Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 15, 2020
My Dear Friends in Christ,
The celebrations of the last two Sundays have thematically coalesced around the theme of preparation for the end time when the kingdom of our Heavenly Father, for which we daily pray, will at last realize its full consummation with the second coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Kingdom of God in His very Person. The previous two Sundays have also reminded us that while we wait for that final day without end, we already, here and now participate in that everlasting day in proleptic fashion by virtue of our baptism which has given us a share in the life of Jesus Christ, Who is Light from Light, true God from true God. Therefore, having been made into a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and thereby partaking of Him Who is Light, we have already become the day that the Lord has made (Ps. 118:24), meant to radiate his life and love to the world so that others may be drawn to the beauty of our God and life in communion with Him as mentioned last Sunday. Much the same dynamic obtains in our readings for today as we celebrate the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, as the parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew and, especially, the second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians makes clear. In the latter, St. Paul encourages us to continue to live as “children of the light and children of the day” in accordance with the life imparted to us at baptism (1 Th. 5:5; cf. 5:8).
Just beyond the portion of text given for our listening today, St. Paul goes on to make clear that to live as children of the day is to live in unity with Christ and in accordance with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity (1 Th. 5:8-11). The other readings expand upon and further specify this idea, which we perhaps can get at best by beginning with the Responsorial Psalm. Psalm 128 is one in a number of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent which include Psalms 120-134, so named from the superscript they bear. Scripture scholars believe that these Psalms have been so titled because they were sung by the People of Israel as part of a liturgical pilgrimage, an extended liturgical procession if you will, to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of major feasts. It was a time of celebration and anticipation. Celebration because for the People of Israel, Jerusalem was the place of Mount Zion, the place of God’s dwelling (Ps. 74:2 & Is. 8:18) and thus where they could be in God’s presence as One People and thus fulfill their identity as the People of God. But it was also a time of anticipation, for in so gathering, the People of Israel were fulfilling their purpose in being a sign to the families of the world that all were meant to one day gather together as the One Family of God and share in the feast of the Lord as Isaiah had prophesied (Is. 25:6). Being this living sign of the purpose of the human family was part of the way the People of Israel fulfilled the promise God had made to them that they would be a blessing to all nations (Gn. 22:18).
As Christians, it is imperative that we see ourselves as descendants of the People of Israel, for, like them we too have been gathered into one people by God, accomplished by our baptism (Eph. 4:5), precisely so that we might go out into the world proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord to draw all people into unity with him as God intended from the beginning (Mt. 28:19-20 & 1 Cor. 15:28). Accordingly, we too ought to read these Psalms as Psalms of Ascents, although in a way slightly different. Augustine introduces these Psalms by writing that the Psalms are meant to teach us that “we too are to ascend, but we must not try to climb with our bodily feet; rather we should remember what was written in another psalm: God arranges ascents in his heart, in the valley of weeping, to the place he has appointed (Ps. 83:6-7 (84:6-7)” (En. ps. 119.1). Augustine goes on to explain that the mountain we are to ascend is Christ himself, and that in imitation of Him, our ascent begins from the valley of weeping which symbolizes the virtue of humility. Thus, as we saw last weekend, the dynamic is understood that we move toward Christ within or by Christ. As Augustine says: “He is the starting point of your ascent and the goal of your ascent; you climb from his example to his divinity. He gave you an example by humbling himself” (En. Ps. 119.1).
With this in mind as we turn to consider our Responsorial Psalm for today, 128, we find immediate resonances with what was said two weeks ago on the Solemnity of All Saints. There, we noted that the Beatitudes were a sort of veiled biography of Christ and that by calling us to live out the Beatitudes, Christ was calling us to share in his life. Moreover, it was noted that the Beatitudes derive their name from the Greek word which they all begin with, i.e., makarios meaning happy. Our Psalm for today, in addition to begin part of the Psalms of Ascents, it also constitutes part of the larger Scriptural tradition of which the Beatitudes of the New Testament are a part, as it begins “Happy” or “Blessed are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways!” (Ps. 128:1). In accordance with these last two points, then, Augustine begins his commentary on today’s Psalm by saying that the person declared blessed, or happy, in verse one is none other than Christ. However, for Augustine, this refers to his ecclesiology, i.e., his understanding of the Church, which he often described as the Totus Christus, meaning the Whole Christ both Head and Body. Referring to Paul’s letters, Augustine writes: “He is many people yet one individual, many Christians but one Christ. All Christians, in union with their head who ascended into heaven, form one Christ…we who are many are one in him, who is one. Christ, head and body together, is a single individual. What is his body? The Church…” (En. Ps. 127.3 (128.3), cf. Eph 5:30 & 1 Cor 12:27). He then goes on to unpack the meaning of fear of the Lord as it is this quality which deems this person blessed.
