You may remember from last week’s reflection: the prayers and the readings are preparing us for the end times…for the arrival of Christ the King (and the end of the 2017 liturgical year). The first reading reminds us of how we are to treat one anther…looking out for each other…being an example to one another. St. Paul applauds the Thessalonians for their looking outside of themselves and creating circles of faithful individuals in other towns.
This image of expanding the faith is not of an upward flying arrow, but of a kind of circular movement, the two essential directions of which can be called: departure and return. This “paradigm” is common in the general history of religions as well as in Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages. For Christian thinkers, the circle is seen as the great movement of the cosmos. The nature religions and many non-Christian philosophies think of it as a movement of unceasing repetition (as we find in the modern Hinduism and Far Eastern religions). On closer inspection, these two points of view are not as mutually exclusive as at first sight they seem.
For in the Christian view of the world, the many small circles of the lives of individuals are inscribed within the one great circle of history as it moves from departure and return. You see this in the first reading as God reminds Israel…“I am not that far away…I have (and experience) compassion for those who call out to Me. And, I am watching and listening.”
The small circles carry within themselves the great rhythm of the whole, give it concrete forms that are ever new, and so provide it with the force of its movement. And in the one great circle there are also the many circles of the lives of the different cultures and communities of human history, in which the drama of: beginning, development, and end is played out. In these circles, the mystery of beginning is repeated again and again, but they are also the scene of the end of time, of a final collapse, which may in its own way prepare the ground for a new beginning. The totality of the small circles reflects the great circle. The two – the great circle and the small circles – are interconnected and interdependent. And so our worship is bound with all three dimensions of the circular movement: the personal, the social (love your neighbor as yourself), and the universal (above all things, loving God).
As we come closer and closer to the end of liturgical year…we also anticipate a new beginning, a new middle and a new ending. Unlike so many who have a dread of the end times. The Church and Its members actually: prepare, are preparing, and are prepared for Christ the King (all at the same time as we worship God at the Mass.)
The Church, in its liturgy now begins to wind down now (or maybe wind up)…depending on your perspective. You will begin to notice a movement to the end of the year of grace of 2017 as we look forward to the celebration of Christ the King! Jesus reminds us in our readings and prayers…He is the “all in all”…the Beginning and End…the A to Z…the Alpha and Omega.
For me the best way to reflect on this week’s readings: they remind me of fishing on the river. In the boat, everyone sees the surface of the water. Thanks to physics and buoyancy, we have the ability to travel on that liquid surface with little consideration of what is really around us (or, better, under us). It takes the scuba drivers and their cameras to bring to our reality what is really there: on, in and around the river.
Such is the case in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah this week as Isaiah (the scuba diver) has to give Cyrus the king a reality check. Cyrus is the kind of man who travels on the surface without even caring or taking into account the physics (or, if you like, the metaphysics) that keeps him afloat. The same goes with the Herodians who question Jesus about the trivial matter which actually goes to a deeper reality as to what is due to God. (A real Force that Star Wars movies attempts to bring into conceptual reality.)
A French scientist and philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin (and friends) in the early 20th century proposed a concept called: “Noosphere”. (He is kind of like the character Obi-Wan Kenobi [in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd movies]…the scuba diver). The idea behind “Noosphere” was that creation (or, if you like, evolution) can be explained by a metaphysical higher force (spirit and its understanding) embrace the physical whole and are blended into a kind of living organism. (Invoking the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives toward the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its “fullness’.) I know it is kind of deep water here…but…from here Teilhard went on to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the Christological “fullness”. In his view, the Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction…it anticipates its goal and at the same time urges it on.
Yes, even the modern scientist (and movie makers) attempt to grasp what is owed rightfully to this world…but at the same time…give honor and worship to God for His reality in our fundamental lives. They themselves move towards the ultimate evolutionary reality of Christ the King too.
Once again we face the question: What is worship? What happens when we worship? In all religions…sacrifice is at the heart of worship. But this is a concept that has been buried under the debris of endless misunderstandings. The common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious to man. Now this…handing over…presupposes that it is withdrawn from use by man, and that can only happen through its destruction…its definitive removal from the hands of man. But this immediately raises the question: What pleasure is God supposed to take in destruction? Is anything really surrendered to God through destruction?
One answer is that the destruction always conceals within itself the act of acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things. But can such a mechanical act really serve God’s glory? Obviously not. True surrender to God looks very different. It consists – according to the early Church Fathers (in fidelity to biblical thought) – in the union of man and creation with God. Belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction or non-being: it is rather a way of being.
It means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself. It means losing oneself as the only possible way of finding oneself (cf. Mk 8:35; Mt 10:39). That is why St. Augustine could say that the true “sacrifice” is the civitas Dei (the City of God)…that is…a love-transformed mankind (the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God): God all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). That is the purpose of the world. That is the essence of sacrifice and worship.
And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may…by chance…take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense…creation is history.
In a previous reflection, I wrote about gratitude. Of all the passions man has … the passion of gratitude lasts only about two hours … then is diminishes almost out of existence. (Now … contrast gratitude’s passion with the passion of anger … anger can last a lifetime … and rarely goes out of existence.) We get an idea of what God’s sees from man far too often when it comes to showing Him gratitude … and because gratitude is so short lived … it kind of explains why we do what we do during weekend Sunday Mass.
What does worship really mean? How is it different from the circle of giving and receiving that characterized the pre-Christian world of worship? Before turning to this question, I should like to refer to the text that concludes the giving of the ceremonial law in the book of Exodus. It is constructed in close parallel to the account of creation. Seven times it says, “Moses did as the Lord had commanded him” (words that suggest that the seven-day work on the tabernacle replicates the seven-day work on creation). The account of the construction of the tabernacle ends with a kind of vision of the Sabbath. “So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (cf. Ex 40:33). The completion of the tent anticipates the completion of creation. God makes His dwelling in the world. Heaven and earth are united.
(In this connection (speaking of “creation”) allow me a side note to add: that in the Old Testament, the verb “bara” has two, and only two, meanings. First, it denotes the process of the world’s creation, the separation of the elements, through which the cosmos emerges out of chaos. Secondly, it denotes the fundamental process of salvation history … the election and separation of pure from impure, and therefore the inauguration of the history of God’s dealings with men. (How we are to worship Him … pure and perfect.) Thus begins the spiritual creation, the creation of the covenant, without which the created cosmos would be an empty shell.)
Creation and history, creation, history and worship are in a relationship of reciprocity. (All three interlinked and mutually working together for a mutual benefit.) Creation looks toward the covenant, but the covenant completes creation and does not simply exist along with it. Now if worship (rightly understood) is the soul of the covenant, then it not only saves mankind but is also meant to draw the whole of reality (all of creation) into communion with God. Unlike the tenants of the vineyard in this week’s Gospel … we cannot separate creation, history and worship without harming the others.)
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.