All Saints Margaret Street | Sermon High Mass 3rd Sunday before Lent

Sermon for Sermon High Mass 3rd Sunday before Lent

3rd Sunday Before Lent

 ‘You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.’

‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.’

That’s a better job-description than many now offered in clergy appointment processes, and one that applies to all of us as baptized Christians.

The two short paragraphs about salt and light are among the most straightforward of Jesus’ parabolic utterances: salt is used to preserve food and add flavour; light surely needs no further gloss. Jesus tells us to be distinctive in our witness to the gospel; distinctive by a way of living that adds staying-power and flavour to human flourishing and illustrates God to the world. In service of that he encourages us to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, by being more than mere law-keepers and enforcers.

As I said in my email on Friday, Anglicans mostly know one line from this gospel as the BCP introduction to the Offertory. Those words (‘let your light so shine before men…’) are the first of the ‘Offertory sentences’ there. In Cranmer’s first prayerbook of 1549, those sentences were sung by the ‘clerkes’, of whom our choir are linear descendents; they were an insistently scriptural Offertory motet. But in the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries the singing was lost and, as communion became less frequent, the service sometimes stopped at about this point. So, by 1662, one or more offertory sentences were read, not sung, and they were read whether or not communion was to follow. Hence our Anglican confusion about the meaning of the word Offertory, which has come to mean a collection of money at any service, whether Mass or not. 

But the Offertory, properly understood, is the first action of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The ceremonial bringing forward, preparing and offering on the altar of the bread and wine is not merely functional; it is the first act of the sacrifice and the elements also represent ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice to thee’. As the priest says when preparing the chalice, 

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

The sacrament doesn’t just bring Christ nearer to us: it also lifts us up to him.

We often think of sacrifice as meaning only ‘giving something up’, as destruction or death, but sacri-ficium means ‘making holy’. The whole action of the Mass is about making us holy by our participation in the Offering, which unites us to Christ in his death and his resurrectionIt is surely by becoming holy that we become salt and light for the world, so it matters how we do it. The form of sacrifice from which the Mass is descended, the Communion or Thanksgiving Sacrifice in the Temple, prescribed in the Old Testament, began with just such a ceremony of offering. 

I wrote a little about the Mass as a sacrifice in Friday’s email, so I’ll suggest you look there and at the book I mentioned if you want to pursue that further. The important bit is that the ancient Jewish communion sacrifice consisted of an offertory, a mediation by the priest (compare the Eucharistic Prayer) and a communion meal. This ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’ best illuminates the scriptural lineage of the Blessed Sacrament.

So the Catholic understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice is not only about uniting us to the once-for-all offering of Christ on the cross—though it does that, sacramentally. But Jesus gave us the offering of bread and wine as a ‘thanksgiving sacrifice’ the night before he died on the cross, before he became a sacrificial victim, to unite us with the life of God, that we might become Christ’s Body in the world. 

Cranmer’s original prayer of Consecration included the words I quoted earlier, the offering of ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee…’ calling it ‘this our bounden duty and service…’. By 1662 these words had been relegated until after communion, obscuring their purpose and meaning. Happily modern revisions have put them back in the right place in the Eucharistic Prayer, proclaiming that we are joined to the offering; we are offered to God, with the elements of bread and wine, in order that we may become salt and light to the world.

That is the reason for us placing the bread and wine at the back of church and having two members of the congregation bring it forward to make the offertory at the altar. It is about our movement towards God, who wants to come to us and welcome us home to him. As we draw near to him in worship, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, here, he draws near to us in the Blessed Sacrament with the offer of nourihsment for eternal life. 

What we do here matters. How we offer this sacrifice, our care to make it our best offering, is a sign of how seriously we take our baptismal vocation. Our communion nourishes us to go out there and enact that: action here is intended to provoke action out there. There is little point to being here otherwise. That is the subject of our first reading from Isaiah, about true religion requiring us to share our bread with the hungry and welcome the homeless poor. ‘Then,’ says Isaiah, ‘your light shall break forth like the dawn’. What we do here needs to be understood as feeding the rest of our life in Christ. All we say and do is to be informed by the offering we make, to the greater glory of God.

Fr Bill said to us last week lighting our Candlemas candles is important as a sign of hope to the world. We lit them last week as a reminder that we are to be that sign, that hope, as salt and light. Today we are reminded why:

‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.’