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.
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.
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.
All too often, we (as Catholics) will come to Mass or in a common prayer without understanding why. (How often do you hear from a non-Catholic: “Why do you, as Catholics do (blank)?” (Make the sign of the cross, say memorized prayers, use incense, stand, sit…you can fill in the “(blank)”. And our response is something like: “I don’t know…it’s just what we do.”
The “great prayer of the Church” the Mass (or the Liturgy of the Hours), I want to give the parish unique insights on many areas of the Liturgy to help everyone to rediscover the hidden spiritual wealth (and transcendent grandeur) of the Liturgy as the very center of our Christian life (our Catholic life). While other denominations express prayer in their own method, the Liturgy is distinctively ours (given to us over 2000 years). It is not to be seen as a museum piece that is viewed from a distance…or just walked by as painting on a wall done by a famous artist. Our Liturgy is something we touch, see, smell, hear…taste. It is ours to take and experience.
Among the many liturgical areas we are going to look at in the next few reflections, I hope we can discuss fundamental misunderstandings of the Second Vatican Council’s intentions for liturgical reforms (renewal), especially the focus of prayer at the Mass, the placement of the tabernacle, the posture of kneeling, etc.
Other areas of interest: the essence of worship • Jewish roots and (2000 years old) new elements of the Christian Liturgy • sacred times and places • the historic and cosmic dimensions of the Liturgy • the relationship of the Liturgy to time and space • art and music…and the Liturgy • (the often misunderstood concept even among religious and clergy) – “active participation” of all the faithful • gestures, posture, and vestments. I hope…in the reflections to come…when you are asked to fill in the “(blank)”, each of us will be so excited to explain the “(blank)” – others will want to learn the steps of the Dance with us and join the music and the excitement. And, even more important, when you are tempted to think (or worse … say out loud): “Does God really care? Does what we do at Mass only get in the way of worshipping God?” …you will have the knowledge to expel that demon.
One of the keys to loving Jesus is taking the time to appreciate how much He truly loves us. Yes, we know the historical facts and truths that He taught. We can easily read them over and over again in the Bible. But it always comes down to our response to Jesus. There are many things that we do in our lives and there are many different attitudes and reasons. We can act out of love, joy, hope, and gratitude or we can act out of duty, convenience, regret, anger, guilt, or fear or a host of other motives or impulses. The best reason to act of course is love. We love the people we are with and we love to do the things we do. To truly grow in our life with Jesus we need to ask these questions: Do I pray because I have to, want to…or love to? Do I come to Mass because I have to, want to…or love to? Obviously there is a great difference in the reasons we pray and come to Mass. We know the best reason, but is that in the forefront of our minds and hearts? With all the activities in our daily lives it takes discipline to find the time to pray. The fact is we do find time to do the things we want to do and like to do. When and where we find the time to pray every day becomes easier to carve out when we understand how much Jesus loves us and wants us to be part of His life. We can spend hours on the Internet, watching TV, or even reading a book. At times we recognize that we are centering our lives around what we like and our own agendas. But too much self-centeredness leads us to put off what is really best for our spiritual, physical, and mental well being.
This was well-illustrated in a story I read – about mosquitoes and bees:
Once upon a time, some mosquitoes and some bees had an exchange about their views and aims in life. The mosquitoes said: “We do not toil as you bees do, nor have we any desire to do it. We have a leisurely existence. In the night, slowly and unnoticed, we intrude into people’s habitations, and then we sting them and suck their blood. That is what we do. We know that we cause them itching and pain, none of us could care less. As long as we get what we want, it is all right with us. We know that people hate us, but this does not bother us.”
The bees retorted in horror: “Our way of life is just the opposite. Night and day we work hard and struggle to support ourselves from the fruit of our labor. We hate to be a burden or nuisance to anyone. On the contrary, we are delighted to share the surplus of our labor with others. Our aim in life is to support ourselves as well as to give comfort, nourishment, and sweetness to one and all. Flying from flower to flower, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the light of the day, collecting scented nectar and making honey is truly an exhilarating and worthwhile way of living. It is in working for ourselves and others that we find meaning and happiness in life.”
Our response to the goodness and love of others is gratitude and a desire to love them in return. That is the ultimate response to Jesus: to love Him in return. When that happen (as it does when we choose to love others) we make Him the center of our concern and look forward to spending time with Him. Our will is fueled by a desire to do what is truly good for others and Him. Their well being becomes an important part of our thoughts, words and actions.
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.
Next week, we as a society honor the fathers who do so much (and like St. Joseph, himself) are given little fanfare. This year, in your celebrations, remember the new fathers that are not so well known to many: Father Joseph Scholten, Father Brian Eckrich, Father Andrew Thuringer, Father Tyler Mattson, Father Timothy Smith and Father Thomas Hartman (and Father … to be…God willing…Rev. Mr. Patrick Grode). Let us take a moment this week to prepare for next Sunday’s celebrations! Let’s not just think about our fathers for just one moment for one day this year.
Yes…we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity this week. But, often, we are overwhelmed by the the Three in One Godhead. So…something to reflect –
At the Masses this weekend we will offer a special blessing to our fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, and all who offer us paternal love and care. They protect us, provide for us and support us often in many unappreciated ways. It is sad that all too often their holy vocation is depicted so disparagingly in sit-coms, movies, etc. Far from being bumbling dolts…our fathers are so often a great source of thoughtful advice, lived experience and compassionate encouragement. They are often faithful, quiet examples of hard work and loving dedication. We are deeply grateful for them and we ask our Heavenly Father to bless them this day.
There is a hymn in the missalette that always makes me pause on the greatness of the vocation of father’s as we think of the father of Jesus – St. Joseph (often thought of as the “forgotten” saint): “… And Joesph’s love make ‘father’, To be, for Christ, God’s Name”. (ref: By All Your Saints Still Striving) May, God our Heavenly Father, keep all our fathers close and blessed as they reflect His (often unspoken) Love.