I enjoy this week’s reading from Ezekiel. How often do I, in my heart of hearts say to myself, “God, Your way is not fair! Look at all the things I have to do as a Catholic and how I am expected to live in my daily life. Look at how everyone is living…why do I get stuck being the token Christian?” And God’s response: “Listen, My goal for you is heaven and eternal happiness with Me. Get over what you think is unfair. I made fair. And believe it or not, I know what I am doing.”
But that is the issue for us…“believe it or not”…do it the hard way…do it the easy way… just do it God’s way and we will make it. And as Blue Eyes sang so well…that’s life. You may be a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, poet, a pawn and a king…been up and down and over and out…God is the great equalizer…pick yourself up and get back in the race.
This is what the concept of the Old Testament Sabbath is all about. Sabbath is a vision of freedom. On this day slave and master are equals. The “hallowing” of the Sabbath means precisely this: a rest from all relationships of subordination and a temporary relief from all burden of work. (A reminder of what heaven is all about.)
Now some people conclude from this that the Old Testament makes no connection between creation and worship, that it leads to a pure vision of a liberated society as the goal of human history, that from the very beginning its orientation is anthropological and social…indeed revolutionary. But this is a complete misunderstanding of the Sabbath.
God is a fair God. The account of creation and the Sinai regulations about the Sabbath come from the same source. To understand the account of creation properly, one has to read the Sabbath ordinances of the Torah (the first five Books of our Bible). Then everything becomes clear. The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant between God and man; it sums up the inward essence of the covenant. If this is so, then we can now define the intention of the account of creation as follows: creation exists to be a place for the covenant that God wants to make with man. The goal of creation is the covenant, the love story of God and man. The freedom and equality of men, which the Sabbath is meant to bring about, is not a merely anthropological or sociological vision; it can only be understood…theologically. Only when man is in covenant with God does he become free. Only then are the equality and dignity of all men made manifest.
If, then, everything is directed to the covenant, it is important to see that the covenant is a relationship: God’s gift of Himself to man, but also man’s response to God. Man’s response to the God Who is good to him is love, and loving God means worshiping Him. If creation is meant to be a space for the covenant (the place where God and man meet one another) then it must be thought of as a space for worship.
Well, I am on vacation as this reflection is being read. (I hope I am having a good vacation and recreating this world.) Well, while I am gone…I want to continue the reflection on why we do what we do when we worship God together and apart.
If you look at this week’s Gospel…Jesus makes this very point. As being the Body of Christ, we are united as a body and as individuals who make the body work (or can cause a cancer to the body). Jesus (and St. Paul writing to the Romans) tells how we are to care (and correct) each other in love. Ahh…love…the most mishandled word in the English language. We use it to mean everything! As Americans, we could learn from the rest of the world. Are you aware that in the Italian language there are over 1000 different words of endearment…so many…that it often impossible to properly translate them into English. Too often, they are translated (or miss the translation) as: “love”. This is why St. Paul…when referring to Christian love…used an out of use word that even the Romans and Greeks forgot to use: AGAPE.
But, once again, what does all this mean for our reflection? First, it becomes clear that worship and honoring of God and saints (seen in its true breadth and depth) goes beyond the action of the liturgy. Ultimately, (as St. Paul and Jesus speaks to us in this week’s reading) worship embraces the ordering of the whole of human life. Man becomes glory for God…puts God…so to speak, into the light (and that is what worship is), when a person lives by… looking toward God. On the other hand, as I pointed out two weeks ago…it is also true that law and ethics do not hold together when they are not anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it.
What kind of reality, then, do we find in the liturgy? One answer we can now say this: The man who puts to one side any consideration of the reality of God is a realist only in appearance. He is removing himself from the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” (cf. Acts 17:28). It is only when man’s relationship with God is right that all of his other relationships—his relationships with his fellowmen, his dealings with the rest of creation—can be in good order. (This is the point of this week’s readings).
As we have reflected on in the pat, law is essential for freedom and community; worship—that is, the right way to relate to God—is, for its part, essential for law. We can now broaden the insight by taking a further step. Worship…that is, the right kind of worship (as God wants us to worship Him)…a kind that is in a relationship with God…essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely set up… because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God…and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. In this sense, worship—as we said when we were discussing play—has the character of anticipation. It lays hold in advance of a more perfect life and…when practiced…gives our present life its proper measure. A life without such anticipation…a life no longer opened up to heaven…would be empty (a leaden (burden) life). That is why there are (in reality) no societies altogether lacking in worship and honor. Even the decidedly atheistic, materialistic systems create their own forms of hero worship (though, of course, they can only be an illusion and strive in vain, by bombastic trumpeting, to conceal their nothingness). Maybe this is why some in our society today seek to tear down the saints like St. Junípero Serra of California or personages such as Christopher Columbus and put emptiness in their place.
