It is a widely accepted opinion in modern theology that in the so-called … nature religions (as well as in the non-theistic higher religions) worship (and a liturgy) is focused on the cosmos. While in the Old Testament and Christianity … the orientation is toward history. Islam (like post-biblical Judaism) is familiar only with a liturgy of the Word, which is shaped and ordered by the revelation that took place in history (though, in line with the universal tendency of that revelation) it is definitely meant to have a significance for the world as a whole.
The idea of worship being either cosmic or historical is not entirely unfounded, but it is false when it leads to an exclusive opposition. It underestimates the sense of history to be found even in the nature religions … and it narrows the meaning of Christian worship of God … forgetting that faith in redemption cannot be separated from faith in the Creator. In my current reflections, I hope we shall discover just how important this question of salvific history is, even for the apparent externals of liturgical celebration.
I will try to explain what I am saying in several degrees.
In the religions of the world, cult and cosmos are always closely bound up with one another. The worship of the gods is never just a kind of act of socialization on the part of the community (as so many think going to Mass (or going to services) is … through the affirmation, through symbols, of its social organization. The commonly held idea is: that worship involves a circular movement of giving and receiving. The gods sustain the world … while men (by their cultic gifts) feed and sustain the gods. The circle of being has two parts: the power of the gods supporting the world; but also, the gift of men … which provides for the gods out of the world’s resources. This leads to the idea that man was in fact created in order to sustain the gods and to be an essential link in the circular chain of the universe. However naive this may seem, it reveals a profound intuition into the meaning of human existence.
This lesson is (kind of) seen in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God being like that of a wealthy landowner who seeks laborers to harvest the crops. The laborers come and work hard and at the end of the day receives a day pay from the master.
Man exists for God, and thus he serves the whole. Of course, distortion and abuse also lurk behind the door: man somehow has power over the gods; in some small way, in his relationship to them, he has the key to reality in his hand. The gods need him, but, of course, he also needs them. Should he abuse his power, he would do harm to the gods, but he would also destroy himself.
In the Old Testament’s account of creation (cf. Gen 1:1-2:4) these views are certainly discernible but at the same time transformed. Creation moves toward the Sabbath, to the day on which man and the whole created order participates in God’s rest, in His freedom. Nothing is said directly about worship, still less about the Creator needing the gifts of men. Yet, we are assured that God is not a forgetful God. He is fair … “’My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” But … in the end we all will be given what is justly ours in building His Kingdom … on earth as it is in Heaven.
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.
Both this and last week’s Gospels can cause a person to think about Jesus as CS Lewis had. Jesus (when it comes right down to it) was one of three realities: He was insane. He was a liar. He is what He said He was…the Son of God. (“You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God…but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” from Mere Christianity)
One of the insights we all grapple with is that we are not in control of so many things in our personal lives, in the lives of those we love, and in the lives of our country and our world. Peace only comes when we rise above the frustration, disappointment, anger, and vengeful thoughts that fill our minds when things do not work out the way we think they should. I have been reading a book quoting Henri Nouwen who had this profound thought: “Keep your eyes fixed on the Prince of Peace, Who doesn’t cling to His Divine Power, Who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, and rule with great power. See the One Who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; Who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; Who dies alone, rejected and despised. Keep your eyes on Him Who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak…and Who is rejected with the rejected. That one, Jesus, is the source of all peace.” Was Jesus able to find peace in this world and, even more bring peace into our world? Of course He found peace, the peace that came from the prevailing thread revealed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures and the four Gospels – God never takes no for an answer. God never gives up on us. God never stops reaching out to us. His love is divine, merciful, unconditional, and life giving. Jesus experienced rejection in the form of not being welcomed from the first moment He came forth from Mary’s womb (you know…there was no room for them at the inn). After bringing joy to the shepherds in the area who responded to the angel’s announcement about Jesus’ birth, and to the Magi with their humble, grateful gifts…Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus. Rejection that caused Him to be a refugee did not stop Him from coming back to God’s chosen people…His people…the Jews.
When I conclude my morning prayers, I like to reflect on the paradox of the Jesus Christ that Lewis presented…he is great in giving me the hope, inspiration, and the foundation to rise above frustration, disappointment, anger, and vengeful thoughts as I start the day. (Sure, at times I do not always succeed…but the lack of success or right judgment are lessened and the next day I once again have hope.) After praying morning prayer in the breviary, I read the Paradoxical Commands that come from a book by Kent Keith entitled “Anyway.” (St. [Mother] Teresa of Calcutta had these hanging in an office she used.) I read them thinking about how Jesus lived them. The Paradoxical Commands are a good guide that will help us find the peace Jesus came to bring into our daily lives, a good guide to commit ourselves as we leave the Easter Season (and think of the lessons of this week’s Gospel). The Paradoxical Commands:
People are unreasonable, illogical and
self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish
and ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and
true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be
honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building may be
destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help. They may attack you if
you help them. Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you may be
repaid with indifference. Give the world the
best you can anyway.
