Homily for Sunday 23B
by Dom Benedict Hardy OSB
“Deus, per quem nobis et redemptio venit et praestatur adoptio, filios dilectionis tuae benignus intende, ut in Christo credentibus et vera tribuatur libertas, et hereditas aeterna.”
O God, through whom both redemption comes to us and adoption is given to us: kindly look on your beloved children, so that for those who believe in Christ there may be given both true freedom and an everlasting inheritance.
Today’s Collect, or opening prayer, is drawn from the Gelasian Sacramentary. This is the earliest extant collection of Latin liturgical prayers, dating to the first half of the 7thcentury. It was originally designed for use in the parish Churches of Rome. The revisers of the Roman Missal in 1970 made a few light adjustments to the original version. In this case the changes were not necessarily for the better. I’d like to comment nevertheless on the prayer as we now have it. It touches on tremendous mysteries at the heart of our faith, and it remains full of solid nourishment for our meditation.
The prayer begins by describing two gifts, or graces, given us by God: redemption and adoption. It then asks God to look with kindness on those who have been so redeemed and adopted. The prayer specifies who these people are: they are those who believe in Christ. Finally it makes its request. It asks for what redemption and adoption imply: that is, true liberty, and the awaited inheritance.
As with all the prayers of the Roman Missal, our prayer today is dense, pithy, carefully structured, sonorous and brief. Behind it lies a series of scriptural texts, or allusions, or echoes. If we can recognise these as we pray or meditate on our text, then its value will be very much enhanced for us.
Clearly the principal reference point of our prayer today is the thought of St. Paul. Redemption, adoption, faith, liberty, inheritance: these are all characteristic Pauline themes, rooted of course in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. We find them coming together in particular in an oft cited passage in Galatians.
When the fullness of time came, Paul writes to the Galatians, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the law, so that he might redeem those who were under the law, in order that we might receive the adoptionof sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father! Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son; and if a son, therefore an heir, through God(Gal 4:4-6)
We find the same cluster of themes occurring in the opening Hymn of the Letter to the Ephesians. There Paul begins with adoption: God predestined us into the adoption of sons, he says (1:5). Then Paul goes back to outline the basis of that: it’s the grace we have in God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, through his blood. Paul ends this magnificent poem of praise by speaking of the Holy Spirit. Those who have believed in what Paul here calls the word of Truth, the Gospel of Salvation already possess the Spirit through baptism. And the Holy Spirit in us, he says, is the pledge of the inheritance awaiting us in heaven (Eph 1:14).
“Redemption” means “buying back”. This idea is applied in the Old Testament especially to the Exodus: the delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt by God. But the Exodus for St. Paul was only a figure of the much more radical redemption wrought for us by the blood of Christ. Christ has set us free from the power of sin and of death. Those who are in Christ are therefore radically free; free therefore even from the Old Testament law. For freedom Christ has set us free! Paul cries out (Gal 5:1). And characteristically he defines this freedom as the freedom of the Spirit – precisely of the Spirit of adoption, whereby we are made sons in the Son (cf. e.g. Rm. 8:14).
Adoption in human terms is a legal fiction. A child of different parents is taken into a family and given full membership of it, made to belong to it, with all that implies: he or she from then on has the right to its name, its love, its inheritance. But that is only a pale reflection of what God does for us in Christ. For the divine supernatural life he bestows on us in Christ infinitely exceeds not only our merits, but also our natural capacities. By nature we are merely creatures of flesh and blood: more than that, as sinners, and children of Adam we are alienated from God: in St. Paul’s chilling words: children of wrath (Eph 2:3). But what Christ has by nature, as God’s only Son, that he gives us, who belong to him, by grace. Through him, with him, in him, we are changed: raised up, justified, sanctified: in order, as St. Paul says, that Christ may be the first born of many brethren (Rm 8:29).
So our prayer asks that God may look in kindness on the sons of his love. That little phrase is taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. God, says Paul there, has snatched us out of the power of darkness, and transferred us to the realm of his beloved Son – or more literally of the Son of his love – Filius dilectionis suae (Col 1:13)
We recall immediately the words spoken by God the Father, as reported in the synoptic Gospels, at the Baptism and the Transfiguration of Jesus. This is my beloved Son, he said there, in whom I am well pleased. God now therefore looks down on each of us who are in Christ as his beloved Son. He sees in us what he saw in the man Jesus: for we have the Spirit of Jesus in us, and in the Spirit we can cry out to God our Father as Jesus did, with total confidence, and familiarity, and joy.
All these blessings are ours on condition of our faith in Christ. How important then is our faith? How much should we value it, give thanks for it, pray for it to be deepened, and also shared, and spread? How seriously we should take our vocation to live in accordance with our faith, as befits beloved children of God And we resolve in particular to participate as fully as we are able in the holy Eucharist, supreme Sacrament of faith. For through this holy Sacrament, God gives us what he promises, and what we ask for.
Give us, then, Lord, especially today through this holy Mass, the freedom from sin and from death, the freedom for life and for peace (Rm 8:6) that we have in Christ. Give us our full share of your Holy Spirit, that we may be able to live worthily as your children. And give us what you have promised remains in store for us: what no eye has seen, nor ear heard (1 Cor 2:9): a full share in your own divine and Trinitarian life; eternal beatitude; endless joy, to the praise of your glory (Eph 1:14).