In last week’s reflection, I was speaking of how we tend to want to do things our way instead of following “rules” and “guidelines”…when it is so much better to rule by anarchy. Ahh…“freedom”…telling Jesus, off to the side, how things would be better in the world (like Peter in this week’s Gospel).
What does this mean for the question we have been considering? We were looking at the two goals of the Old Testament Exodus experience. I have been attempting to demonstrate that the issue was ultimately about the nature of the liturgy (how we worship individually and as a group for the glory of God). I hope it has become clear that what took place on Sinai (and in the period of rest after the wandering through the wilderness) is what gives meaning to the taking of the Promised Land. Sinai is not a halfway house (a kind of stop for refreshment on the road to what really matters). No, Sinai gives Israel, so to speak, its interior land without which the exterior one would be a cheerless prospect. Israel is constituted as a people through the covenant and the divine law it contains.
Israel has received a common rule for righteous living. This and this alone is what makes the land a real gift. Sinai remains present in the Promised Land. When the reality of Sinai is lost, the Land, too, is inwardly lost, until finally the people are thrust into exile (again). Whenever Israel falls away from the right worship of God, when she turns away from God to the false gods (the powers and values of this world), her freedom, too, collapses. It is possible for her to live in her own land and yet still be as she was in Egypt. Mere possession of your own land and state does not give you freedom; in fact, it can be the grossest kind of slavery. And when the loss of law becomes total, it ends in the loss even of the land.
Like Peter had to be reminded by Jesus to remember his place if he is to serve God, we can be so attached to this world that we lose the Promise Land of Heaven: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
The “service of God”, the freedom to give right worship to God, appears, in the encounter with Pharaoh, to be the sole purpose of the Exodus…really… its very essence. This fact is evident throughout the Books of Moses. This real “canon in the canon” (the very heart of Israel’s Bible) is written and set entirely outside of the Holy Land. It ends on the edge of the wilderness, “beyond the Jordan”, where Moses once more sums up and repeats the message of Sinai. So we can see what the foundation of existence in the Promised Land must be…the necessary condition for life in community and freedom. It is this: steadfast adherence to the law of God, which orders human affairs rightly, that is, by organizing them as realities that come from God and are meant to return to God. Or…(when someone is in slavery: “what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.” Remembering what was stated last week…worship, law and ethics are inseparably interwoven.
This week’s first reading calls out to us in the 21st century…why? Well, you know, man doesn’t change very much. St. Thomas Aquinas uses the fancy word: concupiscence (a strong desire, a tendency or attraction, usually arising from lust or sensual desires). I always like demonstrating this principal of people who move in and out of two states (oh…let us say North Dakota and Canada). Those on the Dakota side know this state very well, but, because we don’t travel much in Canada, we tend to stay away…because we don’t go where we have to study, experience the ways and rules of Canada (I still have problems converting miles into Km). This is similar to mankind. We can live in the state of Virtue or the state of Vice. We know the roadmap of the state of Vice very well. However, the state of Virtue calls us to live, learn and practice life in a different way. And, we lean (our concupiscence) to Vice over Virtue because we lazily stick to the old road and trails we know so well (even though we know the state of Virtue is far better place to exist).
We have been reflecting on why we (as Catholics) do what we do in our worship and prayer. We have been looking at the People of Israel in the Old Testament. (In particular, we have been thinking of Moses and his message of being a free people in the Promise Land.
Three things are important for the question we are considering. First of all, on Sinai the people receive not only instructions about worship, but also an all-embracing rule of law and life. Only in these recognizable observances given to them by God can it become a people unique in this world. A people without a common rule of law cannot live. It destroys itself in anarchy, which is a parody of “freedom”, this pretending “freedom” is too often exalted to the point of obliteration.
When every man lives without law, every man lives without freedom. This brings me to my second point. In the ordering of the covenant on Sinai, the three aspects of: worship, law and ethics are inseparably interwoven. This is the greatness of the Sinai covenant…but also its limitation, as is shown in the transition from Israel (Old Testament) to the Church of the Gentiles (New Testament), where the interweaving was to unravel…to make room for a diversity of legal forms and political structures. In the modern age this necessary unraveling has led finally to the total secularization of the law and the exclusion of any God-ward perspective (or any God focus) from the fashioning of the law.
But we must not forget that there is an essential connection between the three orders of: worship, law, and ethics. Law without a foundation in morality becomes injustice. When morality and law do not originate in a God-ward perspective (being God focused), such laws will degrade man, because they rob him of his highest measure and his highest capacity (deprive him of any vision of the infinite and the eternal).
