Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
Once upon a time, in the magical land of Humdrum, there lived a childless couple by the names of Herbert and Helga. They were advanced in years and had long given up hope of producing an heir. This was painful enough, but to add to it, Herbert and Helga were the king and queen of that fair land. Their line had come to an end, and the prospect of their kingdom thrown into chaos, without a rightful heir to the crown, was too much for them to bear. It was at that time that a prophesy, long forgotten, but now recalled, began to be fulfilled. It foretold just such an occasion and how a worthy successor would be found. When it happened that the king and queen of Humdrum produced no heir, a single white lily would be found growing in the hills. The worthy successor would be the one who, finding the lily, understood it, and was able to pluck it from the ground. “He who understands the lily will wear the crown.” And so it happened, that while Herbert and Helga were lying on their deathbed, a single white lily was found growing in the hills of Humdrum.
Three knights, each tall, strong, and valiant, set out to fulfill the quest. Having found the lily, each tried to pluck it from the ground. Now the first knight was a man of science. He had spent years dissecting and studying the parts of plants. He knew each of their names and could tell you each of their functions. Thinking that he understood the lily, he tried to pluck it from the ground, but it would not give. The second knight was a gardener. His was the most beautiful and fruitful garden in the land. He knew what each plant needed to grow and thrive. Thinking that he understood the lily better than the man of pure science, he tried to pluck it from the ground, but it would not give. The third knight was an artist. His paintings hung in the homes of the most rich and famous in the land. His skill was unsurpassed at capturing every detail of his subject. Taking much more time than the other two, the artist gazed at the lily and contemplated every stroke and color he would use to paint it. Having done so, and thinking that he alone had finally understood it, he tried to pluck it from the ground, but it would not give.
As the three knights stood by, each at a loss for what to do next, a mother and small boy appeared over the brow of the hill. The mother held in her hands a bunch of dandelions, still fresh with the morning dew. Spying the lily, which stood alone amidst a field of green and gold, the boy gave a start and ran towards it. Giving no resistance, the lily almost leaped into the boy’s hand as he plucked it from the ground. Running back to his mother, the boy gave it to her with a hug and a kiss. “It’s a gift, mama” the boy said. “Thank you, Henry,” she replied. And with a smile, and a tear in her eye, she took the lily and placed it in the middle of her bouquet. The worthy successor having been found, her boy was eventually crowned king of Humdrum. For while the scientist knew what the lily was; the gardener, what it needed; the artist, what it looked like; the boy alone understood it, for he alone knew what it was for: that it was a gift.
At its most basic level, all that exists, all that we have and are, is a gift. And until we see reality that way, we will never understand it. For the most defining feature of any created thing—whether that thing is a flower, a cow, or a human being—is not what it’s made of, or what it needs to survive, or how it looks, but what it is for. And all that exists has been given to us as a gift from God and is meant to be given back to God as a gift. In our first reading, when the Israelites see the manna that God has given them to eat, they ask, “What is this?” “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” Moses tells them. This is a gift, a gift from God.
But God has always wanted to give us more than this. For the greatest gift that God can give is not food that will eventually perish, but food that endures forever. And this food is Himself. The greatest gift that God can give is God Himself. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in our gospel, “whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The Holy Eucharist is the greatest gift that God has given us; for it is the gift of God Himself. And until we see the Holy Eucharist as a gift, and indeed the greatest gift, we will never understand it or treat it accordingly. We will be like the three knights who, for all their knowledge and skill, were unable to understand the lily and so pluck it from the ground. The mystery of the Holy Eucharist will remain beyond our reach, as the lily was beyond theirs.
Friends, our lives as Catholics are meant to be lived from the altar and to the altar. For it is from the altar, that we receive the greatest gift God has to offer: the gift of His very Self. And it is to the altar that we are meant to bring all that we have and are. Even as the gifts of bread and wine are placed on this altar at every Mass, we are called to place our lives on it as well. In fact, we should live in such a way so that everything we think, say, and do, Monday through Saturday, can be placed on this altar on Sunday. If a thought we think, or a word we say, or something we do, is not a worthy gift that we can offer back to God, then we should not think it, say it, or do it. This is what it means to live to the altar. It is to live in such a way that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we cannot offer back as a gift to God. The flow of gifts at Mass is not just meant to go one way. We will never understand the Mass until we see it as more than a one-way street. It is meant to be an exchange of gifts: God gives Himself entirely to us, and we in turn give ourselves entirely to Him.
So, what do we have to give to God at this Mass? What gifts can we place on this altar? Perhaps we have lived this past week in such a way that we have a great deal to offer. Perhaps we haven’t. Regardless, let us give what we have—whether abundant or meager—to God today. And each Sunday Mass going forward, let us strive to give more and more. God has given all that He has and is to us in the Holy Eucharist. Let us give Him all that we have and are in return as a gift. Amen.