Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Sermon – October 16, 2011 – Holy Things for Holy People


29 Sunday Ordinary time – October 16, 2011 – Holy Things for Holy People

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b, Matthew 22:15-21

The interior of the sixth century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna Italy glitters with Byzantine mosaics. One of them, high above an apse wall shows the Emperor Justinian with clergy on his left and military leaders on the right. It is an example of the political blend of religion and imperialism then. The mosaic also shows Justinian bearing a plate of bread. On the opposite side of the apse is another mosaic showing the Empress Theodora holding a cup for wine. Both of them are bringing gifts to the altar for the Liturgy.

This weekend we continue our series of sermons leading up to changes in the liturgical texts of the Mass. We do so to enhance our understanding of and appreciation for the Liturgy, the organization of which has not changed. Two weeks ago we discussed the Introductory Rites and how all of us can prepare for Mass even before we arrive here. Last week we spoke about the Liturgy of the Word as a gift to all and the importance of listening to it, appropriating it and making it accessible to others. This week we focus on the preparation rite at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Early in the history of the church the laity brought different gifts to the altar table as depicted in the mosaics I mentioned. Those gifts would include food for people who live in poverty as well as milk, honey, water, wine and bread. As the liturgy became more clerical the practice ceased, some think by the end of the seventh century. It was reinstated with the reforms of the Vatican Two Council and here at St. Vincent’s members of the assembly set the table with a cloth and then bring the gifts directly to the altar. Candles and sometimes dancers with fragrant incense accompany this significant symbolic procession.

The procession with gifts is significant because the sacrifice we offer to God is indeed our sacrifice. Thus, the gifts we bear are not only those of homemade bread, wine and monetary offerings, but also of ourselves. They symbolize our lives, who we are, what we do, our joys and our sorrows. It is easy to overlook this understanding because for generations we were taught that the priest was offering the sacrifice to God for us; that he said the Mass for us; that we heard his Mass. Listening carefully to the words of the Eucharistic Prayers today we learn that all who are present during Mass, clergy and laity, offer to God not only the body and blood of Jesus Christ but also themselves.

What about that word sacrifice? We use this term to describe our offerings at Mass. What does sacrifice mean to you? What does it mean to spouses who are abused, persons fighting cancer, troops dying in battle, children who are hungry, people who are homeless, unemployed? Can we say to them offer it up to God as a sacrifice? How many times have we heard someone say to us when we are hurting, “Offer it up.” What does sacrifice mean? The word is derived from two Latin words sacer which means “holy” and facere which means to make. To offer sacrifice is to make something holy. The very body and blood of Christ, our body and blood, are the “holy things” given for us to be shared among ourselves and with others.

As we explore ways to enhance our worship here at St. Vincent’s we do not wish to exclude anyone from participating fully in the fruits of the Mass. Participation does not mean only listening and watching. Surely it is not limited to what we say and sing. It could mean that we might use the same postures and gestures like extending our arms during blessings and prayers or bowing together with the priest at certain times.

To participate in the liturgy in a full and conscious manner is to respond to the calling received from God. We are chosen to identify with Jesus and all he said and did. We are hope for the hopeless. We are eyes for those who long to see. We are strength for those who are despairing. [1]

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant as he was quoted in today’s gospel, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” He was not talking about money but the holy things we give to one another. The preparation of the gifts and the altar table represents the joys and sufferings, expectations and possibilities not only in our lives but in those of others, known and unknown.

Perhaps someday full active conscious participation in the liturgy will mean, in the words of Pope Paul VI in his speech at the conclusion of the Vatican Two Council, “No one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away” [2] from the life of the church.


1 From the lyrics of “You are Mine” written by David Haas. GIA Publications, 1991

2 Paul VI, Second Vatican Council Closing Speech, December 8, 1965


Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

3 thoughts on “Sermon – October 16, 2011 – Holy Things for Holy People

  1. Provocative commentary, and a joy to read!


  2. I found this homily to be inspiring and yet anxiety provoking. I enjoy learning about the history and meaning of the beautiful practices we use in the words and actions of our liturgical celebrations.I am so proud of the depth of history and meaning in my Catholic Christian traditions. This parish has always personified the best of inclusive practices. In my 31 years at this parish, I have consistently known the movement of the Spirit inviting us to celebrate liturgy in a way that is alive with the changes and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. I am not sure what the connection is going to be between the beauty of what “is” and what is going “to be” when the changes take place in Advent. I am hoping that this homily is an invitation to dialogue once the changes are well explicated for all. I trust it will be. I don’t know what is going to be different in the way liturgy is celebrated. Will we still have women acolytes, girl altar servers, our beautiful incense bearers, the laity bringing the gifts right up to the altar, communion under both species and vocabulary that is clear and inspiring? Is it going to seem dramatic or much ado about nothing? Just some confusing new vocabulary to get accustomed to? How will the music change? It is frustrating that the context for this homily is the upcoming changes but the hierarchy of the church has yet to school the laity on what they are going to look like. The impending changes have started to feel like “Guess what’s behind door number three”. I am trying to be open to the good the bad and the unknown of all of this. I want to thank-you for reminding us of why it is that we do what we already do. It creates a good foundation for what is to come.


  3. Now perhaps if I walked into THIS Basilica I might feel ‘at once a place of mystery, a holy place…flooded with the presence of God.’ Especially because the Emperor and Empress are carrying gifts to the altar together.
    Really this was a wonderful sermon, Richard. I especially like the sacrifie – to make holy reference.

    With all the complaining and fear around the changes in the Roman Missal, these sermons are most enlightening. They are providing an opportunity for us to explore and reflect on what is going on within the Liturgy and within us as we all participate as the Body and Blood of Christ.


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