This “freedom”, this seeming liberation subjects him to the dictatorship of the ruling majority, to shifting human standards…which inevitably end up doing him violence. (Have you been watching TV recently?) Now we come to a third point…which takes us back to where we started…to the question of the nature (the why) of worship and liturgy. When human affairs are so ordered that there is no recognition of God, there is a belittling of man. That is why, in the final analysis, worship and law cannot be completely separated from each other. God has a right to a response from man…a response from man to man himself…and…where that right of God totally disappears, the order of law among men is dissolved, because there is no cornerstone to keep the whole structure together.
This week’s second reading from St. Paul is very telling of a man (who, if you remember from last week, is himself a Jew…of the chosen people…picked by God to be His race of people) that wants the Romans (the Gentiles…the untouchables) to know they are God’s people. Just as Moses brings the people out of Egypt to return the Israelites back to Israel, St. Paul calls the Romans (and us…2000 years later) to join in the journey.
Israel departs Egypt (the reality of slavery), not in order to be a people like all the others; Israel departs…as I wrote last week…in order to serve God. The goal of the departure is into the unknown…the still unknown mountain of God…to the service of God. Now the objection could be made that focusing on worship in the negotiations with Pharaoh was purely tactical. The real goal of the Exodus (ultimately its only goal) was not worship but land (this, after all, was the real content of the promise to Abraham).
But, like St. Paul, I do not think that “a land deal” does justice to the seriousness that underlies the readings. The land (the country of Israel) is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the True God. Mere possession of the land…mere national autonomy…would reduce Israel to the same level of all the other nations. The pursuit of such a goal would be a misunderstanding of what is distinctive about Israel being God’s chosen people. The whole history recounted in the Old Testament books of the Judges and Kings (which is taken up again and given a new interpretation in the Chronicles), is intended to show precisely this: that the land…considered just in itself…is a convenience. It only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled…when it is the place where God reigns. Then it will not be just some independent state or other world power…but the realm of obedience (where God’s will is done and the right kind of human existence developed). A lesson Peter learned the hard way last week when he let the world confuse him…and starts to drown in the world’s surroundings.
Looking at the biblical texts (like Isaiah this week) helps us to define more exactly the relationship of the two goals of the Exodus story. In its wanderings, Israel discovers the kind of sacrifice God wants…not after three days (as suggested in the conversation with Pharaoh)…but after three months – on the day they come “into the wilderness of Sinai” (cf. Ex 19:1). On the third day God comes down (kind of what happened at the Transfiguration) onto the top of the mountain (cf. Ex19:16, 20). He speaks to the people. He makes known His will to them in the Ten Commandments (cf. 20:1-17) and, through the mediation of (a priest) Moses…makes a covenant with them (cf. Ex 24). This covenant was (is) to be observed and practiced in a precisely regulated form of worship. In this way, the purpose of the wandering in the wilderness (as explained to Pharaoh) is fulfilled. Israel learns how to worship God in the way He Himself desires. So our liturgy (in the proper sense) is part of this worship…but…so too is our life according to the will of God. St. Paul’s point in the second reading: this life is an indispensable part of true worship. Ultimately, it is the very life of man…man himself as living righteously…that is the true worship of God. But, life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God. The liturgy (with all its “rules”) exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.
I know some of you have been thinking: “The Fr. Kevin Reflections are going off into areas that I have a hard time grasping…what is he doing?” Well, that thought goes right along with this week’s readings at Mass. God is constantly reminding us: It’s His reality…not ours…that counts. As Elijah understands…God is not in the wind storm. Nor the earthquake, nor the raging fires that make mankind tremble in fear…it is in the whispering sound that causes Elijah to hit the ground. The same is true with Peter…he gets in trouble when he allows “earthly reality” to cloud his thinking.
With the reflections for the next few months, I am going to ask you to suspend the “practical” way of reading the reflections…and be a little impractical. Let the mind escape from the way the world thinks…and focus on the “rules of the game” that God sets before us in the practice of: our worship, our liturgy…our faith.
You may remember me referring to the liturgy and the worship of God as a “play” or “game”. There are rules that come with playing any game. To play it right, you have to suspend our day to day routine and join the rest of the team. This is similar to the liturgy. We “play” as God wants us to “play the game”. This application of the “play-theory” distinguishes the liturgy by its essence from the ordinary kinds of playing (which doubtless always contain a longing for the real “game”) for a wholly different world in which order and freedom are the same (compared to the superficial, utilitarian, or humanly vacuous aspects of ordinary play.) The “play-theory” of our liturgy brings out what is special and different about that “play” of Wisdom the Bible speaks about, (the actions found in the Bible that can be compared to the liturgy). I have to admit…this analogy still lacks something, something essential. The idea of a life to come appears only as a vague assumption. The reference to God, without Whom the “life to come” would only be a wasteland…remains quite uncertain. Let me try another approach, this time starting from specific biblical texts.