As he does here, Augustine often explains what is meant by fear of the Lord by way of analogy. Remembering that the Church is often thought of as the Bride of Christ, he draws on the analogy of a married couple. Thinking through the concept of fear within this relationship Augustine tells us there are two types of fear one of the parties can experience within this relationship. The manner in which he sets up the analogy is very appropriate for today’s celebration as he speaks of the fear felt by a wife in her husband’s absence. He asks us to imagine a wife, who in the absence of her husband has abused her position within the household in various ways including being unfaithful to her husband in his absence. Then he asks us to consider another situation in which the wife is lovingly committed to her husband and eagerly awaits his return in his absence. Augustine concludes that the two wives will no doubt experience different types of fear, the first woman fears that her husband will return while the second fears that her husband will remain away (En. Ps. 127.8 (128.8)). Augustine then asks us to consider what we feel within our hearts if we consider ourselves to be in the same position as the wife. How do we as members of the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, feel about the prospect of Christ’s return? (En. Ps. 127.8 (128.8)). What type of fear do we feel? Augustine says: “Question your conscience: Do you want him to come back, or would you prefer him to delay his return? Go on, ask yourselves, brothers and sisters! I have knocked at the doors of your hearts, but he alone hears the reply from within” (En. Ps. 127.8 (128.8)).
We would do well to consider this question today. How would we answer honestly within the deepest part of our souls? If deep down we would rather Christ not return this is a very good sign that he likely is not there, i.e., that his life doesn’t animate ours and that we know we have not lived as we are called to as Christians, we have not imitated the love of Christ. In this case, Augustine would implore us to pray to God for fear of the Lord, for it is a gift of His Holy Spirit, and thus a sign of the Spirit’s indwelling and of our conformity to Christ is that we look forward to his coming and eagerly await it. This type of fear which is a mark of the Spirit’s indwelling fears nothing except to be separated from God and accordingly strives to live in imitation of Christ, His Only Beloved Son (Mt. 3:17), knowing that if we do not resemble Christ, there is nothing within us that God can possibly find to love.
This type of fear is a gift that we have been given by virtue of our baptism. Thus, if we do not feel this type of fear when we examine our conscience, we would do well to do what we can to foster it by the means which the Church has given us. First among these are the sacraments, followed by a constant life of prayer. However, in addition, we must strive to live like Christ through a life of virtue as this too can lead to an increased desire for unity with God, as the virtues denote a type of unity, however imperfectly realized, with Christ as explained two weeks ago. As Aquinas says, while the life of charity at the outset is sheer grace and increase in charity and all of the infused virtues is ultimately caused by God, we prepare ourselves to receive this gift from God through our actions, “insofar as they presuppose charity which is the principle of meriting” (Disputed Questions on Virtue in General, A. 11). Said more simply, we prepare ourselves for an increase of graced virtue by intentionally acting out of our love for God however great that love may currently be.
It is precisely this dynamic which Aquinas sees in our Gospel reading for today. There, Our Lord tells us that his return “will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—each according to his ability. Then he went away” (Mt. 25:14-15). There are two important elements to note here. The first are the talents. Aquinas reads these talents as “the various gifts of grace: for as a weight of metal is said to be a talent, so is the weight of grace which inclines the soul; whence love is the weight of the soul” (Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 25, L. 2.2036). Further on, Aquinas will identify these various gifts of grace as virtues. Thus, in speaking of the one who received five talents, Aquinas writes that “the progress of virtue is indicated here; they will go from virtue to virtue (Ps 83:8). And this is found in Genesis, he went on prospering and increasing (Gn. 26:13). For virtue progresses through the exercise of work; for unless it works, it fades away. (ibid., Ch. 25, L. 2.2045). The second important element to be noted here is the line that says each had been given talents according to their ability (Mt. 25:15). Aquinas joins this to the concept of gratuitous grace within his system (Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 25, L. 2.2040). While this seems very abstract, this is an important point, because for Thomas, gratuitous grace is the grace “whereby one man cooperates with another in leading him to God…” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 111, A. 1).
When we combined Aquinas’ reading here with the dynamics found in the Psalm above, our readings for today call us to a twofold task which we might think of as the investment of the talents that God has entrusted to us. First, we are called to cultivate those divine gifts, the divine virtues which in Christ through virtue of our baptism we have already been given a share of. Second, the only way to do this is through loving service of others. If we are to ask what this looks like we need look no further than our first reading for today from the Book of Proverbs. There we find an exemplary figure who has invested her talents well. Among other things, we are told that she displays perseverance, untiringly working for the care of her home, rising in the middle of the night to feed those under her roof (Prv. 31:15). Moreover, we find that she plans for the future prudently, investing in land which she cultivates and producing merchandise so as to provide for the home (Prv. 31:16 & 18-19). Yet it is not only for her own household that she cares, for we are told that she “opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prv. 31:20), denoting the virtues of the works of mercy and the virtue of solidarity. Finally, we are told that she instructs those around her in the ways of virtue, opening her mouth with wisdom and kindness (Prv. 31:26). As a result, we are told that she possesses the virtue of fortitude (Prv. 31:25, ain fortitudo et decor indumentums eius), and so faces the future without fear. Consequently, those around her praise her and call her, you guessed it, most happy (Prv. 31:28, beatissimam), and we are told in reference to her, that “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prv. 31:30).
My friends as members of the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, we are meant to hold up the woman of the first reading to ourselves today as a mirror. By her exercise of virtue she has become an exemplar for us, demonstrating that the proper investment of the talents God has given us is done through virtuous love for others. And so we do well to ask ourselves again, to interrogate our conscience to see how it responds to the question, have we invested well, have we provided a good return for the Lord from all he has given us? The type of fear we feel in response tells us whether or not we have invested our talents well and are truly ascending the Mountain of the Lord, or we have buried them and are just going through the motions.
Your servant in Christ,