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.
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.
Man himself cannot simply “make” worship. If God does not reveal Himself, man is clutching empty space. If you remember a few weeks ago…Moses says to Pharaoh: “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord” (cf. Ex 10:26). These words display a fundamental law of all liturgy. When God does not reveal Himself, man can, of course, from the sense of God within him, build altars “to the unknown god” (cf. Acts 17:23). He can reach out toward God in his thinking and try to feel his way toward Him. But real liturgy (the liturgy God wants…in other words… perfect liturgy) implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship Him. In any form, liturgy includes some kind of “institution”. It cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity—then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real (perfect) relationship with Another, Who reveals Himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.
In the Old Testament there is a series of very impressive testimonies to the truth that the liturgy is not a matter of “what you please”. Nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the narrative of the golden calf (by the way…for the farmers and ranchers out there that know the significant difference…strictly speaking, a “bull calf”). The misdirected worship conducted by the high priest Aaron is not meant to serve any of the false gods of the heathen. The apostasy is more subtle. There is no obvious turning away from God to the false gods.
Outwardly, the people remain completely attached to the same God. They want to glorify the God Who led Israel out of Egypt and believe that they may very properly represent his mysterious power in the image of a bull calf. Everything seems to be in order. Presumably even the ritual is in complete conformity to the rubrics. And yet it is a falling away from the worship of God…to idolatry. This apostasy, which outwardly is scarcely perceptible, has two causes.
First, there is a violation of the prohibition of images. The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote and mysterious God. They want to bring Him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when He is needed…and He must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God.
This gives us a clue to the second point. The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated worship. When Moses stays away for too long…and God himself becomes inaccessible…the people just fetch Him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation.
Instead of being worship of God…it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry. The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God…but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around.
Or, still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in pious disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.
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.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking from the same place He was for the Last Supper. In this passage Jesus is giving us His last will and testament. What is He going to leave to His followers? His love. That love includes not only Himself, but the Father and Holy Spirit. He fulfills His Last Supper promise: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14: 15-16) Jesus did die on the cross, but He did not leave us. As we see in His words He will come and dwell within us and the Father will come with Him. A few verses later Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit. Our inheritance from Him is the fullness of the life of God. We began that life the moment we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (We remind ourselves of this treasure every time we bless ourselves in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)
When you think about it, those we love do dwell within us. They are an intimate and intricate part of who we are. They are always in our hearts that are filled with love for them expressed in our concern, goodness, gratitude, humility, sacrifices, mercy, and generosity. In this Gospel passage Jesus expressed what was going to happen when He died and rose from the dead. Our inheritance from Him is the gift of Himself, the Father, and Holy Spirit dwelling within us. How does this inheritance affect our lives? The more we “use” our inheritance from Jesus, the more we recognize the gift of peace that He also promises in today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” This is the peace we long for as individuals, families, communities, nations, and worldwide. Human efforts have helped us to defeat the countless powers that seek to separate us from God and one another (just ask a faith-filled veteran). Yet still, in all too many places around the world, there is violence, injustice, destruction and the abuse and taking of human life.
So, what is this peace Jesus is leaving us? It is the peace that comes from truly believing that He knows us as we are at each moment of our lives and is with us in all we say, do and think each day. This thought is expressed so clearly at the beginning of each of the four Eucharistic Prayers (for Various Occasions): “You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God, Who love the human race and Who always walk with us on the journey of life. Blessed indeed is Your Son, present in our midst when we are gathered by His Love, and when, as once for the disciples, so now for us, He opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread.” Obviously we need to accept His invitation to be renewed by our inheritance from Him through our heartfelt participation in the Mass every week. Jesus never tires of inviting us to open our eyes to His Love for us and His Presence to us. It is Jesus and our inheritance from Him, which is Jesus Himself, that lifts us beyond the confusion, challenges, and obstacles we face as individuals, families, communities, and nations. Only a nation under God can be one nation. It takes God to not only take away the confusion…but also to enlighten us with the truth of who we truly are and what we are ultimately capable of in the best sense possible.
Those who are an intimate part of our lives dwell in our minds and hearts. They color the way we live our lives every day. When they are sick and suffering they are in the forefront of our thoughts and concerns. Their burdens become our burden. When they are celebrating achievements or special events, we are joyful with them and for them. When they are confused we look to help work out their problems and concerns and at the same time assure them of our love. It is exactly this kind of presence that Jesus promises to us in today’s Gospel when He promises to bring the Father and dwell within us. Are we aware of this presence? Do we want this presence?
