give thanks to God, St Francis urges us to make this our prayer: “O my soul, be no more so faithless and disloyal to your mighty benefactor!”
In our Gospel the word St Luke uses to describe the actions of the grateful Samaritan is eucharistōn: “he threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him.” Every day we have the chance to gather for the Mass and on Sundays we are obliged to be at Mass. Another word the Church sometimes uses for the Mass is ‘Eucharist.’ The word Mass comes from the Latin for ‘sent out.’ The word Eucharist comes from this Greek word used to describe the Samaritan’s action of ‘thanksgiving.’ The Mass is our supreme expression of gratitude, the great thanksgiving, hence the Eucharistic Prayer always begins, “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks.”
We give thanks for all that we are and all we have: our friends, our loved ones, our faith, the blessings of the week behind and the opportunities we perceive forming in this new week. All these are gifts. And we say thank you by offering the most amazing thing imaginable, not something we’ve concocted or paid lots of money for or that has come top of the Which? list for gift giving. The gift we offer is the Body and Blood of Jesus, concealed under the forms of Bread and Wine. Like Simon Magus we mustn’t try and look for short cuts to get to the top of the class. Peter and James had the spiritual gifts they could share in Acts 8 because of a long and arduous relationship with Jesus Christ. This was the criteria used in Acts 1 to replace Judas as an apostle, not who was best at this or that or could speak in the best way or had achieved this or that number of conversions. Rather, the apostles sought “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.” The commitment to faithful companionship with the Lord was the reason for the election of St Matthias as the new apostle.
In this vein, St Theresa of Avila, whom the Church celebrates on Tuesday this week, linked the concept of gratitude with mystical personal prayer. Theresa, writing to her sisters advising them on what to do when they felt this closeness to Jesus in prayer, says that such prayer “is no longer our work, for it’s something very supernatural and something very much beyond our power. … The best way,” she goes on, “to hold on to this favour is to understand it clearly that we can neither bring it about or remove it, we can only receive it with gratitude,” (The Way of Perfection, Chapter 31). Our walking faithfully with Jesus will mean He gives us these great spiritual gifts of union with Him.
Gratitude then requires submission and humility, such as had been necessary for Namaan in the washing in the waters. The link between gratitude and humility is seen most clearly when we consider the possibility that we will even need to learn to be grateful for the things we don’t want. We might think of a meal that has been presented to us where we don’t really like the food or it looks pretty dodgy. We still have to say Grace in that situation though gratitude may be still far from our hearts. Job reflects with his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). May then we never be found to be like the nine lepers who live their lives without saying thank you. Amen.
St Frances de Sales, Introduction to the Spiritual Life.
CHAPTER XI. THIRD MEDITATION.
Of the Gifts of God.
PLACE yourself in the Presence of God.
Ask Him to inspire your heart.
1. Consider the material gifts God has given you—your body, and the means for its preservation; your health, and all that maintains it; your friends and many helps. Consider too how many persons more deserving than you are without these gifts; some suffering in health or limb, others exposed to injury, contempt and trouble, or sunk in poverty, while God has willed you to be better off.
2. Consider the mental gifts He has given you. Why are you not stupid, idiotic, insane like many you know of? Again, God has favoured you with a decent and suitable education, while many have grown up in utter ignorance.
3. Further, consider His spiritual gifts. You are a child of His Church, God has taught you to know Himself from your youth. How often has He given you His Sacraments? what inspirations and interior light, what reproofs, He has given to lead you aright; how often He has forgiven you, how often delivered you from occasions of falling; what opportunities He has granted for your soul’s progress! Dwell somewhat on the detail, see how Loving and Gracious God has been to you.
Affections and Resolutions.
1. Marvel at God’s Goodness. How good He has been to me, how abundant in mercy and plenteous in loving-kindness! O my soul, be thou ever telling of the great things the Lord has done for thee!
2. Marvel at your own ingratitude. What am I, Lord, that Thou rememberest me? How unworthy am I! I have trodden Thy Mercies under foot, I have abused Thy Grace, turning it against Thy very Self; I have set the depth of my ingratitude against the deep of Thy Grace and Favour.
3. Kindle your gratitude. O my soul, be no more so faithless and disloyal to thy mighty Benefactor! How should not my whole soul serve the Lord, Who has done such great things in me and for me?
4. Go on, my daughter, to refrain from this or that material indulgence; let your body be wholly the servant of God, Who has done so much for it: set your soul to seek Him by this or that devout practice suitable thereto. Make diligent use of the means provided by the Church to help you to love God and save your soul. Resolve to be constant in prayer and seeking the Sacraments, in hearing God’s Word, and in obeying His inspirations and counsels.
Thank God for the clearer knowledge He has given you of His benefits and your own duty.
Offer your heart and all its resolutions to Him.
Ask Him to strengthen you to fulfil them faithfully by the Merits of the Death of His Son.
Gather the little spiritual bouquet.