As the Fortnight of Freedom 2017 comes to a close, as a nation of faithful Catholics and Christians, we continue our prayers for our United States. There are so many who are confused and misguided with the lies of “choice” and “conscience”.
Reflect, if you will on the story of Norma McCorvey. A woman who no one knows by name. She is the woman who is Roe in the Supreme Court case of Roe vs. Wade (the case that made abortion legal in our nation on January 22, 1973). Her road to notoriety started with an unplanned pregnancy. She originally said she was raped, a factor she thought would strengthen her case. Her lawyer was a pro-abortion feminist. It is interesting and encouraging to see how the life of Norma McCorvey has played out.
First of all, Norma never had an abortion. The child in her womb was too far formed. When she asked her doctor for an adoptive/foster attorney, that attorney put her in touch with the pro-abortion lawyer. Ironically, Norma McCorvey never stepped foot in a courtroom. She had signed an affidavit in Texas and was used as a pawn. (So much for “women’s’ rights”) She read about the legalization of abortion in the newspaper and was never contacted after the signing.
In 1995 Norma McCorvey declared herself Pro-life. In an account of a banquet of citizens for life that met in Alabama there was this observation: “In a 1995 Nightline interview, she explained that after working in four Dallas area abortion centers and learning a lot more, she started having inner-conflicts with herself. From that time on, Norma has completely moved her position from “a woman’s right to choose…to…upholding the right to life of the preborn baby.”
In the end people of good will see the light. Now is our challenge and time to witness to the truth of human life in the womb. I encourage you to say the prayer I put at the end of last week’s column (inspired from this week’s first reading): “Thank You Father for the gift of life. Thank You for the gift of Your Son Jesus. May my gratitude inspire and sustain me in doing everything I can to respect the lives of all people and to do all in my power to end abortion…and everything else that harms, abuses, or threatens human life. Give me the courage and strength to live in Your image each day. Amen.”
Psalm 69 has simple words to contemplate (the Psalm verses from last week): For Your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face. I have become an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my children, because zeal for Your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme You fall upon me. I pray to You, O LORD, for the time of Your favor, O God!
In Your great kindness answer me with Your constant help. Answer me, O LORD, for bounteous is Your kindness; in Your Great Mercy turn toward me. “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the LORD hears the poor, and His own who are in bonds He spurns not. Let the heavens and the earth praise Him, the seas and whatever moves in them!”
This week, the Church…Universal…takes a moment in celebration and contemplation of the Mystery found in the Most Holy Sacrament…The Body and Blood of Christ. Again…celebration…fellowship…appreciation of us being called not only to be brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ; but, being made one with Him (Mysteriously) in His Body and Blood…if we allow the Miracle to engulf us.
This week, too, begins the Fortnight of Freedom 2017. We recognize as the Bride of Christ, our need to bring about God’s love and His kingdom on earth…as it is in Heaven.
The people of Jesus’ time were restless and fearful because their nation was occupied by the Romans (who were very brutal at times…just look at a crucifix we have hanging in our homes and work places). They lived with the tension of being faithful to who they were as the people of God and how the Roman governors treated them. In the case of Jesus’ crucifixion some of the religious leaders used the hated Roman law to remove Jesus, a fellow citizen, from the face of the earth. They were blind to the Author and Presence of all truth, God’s Truth. The truth is that we need God and His loving presence, mercy, and Spirit in Jesus. If we take Jesus and the power of His love seriously we have more inner strength to be loving, forgiving, humble and grateful for the blessing of someone as close as a spouse in marriage. Jesus wants what we want – a happy, joyful, life-long relationship of life giving love. As much as we are self sufficient and self-giving, we will find no greater inner peace and purpose than we do in Jesus and His truth that sets us free. His is the freedom that enables us to give without counting the cost…to look beyond petty differences to deepen love…to forgive from the heart so as not to remind the one who hurt us over and over again about how wrong he or she was.
It is the peace of His truth that gives us the desire to apologize for the pain and hurt we have caused. How important it is to live what we pray in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is extremely difficult without our daily bread, especially the Bread of Life in the Eucharist every week.
It is the truth of Jesus that gives us the wisdom to see where we need to speak out against injustice and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Truth not acknowledged…unleashes evil. Truth ignored…expands evil’s reach. Evil unchallenged…contradicts the peace, hope and unity only the truth can make a reality. The Fortnight of Freedom reminds us: once one life is expendable…more freedoms and lives become expendable. Comfort, pleasure and irresponsibility replace sacrifice, generosity and justice. Those who speak truth against the evils of the world are portrayed as the ones who unjustly deprive others of their freedom to choose. Freedom to do evil has divided us and seeks to silence the voice of Truth. There are many Pilates in our nation who echo his question: Truth, what is that? That is followed by the blasé attitude of: Who really cares anyway?
The voice of Jesus calls us to care. Why us? We are the ones He loves and trusts. We are the ones He speaks the truth from His Heart to. How good it is when we have the courage to live it not only for ourselves, but for the good of our nation. And, before I forget: Thanks to all our fathers…those who naturally (often in silence) witness the love of the Father.