The Greatest Commandment

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus is asked by a “scholar of the law” what is the greatest commandment. Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Jesus then adds, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think that we are sometimes dazzled by complexity. We expect that the solution to big issues should include a long list of dazzling feats or at least some complicated deeds.

That can be especially true when the subject is the mystery of God and the path to salvation. Surely, some think, we must have to perform something akin to the twelve labors of Hercules to achieve eternal life. I remember many years ago someone observing about the bodhicitta path to enlightment taught in Tibetan Buddhism, “It can’t just be about love.” The comment implied, love is just too simple to be the answer.

But, try as we might to complicate things, it really is that simple. No daring or extraordinary deeds like cleaning the Augean stables or capturing a Cerynitian Hind. Just love. Love God. Love one another. “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

It really is that simple. And so today’s prayer is a simple one. In the words of a song: “Open my heart, Lord, Help me to love like you. Open my heart, Lord, Help me to Love.”

Update: re our perception that simple things can’t be the answer, my friend John reminded me of the story in 2 Kings of Naaman, king of Aram, whose first reaction is anger and derision when he is told that all he needed to do to cure his leprosy was to wash seven times in the Jordan. We should heed Naaman’s reaction when told by his servant, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, woudl you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.” Naaman did, and “his flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

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Why Two Feeding Miracles?

I’m reading a book titled Mission in the Gospels, by R. Geoffrey Harris. In his discussion of Mark’s Gospel, Harris discusses that fact that Mark records two instance of Jesus feeing the multitudes. (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10.) Some scholars suggest that Mark simply inherited two variant account of the same event from different traditions. Harris does not find this a sufficient explanation.

Harris suggests that when one examines the two feeding miracles together, each of which is composed “so carefully, with such deliberate use of different vocabulary and different numbers,” it is clear that Mark had a definite purpose in providing both stories. Harris writes

The first episode takes place on the Jewish (western) side of the lake, while the second takes place on the more Gentile (eastern) side, and follows on from the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of the deaf mute.

I confess this is not something that ever occurred to me in reading the two accounts. But the symbolism is powerful when one thinks of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman that takes place between the two accounts of the feeding miracles. When she asks Jesus to heal her child, his first reaction is to say that “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus adds directly that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman persists until Jesus agrees to heal her child.

Some argue that the woman had an effect in Jesus expanding his understanding of his ministry, an argument given some support by the inclusion of two feeding miracles rather than one. In the first miracle, Jesus feeds those on the Jewish side of the lake, those who are described like “sheep without a shepherd,” which Harris suggests is a traditional image for Israel and her leaders. (And there are 12 baskets of leftovers, “as though each Israelite tribe had a little to spare.” In the second miracle, Jesus feeds those on the Gentile side of the lake, with seven loaves and baskets of leftover, which “denote fullness or completeness. With the inclusion of the Gentiles, Jesus’ mission therefore becomes complete….There can be no doubt that [Mark] means to tell his audience that the banqueting feast in the kingdom of God is going to be for both Jews and Gentiles.”

I don’t know how a Scripture scholar would evaluate Harris’ argument, but it is a provocative explanation for something that has caused a lot of people to scratch their heads in wonder. Is there another good explanation for why we have accounts of two feeding miracles?

Reflecting on the Eucharist

I just finished reading Fire of God’s Love: 120 Reflections on the Eucharist, by Mike Aquilina, sent to me by the Catholic Company. The book contains a collection of thoughts on the Eucharist by figures ranging from St. Ambrose to G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Day to Avery Cardinal Dulles. The Eucharist is so central to our lives as Catholics, both as a source of strength and of unity, that I was anxious to see what the book offered.

As is to be expected in a book of this type, some of the selections will speak to some readers more than to others. Some I read with very little reaction; others I found very provocative, causing me both to stop and reflect on them and to mark them to come back to again. Some offer less a reflection than advice to the followers of the writer.

One of the most powerful selections for me was one by St. Ambrose, speaking about the line in the Our Father in which we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Ambrose makes the point that the term used by Jesus describing the bread was epiousion, which is Greek for “supersubstantial.” The use of that term conveys more of an understanding than the English term that the bread of which we speak here “is not bread that passes into the body,” but “rather, the ‘bread of eternal live.’” While some of us may pray this line of the Lord’s prayer thinking of the Eucharist, I suspect many think in terms of asking God to provide for our daily material needs.

