Father Mitch Pacwa’s homily for February 4th, 2021
Today, this celebration, this feast of St. Joseph of Leonessa, helps to highlight something of today’s first reading from Hebrews; namely, this is the primary text where the Bible calls us to have devotion to the saints. And we remember the saints, in general. As a matter of fact, in the Maronite Rite, we just celebrated the feast of All Saints this past Sunday. They have a different calendar than we do in the Roman Rite. And the same reading was used there to celebrate all of the saints. This text brings out the scriptural injunction. It does not simply say, if you like to sort of look up to the saints, that’s okay. No. It says, you have approached them.
And we see why someone like St. Joseph, he was a pious young man, practiced a lot of asceticism. And when he joined the Capuchins, he took a mission. He was sent to Constantinople in order to give priestly ministry to the Christian prisoners. That, of course, was Turkey. It was part of the capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire since 1453. There was constant warfare. Many Christians were prisoners, so he wanted to be a priest for them.
And when some Muslims began to be attracted to the Christian faith because of his charity, he was condemned to death. In fact, he wanted to preach to the Sultan, and he was condemned for that. So they hung his right hand on one hook and is right foot on a hook. They put it through his hand and foot and left him for three days. But he survived.
So, he was allowed to go back to Italy, and he ministered there again. Bringing back with him a Greek bishop who had become a Muslim and repented and came back to Christ. Now we look up to somebody like that, who takes on a very dangerous mission and suffered quite a bit as a result (not only the poverty that he lived in but the physical torture).
We have thousands and thousands of saints from around the world of all different kinds of careers. I always like to point out you have St. Giles, who protected the animals from hunters. And then, St. Hubert, the Patron Saint of hunters. You have both of these in the Church. And actually, St. Giles protected the poor who were not allowed to hunt – that was only for the rich. He wanted to make sure everybody could eat equally, so he hid the animals from all of the hunters.
We have patron saints for everything. It is remarkable! It shows that holiness is to permeate the whole Church. No part of the Church, no career, no job, is to be outside of living a holy way of life, whether it’s in marriage, religious life, priesthood. It is a call to holiness. And there is no way of life in which people are exempt from committing mortal sin. That includes priests, bishops, the popes and nuns; any one of which could end up in hell if they failed to live up to the holiness to which Christ calls them. This is the choice every one of us has to make. For those who become saints, we are supposed to approach them.
This text from Hebrews 12 makes a contrast: “You have not approached Mount Sinai.”
Mount Sinai could not be approached. If you look back on the book of Exodus, Chapter 19, you see that even if an animal touched the mountain, that the animal was to be stoned or shot with arrows. And that applied to human beings. No one was to touch it except Moses, the sole one to go up there. And it was fearful with the mountain shaking and there were big clouds around it, and lightning going on–so is quite terrifying–trumpet blasts being heard from inside the cloud. It was quite terrifying. That was to bring out to the people the power of God.
The God who is giving you the 10 commandments and demands that, if you enter into this covenant, you have a free choice. You have a free choice to enter this covenant but if you do, you must obey his commandments. He taught them fear. But in contrast, he says, now we Christians, have not approached Mount Sinai, but Mount Zion. This is where the temple was. People could approach the temple. It had an enormous courtyard (I think, about three or four acres large). Lots of people could fit into it. If you see people at the Alaqsa mosque, that is still the perimeter of the temple area where it had been. And people can approach it. Think about the temple. It had a variety of aromas. The aroma of incense, naturally. But also the aroma of cooking meat. Because many of the sacrifices, like the peace offerings, were cooked. And there were rooms around the temple courtyard for people to share a meal there. So there was the aroma of meat cooking. And that kind of place of worship where there was singing, and people would come with their best garments, and they would celebrate great feasts. That’s how he gives us an image of heaven.
And, speaking of Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.
Of course, St. John will have this same picture in mind in the Book of Revelation. In Revelation, it is also portrayed as God’s temple, where you see God face to face, and the angels are celebrating. And from the description of it, it seems to be a celebration based on the earthly celebration of the feast in the autumn, the feast of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths; the autumn festival that celebrated the whole year. And it was a very key feast and you see so much of what is going on in the temple of heaven being modeled on the way that feast is described.
That then helps us to understand this line that it is a myriads; this translation says, countless angels, the word is ‘myriads’ of angels. A myriad is 10,000. This is 10,000×10,000. This is millions of angels in festal gathering. And the word that he uses for ‘festal’ is a term referring to the clothing that you wear at a feast, as well as the clothing you wear at a victory celebration. That’s the two uses of it in the secular and in the biblical Greek. And this idea of the angels as wearing this festal gathering is part of the celebration.
