Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Growing up I used to collect things. Most of what I collected were the usual “boy” things like baseball cards, rocks, and keychains. But I also collected something which wasn’t typical for boys my age: chemical formulas. I kept a three-page Word document with all the chemical formulas I learned about. I was interested in chemical formulas because I wanted to know how things worked and what they were made of. Now that I’m older, I no longer collect chemical formulas, but I do collect words. I’m interested in the make-up of words—how they’re put together, their formulas, their chemistry, if you will.
A word which I most recently collected is “parish.” I learned the make-up of this word when reading an article by Christopher Carstens, the Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of La Crosse, WI. The title of the article was, “Keep our Parishes Weird.” Now you may be saying to yourself, “Oh, Fr. Nick, you don’t need to worry about keeping our parish weird. You’re taking care of that yourself.” And that may be true enough. But what was the article about? Mr. Carstens began by pointing out that the word “parish” comes from the Greek word “paroikia,” which means a “temporary residence in a foreign land.” “Paroikia” in turn comes from the Greek word “paroikos” which means “stranger.” “Para” means “next to” or “alongside of,” and “oikos,” in addition to being the name of a delicious Greek yogurt, is a word which means “home.” So, a “paroikos” is a person who lives next to, or alongside of, or outside of, a home.
A “paroikos,” a parishioner, is not at home in the world. They are strangers living in a strange land. And their parishes are meant to be strange places—weird places. They’re not meant to look like the rest of the world. They’re not meant to be conformed to this world or at home in it. How are we doing at that here at St. Charles? That’s not a question just for me, but for all of us, to answer. Are we sufficiently strange? Are we sufficiently weird? Are we conformed to this earthly age, or are we conformed to Jesus Christ and the heavenly age to come?
In traditional Catholic church architecture, rectangles symbolize earth and circles symbolize heaven. This is very fitting, since rectangles have a certain solid and bounded quality to them, like the earth, whereas circles have a certain transcendent and infinite quality to them, like heaven. In the design of a traditional Catholic church, wherever the architect wants to symbolize a movement from earth to heaven he shows a movement from something rectangular to something circular.
To show that the very act of entering the church is a movement from earth to heaven, the architect designs the front door with a rectangular frame and a semi-circle on top. To show that the act of processing down the aisle toward the sanctuary is a movement from earth to heaven, he designs the main body of the church to be rectangular, and the back of the sanctuary, also called the apse, to be circular. To show that the act of offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice on the altar is an offering of something from earth to heaven, and a coming down of something—or Someone—from heaven to earth, he designs a large dome on top of a rectangular building and places the dome over the altar, the place where the Sacrifice is offered. Even the design of the physical church building is meant to symbolize that our parishes are not meant to be conformed to this world. They are meant to lead us from earth to heaven, from this foreign land in which we live as strangers to our true homeland in heaven.
And what we see in the physical church building, we are also meant to see in ourselves. The parishioner is meant to look like their parish. They are meant to look different—to look strange, and perhaps even weird. They are not meant to look like the rest of the world. They are meant to look like the place where the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered. They are meant to be a place where heaven meets earth. Perhaps that’s why our heads are circular, and the rest of our bodies are rectangular.
In our second reading, St. Paul urges and admonishes us: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The reason why we come to Mass every Sunday is to offer our bodies and minds to God: not just our minds, and not just our bodies, but both. And we offer our bodies and minds so that they might be transformed—transformed by being conformed, not to this earthly age, but to Jesus Christ and the heavenly age to come.
But we don’t come to Mass just to offer ourselves to God in worship. We also come to offer all of material creation back to God. And we human beings are the only ones who can do this. Angels can’t offer material creation back to God because angels don’t have bodies; they only have minds. And animals, plants, and minerals can’t offer their bodies back to God because they don’t have minds; they only have bodies. The only way for the material world to be offered back to God in worship is through us—because we have both bodies and minds. Unless we worship God, the rest of material creation cannot worship God as it’s meant to.
Not coming to worship God at Mass puts at risk not only our own transformation in Christ, but the transformation of the entire world. That’s why St. Paul’s urges and admonishes us to offer our bodies and minds to God. He knows, as He said earlier in the letter to the Romans, that all of “creation awaits with eager expectation [for] the revelation of the children of God” (8:19). The transformation of the world is waiting on you, and on me, and on all of God’s children. It’s waiting on us to worship God. We don’t need to wait on the world to change. The world is waiting on us to change. It’s waiting on us to worship God.
Paradoxically, the only way for the world to change is for us to become different than the world. And this paradoxical principle runs up and down our gospel. If we wish to save the world, we must be willing to lose it. We must be willing to become different than it, to become strangers in it. We must be willing to keep our parishes, and our parishioners, and even our priests, weird—not places where we encounter the world, but where the world encounters heaven. So, keep your parish weird. Be weird yourself. And although this may be the weirdest thing you’ve ever agreed to, I’d invite you to say, “Amen.”