During the Easter Season almost every day the first reading at Mass has been from the Acts of the Apostles. This book of the Bible is the account of the first generation of the Church after Jesus rose and ascended into heaven. They faced many challenges among themselves and from outside forces. What is very clear as we read from the Acts of the Apostles is that all who came to believe in Jesus knew that He was dwelling within them and they were dwelling within Him. One very clear example is from Acts 5:17-29:
“Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.’ When they heard this, they went to the temple early in the morning and taught. When the high priest and his companions arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin, the full senate of the Israelites, and sent to the jail to have them brought in. But the court officers who went did not find them in the prison, so they came back and reported, ‘We found the jail securely locked and the guards stationed outside the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ When they heard this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss about them, as to what this would come to. Then someone came in and reported to them, ‘The men whom you put in prison are in the temple area and are teaching the people.’ Then the captain and the court officers went and brought them in, but without force, because they were afraid of being stoned by the people. When they had brought them in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, ‘We gave you strict orders [did we not?] to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles said in reply, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’
With a little time, the Apostles (and us) can finally figured it out…the need for God in our lives. And, not a god we make up out of our own minds…but…God, Who wants us to have a real…intimate…actual relationship with us (but on His terms…not ours). Our challenge as American Catholics is not to be so influenced by the media, political candidates, and political parties…but to allow the vision of Jesus who dwells within us to illumine the way to the truth for ourselves and for our nation. Our society over and over again dismisses God and sound moral doctrine in the name of convenience and freedom. To be part of that mind set is to walk down the path with your head looking straight up and not where your feet are going. Of course any path like this leads to confusion and destruction (and misleads our young people about what it means to dwell in: Jesus…the Father…or to recognize Jesus and the Father dwelling in us). Take a hint from the Gospel and the angel in Acts this week: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Get busy as Jesus told you: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Last week we celebrated Mother’s Day. As we honored one parent lst week, Jesus honors His Father this week. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about how He is going to glorify God. That glorification is seen in how He suffered the injustice of crucifixion, but rose from the dead and beyond all who tried to silence Him. He spoke (and taught) something that in the 21st century…is absolutely, politically incorrect. Saying – do what I tell you and you will be assured of being correct, and you will find an eternity of happiness. He said: “I am the way the truth and the life”. Well…who does Jesus think He is? After all…is Pontius Pilate more the model of the 21st century…when – looking at Jesus…do we say: “What is truth?” In looking at what is going on in our nation at this point and all the debates about different issues, respect for life must be at the forefront. Whenever we compromise or deny the truth, the seeds of destruction and disunity are planted. We who have the treasure of faith are not obliged to convert those who are not in agreement with us…but we are challenged to speak up for the truth about human life. There is no candidate that is perfect on this issue as far as action is concerned. Some Catholic politicians at least pay lip service…while others are clearly supportive of abortion. I am not a one issue person, but when a basic issue is ignored there will never be peace in our hearts, our nation, and in our world. To look past the issue of abortion is to allow evil to continue to destroy children in the womb and scar the hearts, minds, and souls of all those involved. How could the German people stand by and allow 12 million people to perish in the concentration camps? How can we continue to stand by as almost 60 million children have been aborted since this practice was legalized on January 22, 1973? Evil has wreaked havoc for the past 43 years. How much longer will it prosper? Who will speak up? Politicians promise jobs, reform, lower taxes, refugee programs, and the defeat of ISIS and other evils. (They speak as if they are an omnipotent God.) But wherever innocent life is attacked or threatened and nothing is done, our national spirit deteriorates.
We are grateful to all veterans who have sacrificed their time and even their lives to defend who we are as Americans. Easter time energizes us to muster the courage to look at what is most important to our nation. When we glorify God by our lives as Jesus did, our national health and moral fiber are strengthened.
The Resurrection of Jesus has many aspects. One of them is rising above our fears, hesitancy, lethargy, apathy, and ignorance to live and speak the truth about human life. Life is a gift from God. You who are parents have blessed your children in the God-like way you created them and continue to love and nurture them. You are more fully alive with them than you would have been without them.
As Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the life…let us say: 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 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.
Henri Nouwen said: “Prayer is the way to both the heart of God and the heart of the world.”How blessed, challenged, grateful, and humbled we are to live in God’s world.