Following the Shepherd

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

[Homily Part 1 at both parishes]

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ.” That was a correct and inspired answer. Jesus then began to openly teach his disciples that he, as the Christ, must greatly suffer, be rejected by the Jewish religious leaders, be murdered, and rise after three days. Peter then took Jesus aside and began to correct him. St. Matthew reports that Peter said, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!” At this, Jesus turned and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter in return, saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus calls St. Peter, his apostle, his Church’s first pope—“Satan.” What are we to make of this?

Satan” is the title given to the highest angel who rebelled against God at the beginning of Creation. The Book of Revelation recalls how “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world … was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Jesus talks about this Evil One: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. … He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. …He is a liar and the father of lies.” Both Jesus Christ and his Church today definitely believe in the Devil and that he prowls about the world opposing God and our good. But Jesus does not accuse Peter of being that fallen angel.

The Hebrew word “satan” means “adversary.” Jesus calls Peter his adversary at that moment because he is opposing God’s plan and being an obstacle in Jesus’ path. Like the Devil during the Temptations in the Desert, Peter is suggesting that Jesus be a Messiah who never suffers, a rich, powerful, comfortable Christ who imposes his will over peoples in the same mold as earthly kings. This is what Peter and Judas and the Jews in those days expected. But Jesus knew that the Christ must greatly suffer if the Kingdom of God would save human souls.

During the forty days in the desert, Jesus rebuked the Devil, “Get away, Satan!” And at the Last Judgment, Christ the King upon his throne will tell the unrighteous goats on his left, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” But notice Jesus does not say to Peter “get away” or “depart from me.” Jesus tells him, “get behind me.” Peter is not yet thinking as God does but the Lord Jesus does not desire to cast Peter off forever, if that fate can be avoided. If Peter would humbly follow Jesus, the Lord would show him the Way. Jesus saying “get behind me” was not a personal rejection of Peter, but asking him to follow his Good Shepherd from a new perspective to the Promised Land of heaven.

[Homily Part 2 at St. Paul’s]

Peter thought he had a great plan for Jesus and himself, but Jesus had a different plan, a more challenging plan, but a better plan for them both.

There is godly prudence in our forming of plans and working hard to achieve them. Like in Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper, the Book of Proverbs urges the lazy to work and prepare for tomorrow: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” St. Paul believed in Divine Providence, but also taught the Thessalonians: “When we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” And Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Jesus then encourages his hearers to be just as prudently intentional and totally invested in being his disciple. It is good for us to make plans and work hard toward worthy goals. But we should also keep in mind that all of our earthly plans are uncertain.

We simply do not know what our remaining time on this earth will be like. St. James writes in his New Testament Letter: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit’ — you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.’” As another verse from the Book of Proverbs says: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

In this land of the living, we do not know our earthly futures and we cannot control everything to make our futures entirely as we’d like. But then again, who’s to say that knowing our future perfectly would be good for us? Who’s to say that having the power to craft a future exactly to our liking, would be best for us? We very well may not know what is best for us and what is best for us may not be something we would readily choose. We do not always think as God does, but as human beings do.

Young Simon Peter could not imagine that the Christ would be killed, but this was how Jesus would save the world. Young Peter used to dress himself and go where he wanted; but when he grew old, he stretched out his hands and someone else dressed him and led him where he did not want to go. Jesus had foretold this to Peter, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God in the divine plan: crucified in the likeness of his friend and Lord and God, and sharing (more than most) in his glory. Our personalized path to sainthood may not be the one we’d expect or choose for ourselves.

We ought to plan and work hard towards worthy goals, even though this broken world and the sins of men and demons make all of our plans uncertain. Our human sight and wisdom are limited. We do not always see, or have the courage to pursue, what is best for us. But we do know, as St. Paul taught the Romans, “that God works all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Jesus tells us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” With this firm confidence, let us get behind Jesus Christ and follow him who leads our lives to salvation even through the Cross.

[Homily Part 2 at St. John the Baptist’s]

This is where your homily this morning diverges from what I’m preaching at St. Paul’s this weekend because I have been meaning to talk to you about ad Orientem Masses. Since the Second Vatican Council, the most common way priests have celebrated Mass is versus populum, or “towards the people.” Yet the much longer-practiced custom has been for the priest and the people to face literally or symbolically towards the East together, or “ad Orientem.” Like Muslims today who pray towards Mecca, the custom of the Jews was to pray towards the Temple in their holy city of Jerusalem. The writings of the Church Fathers show that the early Christians prayed towards the east.

In the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote “prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east.” And in the third century, Origen noted: “…Of all the quarters of the heavens, the east is the only direction we turn to when we pour out prayer…” Tertullian records that Christians facing east to pray caused some non-Christians to mistakenly believe we worshiped the sun. But the Christians praying towards the sunrise saw a symbol of Christ rising from the dead and of his promised return to earth in radiant glory one day. Throughout the centuries, even in churches which were not built to face east, the priest and the people faced the same direction (or “liturgical east”) together. However, since the 1970’s the prevailing custom has been for the priest to face towards the congregation.

Now I am not saying that one way of celebrating English Masses is good and the other way is terrible. The Catholic Church approves both versus populum and ad Orientem as valid, legitimate options. But these two ways of celebrating the Mass emphasize different things. Celebrating versus populum, toward the people, emphasizes the horizontal aspect, the communal meal. And the Holy Mass is indeed a meal, a memorial of the Last Supper; where Jesus Christ and his disciples gather at his table. Celebrating ad Orientem, toward the East, emphasizes the vertical aspect, the sacrificial offering. And the Holy Mass is indeed a sacrifice, a memorial of the Cross; where Jesus Christ is offered up for us from his altar.

I experienced my first ad Orientem Mass back when I was still in seminary. The celebrant was a priest of our diocese, a graduate from our seminary returning to visit us, Fr. Derek Sakowski. I remember fearing that I would hate the Mass being said that way because I often dislike change. (For instance, our seminary once changed the toaster in the dining hall and, even though I almost never used that old toaster, I was annoyed when they had replaced it with another because the old one was pleasantly familiar.) Fr. Sakowski said the same English prayers as at other Masses, but seeing him celebrating that Mass ad Orientem, facing us when speaking to us and facing God when praying to God, I found it surprisingly beautiful and it made a lot of sense. Here at St. John the Baptist Church, I’ve celebrated our Monday, Thursday, and First Friday Masses ad Orientem since 2019, and attendees have reported positive experiences similar to mine. I’d like to give you the opportunity to experience this, too.

Around fifty years ago, when versus populum (Mass facing the people) became the prevailing custom in the Church, pastors often introduced the liturgical change abruptly and without adequate explanation. It was jarring, many lay people were bewildered and hurt, and public Masses celebrated ad Orientem were very rarely offered. I do not wish to repeat those mistakes going in the opposite direction.

Having consulted with our Parish Pastoral Council (who encouraged me to proceed with this plan) I’d like to alternate celebrating Masses ad Orientem and versus populum over four upcoming weekends. This means that if you consistently attend the same Mass time over those four weeks, you’ll experience the English Mass offered ad Orientem twice. Come with an open mind. After that, I’ll survey your feedback. Which approach do you find more fruitful? Which weekend Mass would you like to see celebrated ad Orientem on a regular basis: Saturday night, Sunday morning, neither, or both? I’ll want to hear what would help you worship best, and then we’ll go from there. For now, let us turn to Jesus Christ who invites us this morning, like St. Peter before us, to share in his holy meal and his perfect sacrifice.

One Response to “Following the Shepherd”

  1. pussywillowpress Says:

    Well done, Father :)! I’m interested to know what happens!

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