Sacred to the Lord

A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

Remember the Sabbath day—keep it holy.  Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates.  For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

–Exodus 20:8-11–

He [i.e. Jesus] found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

–John 2:14-16–

            I once heard a story about a fellow who wrote to the Vatican with this question: Am I allowed to smoke while I pray?  One of the Italian cardinals wrote back with a seemingly enigmatic reply: Never smoke while you pray; but by all means, pray while you smoke.  Now let’s make it quite clear.  This answer has nothing to do with the potential risks of tobacco use.  The topic, for that matter, could just as easily have been chewing gum.  In point of fact, the Italian prelate’s response concerns the vital distinction between the sacred and the profane.

           Don’t smoke while you pray.  In other words, when we set aside a particular block of time dedicated to prayer, we should do nothing else in that time except pray.  But by all means, pray while you smoke.  In other words, as we go through our daily round of activities, it is always permissible to pray, to keep up a running conversation with God as we go about our business.

           I repeat.  When a particular segment of time is set aside for prayer, nothing profane or secular should intrude upon it.  We see this most clearly in our First Reading from the Book of Exodus.  The children of Israel are commanded to keep holy the Sabbath Day—to refrain from doing all unnecessary bodily work so as to have time for the worship of God and genuine rest.  What is consecrated to God as sacred should never be contaminated by the secular.  What is set apart for the Lord as holy should never be profaned by the ordinary.  This principal applies not only to time, but also to places, to objects, to music, and to persons.

           Today we have generally abandoned the whole notion of sacred places.  Jesus, however, did not.  In our Gospel, He is adamant, even vehement, about not profaning the sacred space of the Temple with money-making pursuits, even when those very pursuits are related to worship itself.  As I said, we moderns have unfortunately jettisoned the whole idea of sacred spaces.  Want proof of that?  I asked our custodian Jimmy Martin what sort of things he finds in church after Sunday Mass.  Would you believe it?  The items include (1) a plastic zip-lock bag containing a dirty disposable diaper, (2) fingernail clippings, and… (3) popcorn!  Hey, apparently my homilies are so entertaining that people feel compelled to bring their snacks!  All I can say is, better not look under the pews for wads of chewing gum!  When a place is consecrated and set aside for worship, it should never be sullied by the profane.

           What about sacred objects?  The same rule applies.  Once a cup, for example, is consecrated for service at the altar, it becomes a chalice and cannot be used in a kitchen, dining room, restaurant, or bar.  The sacred cannot be used for the profane.  This holds true even for music.  Music meant for worship should not be performed in settings or situations outside that context.  You would never want to hear, for instance, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus sung at a football game.  By the same token, music that is purely secular should never be brought into the liturgy.  This is a problem engaged couples often have in preparing their wedding ceremony.  I remember hearing about one impetuous bride and groom who insisted on having Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” sung at their nuptial Mass!  That which is devoted to God, and only that which is devoted to God may be used in the sacred liturgy.

           Finally, what can be said about sacred persons?  Whoever is consecrated to God must live a life devoted to God and not merely to secular pursuits.  A priest, because he is consecrated to God through ordination, must live all of his life in a way that bespeaks his being set apart for the Lord.  This does not mean that he must adopt a holier-than-thou attitude toward everyone who is not ordained.  Nor does it mean that he must eschew all innocent hobbies and pastimes.  It does mean, however, that his whole life should be oriented toward the pursuit of holiness and the salvation of souls.  Lay persons who are baptized are likewise consecrated to God by reason of their baptism.  They must live in such a way as to be in the world but not of the world.  Their ultimate aim must be to get to heaven and to help others to get there as well.

           To sum up, what is dedicated to God must not be given over to the secular.  What belongs to the Lord must not be claimed by the world.  This applies to time dedicated to prayer and to the Sabbath, to the Jerusalem Temple and to churches in general, to sacred things and objects, to liturgical and sacred music, to the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all the baptized.  God is indeed a holy God.   Whatever belongs to Him is His and must never, ever be usurped by the world.  That’s why, ladies and gentlemen, you should never smoke while you pray.