Price of Redemption
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
St. John Chrysostom imagined a chariot race when he preached about this passage. Think of it. You have two teams of horses yoked to two chariots. He proposes two pairings. Justice and arrogance go together, representing the pharisee; and sin and humility go together, representing the tax collector. "You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility. The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance (St. John Chrysostom, Fifth Homily against the Anomaeans)
The tax collector and the pharisee show us two very opposed attitudes regarding prayer and worship. The tax collector is humble, needful of God, and hungry for connection. The pharisee is proud, self-sufficient, and self-centered. Is our worship a search for God or a sacrifice at the altar of our own ego?
We are here because we are seeking something from God. All those who go to Church already "knowing" their own perfection heap hypocrisy on themselves. On the other hand, those who go to Church seeking conversion gain fruits of repentance and humility. We practice humility in our worship when we recognize ourselves as people who are receiving a gift, instead of insisting on our own inventions and fanciful ideas.
There are "three essential features of the Eucharistic liturgy – namely, the priest, the rite, and the people. When these elements are in proper balance, rightly ordered liturgy obtains." (Bishop Barron) The three typical distortions of the liturgy come from these three elements: "clericalism (too much of the priest), ritualism (a fussy hyper-focus on the rite), and congregationalism (a disproportionate emphasis on the people)." (Bishop Barron)
Today, I would like to focus on the priest and how he helps us in our worship during mass.
The priest is an "administrator of heavenly things." The priest who forgets this and begins to think of himself as the owner of the Church is destined to fall into pride and into ruining many souls he is called to bring to God. This is why it is important for the priest to play his role well. The vestments that the priest wears are a reminder of who he is for the congregation. The stole represents his priestly authority. The chasuble represents the service he is supposed to offer. The chasuble is worn over the stole just as service should reign over authority.
The pull between the "tax-collector mode" and the "Pharisee mode" is real. The priest has studied for years and engaged in ministry and liturgy to the point that he can feel that he has much more expertise than those around him. But in the end, he is a servant of Jesus Christ in the same way that they are. We become like the Pharisees when we judge others. It is amazing how we can list off a series of sins, judging the sins of others to be worse than our own sins. So we fall into the trap of condemning others without noticing our own faults.
The "tax-collector mode" turns on when he is alone with God. He looks at his life and sees his many mistakes and sins. He engages daily in the heavenly mysteries, and yet may still be given to criticizing, backbiting, bouts of anger, and other private sins. He looks at the misery of his own life and can only look up to the Cross to see that Christ died in a miserable way to save him from his sins and to save his flock as well. Although he feels miserable and weak, he decides once again to unite his own nothingness to Christ, in the hope that he can somehow participate in the glorious mission of saving souls through his own self-giving on his personal cross made up of the worries and sorrows that come from taking care of others spiritually.
When he presents the bread and the wine during the Offertory, he is reminded of his own spiritual struggles and prepares the altar knowing that his sacrifice will be united to Christ and help to win grace for the world.
Sometimes, I meet people who are going through a rough patch or facing truly impossible situations. No amount of wisdom from my lips is going to resolve their problems. In these cases, the best thing I can do is place them spiritually on the paten, which is the golden receptacle for the host, so that Christ can take their worries and suffering and unite them to his own.
The climax of the Mass comes for the priest at the moment of consecration and elevation of the host and chalice, presenting to the people the Savior who has come to be with them, to be received by them.
Both the tax collector and the Pharisee made it to church. But one went home justified, while the other did not. If our experience of God in prayer and the sacraments is not transforming our hearts, something is missing. The more attention and effort we put into living out the liturgy, the more we will be able to get out of it. The Christian pop group Casting Crowns has a song called "If we are the body," reflecting on how our behavior as Christians should reflect the time we spend in church. If we have a true spiritual living of the mass, our worship will show its authenticity through the love and service we show our neighbor.
"The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1382) May our participation in this banquet bring us to share in the sacrifice and offer up pleasing worship to the Lord.