Sermon given by Fr. Cyril J. Law at the Juventutem London Mass for Ember Friday 26 September 2014.
Reprinted here by kind permission of Fr. Law
+ What we have witnessed today in the gospel passage, is how this woman, this sinner, gate-crashing at the Pharisee’s mock banquet, performed such a tactile, intimate yet genuinely penitential act of worship – she brought perfumed ointment, she humbled herself, she wept profusely, wiped Our Lord’s feet with her hair, and, unexpectedly yet perhaps mystically, anointed the Messiah. ‘I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.’ Remittuntur ei peccata multa, quoniam dilexit multum.I remember seeing this scripture verse carved in Latin on a confessional box in the Sicilian Church on the Via del Tritone not far from the Trevi Fountain. The image of that confessional gave me a lasting impression of the unfathomably entwined mystery of Love and Sin, the unlikely partner of Grace and Shame, the awesome balance of Justice and Mercy, and the valiant battle between Life and Death. The immense love of this woman, which merited the cancellation of her innumerable sins, was theatrically ‘acted out’ as it were, by the banquet table in a stranger’s house. This pitiful woman was elated when she found her Saviour and there were no qualms whatsoever in her heart that at her first contact with the Lord, she will do her utmost to respect him, to honour him, to pay him the homage fitting for a Sovereign King and Master. Such audacity, such profound and spontaneous intuition into the nature of true worship, in which there is no mental separation between adoration and atonement; there, in true worship, our bodily acts speak for our innermost disposition, not as an act of display, but as a fully integral expression of our heart’s desire to let God reign in our lives, where the pride of place is no longer occupied by our false ego and our petty, self-serving feelings. Again, such courage, such plain power of confidence that this woman has in allowing True Love to squash all squirms and unease in showing her unadulterated Faith.
Sacred Tradition wisely informs us that True Worship, majestic and awe-inspiring as it is, must by nature always be tempered by asceticism and humility. The penitential seasons and the seasonal ember days, in which we find ourselves today, are instructional in instilling in us a disposition characterized by sobriety and single-mindedness. With its origins lying deep within the human psyche and in accord with the vital agrarian and social practices that respect the God-given natural rhythm of nature and culture, the Ember Days are periodical reminders of the bounty of creation and a time of intense liturgical preparation for the ordinations to the various grades of the Holy Orders. Incidentally, I found this rather straightforward and succinct description of what Embers Days are all about in the last Anglican Sermon of John Henry Newman, entitled the Parting of Friends, where he said, “We keep the Ember-days for the fruits of the earth, in self-abasement, as being unworthy even of the least of God's mercies; and now we are offering up of its corn and wine as a propitiation, and are eating and drinking of them with thanksgiving.”
Speaking as a newly ordained priest, I confess that I did not have the fortune of being ordained in the traditional Ember Saturday once appointed as the day of ordination, but offering the Sacrifice of the Mass today does remind me of the august duty that a priest is bound to carry out in rendering the blessings of creation fruitful for the salvation of souls, and most importantly, to be a harbinger of peace and reconciliation between God and sinners, among whom I count myself.
Here may I boldly ask: for all these weeks, months or years, what has been holding you back from going to the Sacrament of Confession? Could there be anything worse or more embarrassing than what this woman we met in the Gospel was known for, being a sinner that everybody knew in the city? You are not being asked to bring an alabaster flask of ointment nor even a pair of tearful eyes every time you come to Church. You are but invited to come with a repentant heart, to kiss the feet of our Lord as you do every Good Friday, so that you can start afresh and be once more in the embrace of this Loving Guest at each Holy Eucharist, this Guest ‘who even forgives sins’.
Dear brothers and sisters, I would be happy to give you my first blessing as a new priest after Mass, though sadly I do not have sufficient numbers of my ordination card to give you, so allow me to read what’s written on it, which is a verse entitled The Priestly Office from St Gregory Nazianzen, translated into English by Cardinal Newman.
|IN service o'er the Mystic Feast I stand;|
|I cleanse Thy victim-flock, and bring them near|
|In holiest wise, and by a bloodless rite.|
|O fire of Love! O gushing Fount of Light!|
|(As best I know, who need Thy pitying Hand)|
|Dread office this, bemired souls to clear|
|Of their defilement, and again made bright.|
Pe. Cyril J. Law, Jr.