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The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27, 2020

Click here to watch Father Ryan give this homily (Vimeo)

    I normally focus in the homily on the first reading and the gospel but today, I want to focus on that familiar passage from the Letter to the Philippians - familiar because we hear part of it every year on Palm Sunday – the part that scripture scholars tell us is an ancient hymn sung in the early Church. St. Paul’s community at Philippi would have known it as well as we know I heard the voice of Jesus, or Holy God we praise Thy name.

    Before he introduces the hymn, however, St. Paul speaks words that suggest that there are some divisions within the community: rivalries, selfishness, sins against unity. So, he gently chides the people, calls them to rise to their full stature, encourages them to walk in the way of love, fellowship, compassion, forgiveness, and humility. “Complete my joy,” he tells them, “by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” And then St. Paul offers them a model for all this, and not surprisingly, the model is Jesus Christ. “Your attitude,” he told them, “must be the attitude of Christ.”

    It’s hard to think of a better model than that. Right?  Or a more challenging one! To drive home the point, rather than depend on words of his own, St. Paul, then turns to the words of a hymn they all knew. “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…and he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

    Now I ask you: can you think of a better way for calling a community to overcome their petty divisions, their jockeying for power, their self-centeredness?  A better way for encouraging them to be their best selves! I certainly can’t. And not only does Paul remind them that they are to have the attitude of Christ, he zeroes in on exactly what that attitude is. It’s nothing less than self-emptying love, the love Christ willingly poured out on the cross. You see what I mean by ‘challenging!’ How are we ever going to love like that!
Of course, it’s one thing to read that passage from Philippians as words that St. Paul penned long ago; it’s quite another to read them in light of now - of today - in light of what is going on in our world, our Church, our country, in light of all the divisions – deep and destructive divisions – hostile and seemingly insurmountable divisions that are everywhere.

    I think, for instance, of the organized – sometimes open, more often, subtle, but nonetheless hostile opposition Pope Francis faces from certain factions in the Church – even from some of his brother bishops. It is unprecedented, at least in our time, and it is a wound – a gaping, festering wound - on the Body of Christ. I think it would make the problems St. Paul was having to deal with in Philippi pale by comparison.

    And then there is our nation. We are in the grip of a terrible, global pandemic; we are struggling to come to grips with the dreadful scourge of systemic racism; and we are in the midst of an ugly, contentious election season where the stakes are high and the very institutions and foundations of our democracy seem threatened. And, instead of coming together to address the issues that face us - instead of looking for common ground and trying to listen to and learn from one another – more often than not, we buy into the narrow partisanship and name-calling that have come to define our national politics. We make little or no attempt to engage in dialogue or to build bridges of understanding.

    Of course, we might hope that those who hold high office or seek it would lead the way: would look for ways to unite us, not divide us, to calm fears, not stir them up, to bring us together, calling on ‘the better angels of our nature but, failing that, we who follow Christ need to walk the high road or, in St. Paul’s words, we need to strive to be “of the same mind, to have the same love, to be united in heart, to think one thing.” And, I know, that sounds hopelessly naïve given current realities, but it’s our call as Christians and if we were to take it seriously, I do believe we would begin to make a difference. It has to start somewhere!

    My friends in Christ, more than anything at this critical moment, I want to call us to prayer. I know prayer alone is not enough but it is something we can all do, something we must all do. Prayer can change hearts, prayer can change minds. In a homily he gave a few months ago, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of prayer in this fractured world of ours. “God,” he said, “expects that when we pray we will be mindful of those who do not think as we do, those who have slammed the door in our face, those whom we find it hard to forgive.”

    My friends, it’s that kind of prayer that could begin to break down barriers, bridge gaps, and heal divisions. It’s a very real step toward putting on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. And there is no better prayer for doing that than this prayer, this prayer that takes us to the very heart of Christ, this prayer that can give us the very heart of Christ, this greatest of all our prayers - this Eucharist we now dare to celebrate!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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