Thirtieth Sunday of the Year 2019 – SMC
“Cheers!” You may know how it is said in other languages too. It’s a rather jolly thing to say at the start of a drink and it forms a little community who partake in it. And it’s a reminder of how ritual plays an important part in proper festivity, such as our sacred and ordered offering of the Mass, which imparts the joy of Christ to those who come in faith. Cheers! The image of a cup is certainly one of gladness in Christian theology, most famously in Psalm 22/23: “You prepare a table before me, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” God is good.
But there is also the association with suffering. Jesus asks His two eager disciple brothers, James and John, “Can you drink the cup which I shall drink?” meaning the pending Crucifixion (Matthew 20:22); indeed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal, Our Lord, utters the very human objection to suffering by saying, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).
St Paul in our first reading today looks on his life, which is coming to its end, and reflects to his younger partner in the Gospel, “My life is already being poured away as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually of wine, but sometimes of oil. God instructs such offerings to be made by the newly constituted priesthood in the second half of the book of Exodus (29:40), which we’ll be looking at in a few weeks time in our Tuesday Study Group. Before this, Jacob had already consecrated Bethel by pouring a drink offering on the place where God appeared to him (Genesis 35:14).
So, some reflections on what we can gain from seeing our own life as a libation, a drink-offering.
First, if you pour liquid out, you have no sense of where it will go and it is quite difficult to predetermine by the way you pour it. Think of a knocked-over glass of wine which goes everywhere. We likewise have to surrender ourselves to not quite knowing how we will end up if we are going to be poured out like a libation. The humility of which our Lord speaks in the Gospel reading today will flow - if you pardon the pun - into our lives so that we do surrender ourselves to God. We are all guilty of the sort of pride we see in the Pharisee; we overstate our holiness, how much we do for God; we like to put down others and reassure ourselves contentedly that we’re not like them at least; we focus on condemning the sins we’ve never committed. That pride is built tightly and seeks to retain control with an air of assuredness and a desire to control our own direction. That’s not how liquid works though, not what being poured out like a libation entails.
Secondly, I remember in science at school learning the difference between gaseous, liquid and solid substances using water as a good example. The difference between water in its gaseous form (steam), and in its liquid form (water as we see it) is that it remains a body with set parameters and inhabiting a defined location. Our movement as Christians is similarly not to be away from the Church, embracing odd thought systems and vaguely Christian movements or organisations where good works are seen to be the only thing necessary for salvation. Though the Christian will live a life of service this cannot supplant the call to worship. We stay together through mutual support and bound together in a call to worship the one true God in fellowship.
This mystical union that followers of Jesus have with each other and with the Lord often comes out in suffering. St Ignatius of Antioch died as a Christian Martyr only eighty years after Jesus died. He was led from Antioch in Syria, where he was bishop, to Rome where he was to be fed to the lions. He wrote to the Christians in Rome saying his ministry was useless if they tried to intervene to prevent his death, which would make his voice a “mere meaningless cry.” He begs them one favour: “to be a libation poured out to God,” echoing Paul in the reading from his letter to St Timothy that we heard this morning. How often do we think God wants us to avoid suffering or inconveniences while actually it may be that we need to embrace it and endure it patiently.
If you’ve suffered something with someone, from something simple like a delayed bus or something more serious like health treatment or a fire in a property, this creates a bond, hence you end up speaking to people you don’t know or might not otherwise speak to. The suffering creates a bond. St Paul’s experience of not having met Jesus until his conversion meant he was particularly grateful to know he was close to Jesus through suffering. St Paul, after all, knew himself to have been buried with Christ in Baptism and so raised with Him. Not only that, Paul elsewhere writes that he is glad that his sufferings prolong and finish off those begun by our crucified Lord (Colossians 1:24). This might seem strange to us, but we do think of sharing someone’s sufferings if we love them deeply and there will even be those for whom we would be glad to suffer if it made things better for them. Paul’s love for Jesus was so great that as St Paul considered all that Jesus had suffered for him on the Cross, he was willing to make those sufferings his own. Hence he was beaten by soldiers, he was shipwrecked, in dangerous situations because of the awful weather, unable to sleep and when Paul looks back on those things in II Corinthians he reflects, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness,” (II Corinthians 11:25-30).
Thirdly, Jesus speaks in the New Testament of a cup in another context too, not to do with offering and sacrifice, nor to do with suffering and union, but pointing us to the end of time when His Kingdom will be finally established. At the Last Supper, as Jesus gives the chalice to the disciples He says, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). It looks forward then to judgement. Indeed this is hinted at in the Old Testament where the drink offering sacrifice is to be made only when the people arrive at the land promised, flowing with milk and honey (Numbers 15:1-5). It is an offering of having-arrived in our heavenly homeland. But this same cup, for those who drink of it without having Christ’s life at work in them, it will be as wrath and discord. This we see foretold in Jeremiah 25 where the cup of God’s wrath is to be passed round to those who are against God and Jeremiah is to distribute it. Hence the hymn, “Glory, glory, Hallelujah” referencing the storing of “the grapes of wrath.”
A Prayer to be said on one of the Sundays of the Year at Mass concludes, “May what we consume posses us so that we become what we eat for the life of the world” (Twenty Fourth Sunday of the Year, Mayer after Communion). We can all gaze upon the Bread and Wine, to become for us the Body and Blood of the Lord, and know that as Christians we are baptised in to the Body of the Lord who gives us His Flesh and His Blood at this Mass. We are therefore to see life lessons for us in these sacramental elements. As the Bread is broken and the wine poured out we know that our life is to be broken and poured out as a libation. Poured out in offering and sacrifice. Poured out in suffering. Poured out in union with the whole church. Poured out in the Kingdom of God for which we long and yearn. And there we’ll celebrate with the angels and saints at the great wedding banquet for we have been redeemed. Cheers!