Then it has the third component of this the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven. Now, it is interesting, in the Old Testament, in the Greek Old Testament, they talk about the angels as the first creation. But ‘firstborn’ refers to the people of Israel. Then this is, by the way, the assembly in this is the Ecclesia: the Church of the firstborn. Because now the understanding that the Christian community is this new Israel; this new firstborn, and that, by our baptism, our names are enrolled in heaven. This is what he refers to here.
There are seven items mentioned here in this passage as part of what we approach. The one in the middle, the fourth, is God, the judge of all. This is meant to be the center of everything. He is in the middle of all of these different people and groups that are up in heaven, and that we are to approach. Therefore, he is the center of it. It is the way you see triptych’s and when they have [pentaptychs], when there are five pictures, and septaptychs, when there are seven. So, imagine three pictures and then in the center is God, the judge of all. And then, parallel to the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, are the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect. That describes the saints. They are righteous.
St. Paul speaks of how we are righteous by faith. The righteous man lives by faith. He speaks of that frequently. And, in St. James, we see that is not by faith alone, but we are also righteous by our works. These are the people who are righteous in all aspects. But the righteous still need to be made perfect. And the verb here–actually, it is a participle, it is a perfect participle, and it is a passive participle. The righteous ones who have been made perfect. They do not perfect themselves. God perfects them. The grace of God works in the hearts, minds and souls of the righteous to perfect them. What ever imperfection is not dealt with here on earth, that imperfection is dealt with in purgatory. That they are perfected by God.
And this is a call for all of us, because I remember one preacher who used to say, “how many of you want to go to heaven?”
Well, he was speaking to an audience and everyone said, yes, I want to go to heaven.
“How many of you want to be saints?”
Not so many people.
He says, “now you have a problem. Because the only people who go to heaven are the saints.”
Not all are canonized, but the only one to get into heaven are the saints; the righteous, by faith and their good works and their love and by their hope. And they have been made perfect by God’s grace. God’s grace has acted on them to perfect their virtues and to bring them to the fullness of their own nature; this is something that is the definition of a saint. And we are supposed to approach these saints.
Then we also see that we have approached Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, and this is essential. Christ introduces this new covenant, the first time of anywhere in scripture, at the last supper. The first Mass. That is where he says, this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant; words that we still say to this day at the Mass. And Christ is that mediator of that new covenant.
Remember, the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah taught, as this letter to the Hebrews brings out, that the Israelites had broken the covenant; both of them teach that (Ezekiel 13 and Jeremiah 31 and many other passages throughout the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel). Christ proclaims this new covenant that they had both also promised.
And we are to approach Christ to be part of this new covenant which gives us a new relationship with God. That is the purpose of a covenant. Marriage gives a man and a woman and new relationship in their covenant. So, also this covenant is a new relationship with God. Finally, to the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel: that is Christ’s blood by which our sins are forgiven.
Now, in terms of our relationship between the saints and Christ, how do we do with this? Some say I go to Jesus directly. Good, you should, but you do not exclude the saints, scripture says. Why?
I will never forget the very first radio show I was ever on. The first I was ever on on any media of any kind. It was in Nashville, Tennessee on a Protestant radio station. A lady called in. It was a call-in radio show. She said, “how come you Catholics pray to Mary? When I am sick, I do not go to the doctor’s mother. I go to the doctor.” I said, “well ma’am, Our Lord compares himself to being like a physician of our souls right after he calls St. Matthew the tax collector. He said that he came just like a doctor. He is there for the sick, not the healthy. So is he there for sinners and not for the righteous. But that is the only time he mentions that he is like a doctor. Far more often Our Lord speaks of himself as the bridegroom of the Church, and he loves the Church the way that a groom loves his bride. And your problem, lady, is that you do not like our mother-in-law.
Now, this is an important point because, in a marriage, your primary relationship is with your spouse. You are married to your husband. You are married to your wife. That is the key relationship. But it is a big mistake to neglect the in-laws. Your in-laws can help your marriage or harm it. And a good relationship with them is healthy. The same with the brothers-in-laws and sisters in-laws. And the nieces and nephews. They are part of your family. They teach you a lot about your spouse, and you learn from them. But you’re still married to your spouse. Similarly, the saints, Our Lady, and all of the other saints are our in-laws.
Our primary relationship is with Jesus Christ. We do not turn to the saints because we are afraid of Jesus. That is not a good sign. We turn to the saints to learn more about Jesus. To seek their intercession. Just like we ask one another for intercession. We ask each other for prayers. So also do we do this with the saints, but we maintain that primary relationship with Jesus Christ; the mediator of this new covenant, the spouse of the Church. And as such, we all grew closer to Christ so that he can perfect us in our righteousness and have us included among them.