Preached at All Saints’, Houghton Regis, at the beginning of the Forty Hours Devotion as part of the Thy Kingdom Come wave of prayer for evangelisation, healing and the renewal of the Church.
Of all the catholic devotions, the Forty Hours is perhaps my favourite. It’s also one of the most difficult to put into effect as well, so I commend you for doing so! It is a beautiful thing to wait in the presence of our Lord, and I pray that this devotion may be a joy and a benefit for you and for the whole world.
The number forty is one of great significance. The days of rain in the story of the Flood; the years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness; the days Jesus spent fasting in the desert; the days between Easter and the Ascension.
The forty hours devotion, however, refers to something different. It is about the hours that Jesus spent in the tomb – from the afternoon of Good Friday to the dawn of Easter Day.
This devotion, then, is very much about our Lord’s death.
We shouldn’t shy away from this. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the truth that God incarnate, Jesus Christ, died for us. His death on the Cross is not a tragic event that was undone by the Resurrection. It’s not merely a sad moment on the way to something better.
No, the death of Jesus Christ is the heart of our faith. As the new Adam, he did what none of us can do. He led a life of perfect obedience to the will of his Father. On behalf of the whole human race, he offered every bit of himself to God. He lived a life of perfect goodness, which brought him to the Cross. And on the Cross he conquered. He broke down the wall of sin that separated us from God.
This was a priestly act. The priesthood of Aaron and Melchizedek in the Old Testament was about sacrifice, reconciliation and blessing. That is what Christ did on the Cross. He sacrificed himself, reconciling the world to God and blessing it forever.
And that is why he gave us the mass.
“This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.”
Or, as Fr Diego will pray later in this mass:
“As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean.”
In the mass, Christ’s saving sacrifice is made present to us, here and now. Here in this mass, we are on Calvary. Christ’s sacrifice is not just an abstract thing. It is for each of us. During these forty hours, as you gaze on Christ in his sacramental presence, hear him say “I did this for you.” Not just for “all people”. For you.
These forty hours, then, are a time for us to sit with Christ in his saving death. To gaze upon him under the form of bread. To know that Christ the eternal high priest is present to us as he is present to God the Father, sacrificed for us, reconciling us, blessing us.
And yet this is not enough. The Christian faith is not about our resting here in church in Christ’s presence. We must do that, of course, but it is not enough. As the hymn has it:
“’Tis good, Lord, to be here,
yet we may not remain;
but since thou bidst us leave the mount,
come with us to the plain.”
The Christian faith is an active one. We are here for forty hours of prayer, and the prayer must be that the Church be transformed. We pray for renewal and revival. We pray for all the people of God, that they may in turn make Christ’s sacrifice, reconciliation and blessing present for the whole world.
This is what we are called to in our baptism. As St Peter writes, “You are a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people to be a personal possession to sing the praises of God who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” We, the Church, are a kingdom of priests. Each of us is called to participate in Christ’s eternal priesthood, offering salvation to the whole world.
Before I was ordained to the sacramental priesthood, I was sent a card by a Roman Catholic priest I know. He included some words from the Roman Catholic Ordinal:
“Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
These words are applicable for all Christians.
When you celebrate the mass, know what you are doing. You are participating in the most important event in history, Christ’s eternal sacrifice. When you celebrate the mass, imitate the mystery you celebrate. Be like Christ in his sacrifice and in his goodness. When you celebrate the mass, model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross. Go out from this place and imitate what Christ did on the Cross, for the benefit of all his people.
I shall finish, then, with words to meditate on during these forty hours. They are from Lumen Gentium, the 1960s Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church.
“All the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a sacrifice, living, holy and pleasing to God. They should everywhere on earth bear witness to Christ and give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs.” (LG 10)