Those particularly who have been at the Bible study on Tuesdays may remember the accounts of the events leading up to Israel’s flight from Egypt (as well as in those that describe the flight itself)…the Exodus appears to have two distinct goals. The first, which is familiar all of us, is the reaching of the Promised Land, in which Israel will at last live on its own soil and territory (with secure borders, as a people with the freedom and independence proper to it). But we also hear repeatedly of the second goal…God’s original command to Pharaoh runs like this: “Let my people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (cf. Ex 7:16). These words—“Let my people go, that they may serve Me”—are repeated four times, with slight variations, in all the meetings of Pharaoh with Moses and Aaron (cf. Ex 8:1; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3). In the course of the negotiations with Pharaoh, the goal becomes more concrete. Pharaoh shows he is willing to compromise. For him the issue is the Israelites’ freedom of worship, which he first of all concedes in the following form: “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land” (Ex 8:25). But Moses insists—in obedience to God’s command—that they must go out in order to worship. The proper place of worship is the wilderness: “We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he will command us” (Ex 8:27). (In other words…telling the government and its leaders…we have to worship the way God wants it…no one else…no other power). After the plagues that follow, Pharaoh extends his compromise. He now concedes that worship according to the will of the Deity should take place in the wilderness, but he wants only the men to leave: the women and children, together with the cattle, must stay in Egypt. (He is assuming the current religious practice, according to which only men are active participants in worship.) But Moses cannot negotiate about the liturgy with a foreign sovereign, nor can he subject worship to any form of political compromise. The manner in which God is to be worshipped is not a question of political feasibility. It contains its measure within itself…that is, it can only be ordered by the measure of revelation, in dependency upon God. That is why the third and most far-reaching compromise suggested by the earthly ruler is also rejected. Pharaoh now offers women and children the permission to leave with the men: “Only let your flocks and your herds remain” (Ex 10:24). Moses objects: All the livestock must go too, for “we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there” (10:26). In all this, the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be…worship, (which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise).
Like Elijah…most would see the storms, the earthquake, the fire…but ignore (in ignorance) the whisper of God.
In the celebration of the Transfiguration, Jesus shows the Apostles what life is going to be like in heaven. It seems earthbound…but…it’s not. It seems ordinary…but it is, in fact, extraordinary. Peter couldn’t take it in all at once. Jesus had to show him. And, for us 2000 years later, it is the same with the Mass. What seems ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary and not really of this world.
So…what is the Liturgy? What happens during the Liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here?
In the 1920s the suggestion was made that we should understand the Liturgy in terms of “play”. The point of the analogy was: a game has its own rules; sets up its own world (which is in force from the start of play but then, of course, is suspended at the close of play). If you don’t believe me…ask anyone (especially a wife or girlfriend) before, during and after a Super Bowl Game.
A further point of similarity was that play, though it has a meaning, does not have a purpose; and, that for this very reason, there is something healing (even liberating) about it. Play takes us out of the world of daily goals and their pressures and into a sphere free of purpose and achievement…releasing us (for a time) from all the burdens of our daily world of work. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where (for a moment) we can let life flow freely.
We need such moments of retreat from the pressure of daily life if its load is to be bearable. Now there is some truth in this way of thinking…but it is lacking. It all depends on what we are playing. Everything I have said can be applied to any game. The trouble is that serious commitment to the rules needed for playing the game soon develops its own loads…leading to new kinds of commitment. Whether we look at modern sports or at chess championships (or, at any game), we find that play…when it is not worn down into mere fooling about…quickly turn from being another world (a counter-world or non-world), to being a bit of the normal world…with its own laws.
We should mention another aspect of this theory of play, something that brings us closer to the essence of the liturgy. Children’s play seems (in many ways) a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. Looking at it this way, the Liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children (or should be children) in relation to that true life of heaven which we yearn to go. Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation…a rehearsal…a prelude for the life to come. By contrast with life in this world, St. Augustine describes eternal life as a fabric woven, no longer of survival and need…but of the freedom of generosity and gift. Seen this way, Liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood (an openness to a greatness still to come) which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance of the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life – the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our neighbor. This imprints on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of true freedom, break open the walls that confine us and let the light of heaven shine down on us (as it did with Peter, James and John).
This application of “play” distinguishes the Liturgy by its essence from the ordinary kinds of play, which always contain a longing for the real “game”, for a different world in which order and freedom are at one.