Another selection that struck me was by April Oursler Armstrong (the daughter of famous Protestant evangelists and a convert to Catholicism). Referring to Jesus’ statement in John’s Gospel that “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” she suggests that it is incomprehensible that Jesus could have been anything other than completely literal in speaking those words. Jesus, she points out, was born a Jew and would have had full knowledge of the Jewish reaction to the idea of consuming blood. She observes that “Christ would not speak idly or carelessly, or in unexplained metaphor, when he spoke of his own blood. He could have watered down what he said. He could have said he spoke in a parable, that he didn’t really mean people were to eat him. But he wouldn’t do that. He watched hundreds of hitherto ardent followers turn their backs on him and go away rather than believe what sounded like repulsive nonsense. He let them go. Because what he said was true and couldn’t be explained away to accommodate those who were scandalized.” Armstrong writes that when she got that in her head, it changed everything.

There is much to reflect on in this book.

Putting God First

Yesterday we welcomed the incoming first year class of law students at the University of St. Thomas and the head of University Campus Ministry said our opening mass. One of the great sources of joy for me is hearing a homily that draws a link that I had not previously considered or that otherwise causes me to think of something in a different way, and, fortunately for me, this particular priest has delivered such homilies on more than one occasion when I’ve been present at a Mass at which he has presided.

The Gospel for yesterday’s Mass was Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus gives him a list of the important “laws” that must be followed, the young man is unsatisfied. I do all that, he says, what else must I do? Jesus tells him to go and sell all he has, give it to the poor and come follow Him.

What Jesus is asking the young man to do is to put Him first. In talking on this theme, the priest linked this passage to God’s request to Abraham to leave his country and his people and go to the land to which God would leave him, where God would bless him and make of him a new nation, causing him and his descendants to flourish. I had never before connected the exchanges between God and Abraham and Jesus and the rich young man, but as soon as the priest mentioned Abraham, the linkage between Abraham and the rich young man made perfect sense to me. Both are asked to give up what they know and what they’ve accomplished on their own and instead to follow God and God’s plans.

What came into my mind as soon as the priest started talking about Abraham was God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Many people have difficulty with this passage, wondering how God could ask Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. When we look at the two passages together, however, I think it becomes clearer to us that in neither case does the literal request capture God’s desire. God doesn’t want Abraham to kill Isaac any more than Jesus literally expects the rich young man (and the rest of us) to sell every single thing that he has.

In both cases the real issue is God’s desire that God come first in our lives. That our lives are oriented around our relationship to God our Father and to Jesus. When God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus asks the young man to sell all he has, what we are invited to ask ourselves is: what prevents us from putting God first? What do we cling to in such a way that we cannot follow Jesus wholeheartedly? That is what we are invited to give up.

Be Forgiven

I spent the weekend at Holy Spirit Reteat Center in Janesville, co-facilitating a vocation retreat weekend for law students. (This is a retreat we run each year at the beginning of each of the fall and spring semesters.) It was a really wonderful weekend in very many respects.

One of the things we do each retreat on Saturday evening is to spend some time reflecting on those things that are a burden to us as we try to respond to God’s call. The question each of us is asked to reflect on is: are there things you need to let go of…to give to God…to unburden yourself so that you can respond more fully to God’s call.

After we spend some time in reflection, we engage in a ritual letting go. We build a fire (which for some retreats has been more challenging than others; one time we had no kindling or paper and used cartons from soda cans to light the fire…not easy), and place a crucifix just to the side of the fire. After reflecting, we each write on a piece of paper the thing or things we most want to unburden ourselves of. Then we wrap the paper around a stone and individually, as the spirit moves, go up to the fire and give the burden over to God. While we are reflecting, we play some instrumental music. Then, while people are coming to the fire, we play two songs by Tom Booth: Come to the Cross and Be Forgiven.

I’ve now participated in this ritual four or five times and I always find it very powerful, although different things are significant each time. What struck me most last night was listening to Be Forgiven. I can’t remember most of the lyrics, because what sticks in my mind is the frequently repeated line that is the song’s title: Be Forgiven. Be Forgiven. I listen and hear God saying over and over again, Be Forgiven.

And as I listened, I realized that it is not that God repeats the line because he needs to keep forgiving. God is not repeating the line for God’s own benefit. Instead, God is trying to convey something that is sometimes difficult for us to get. What I realized I was hearing, as I listened to the line over and over again, was God saying, “You know, you really are forgiven. Believe it. Believe it. Believe you are forgiven.”

I was overwhelmed as I listened with the immensity of God’s love. With how much God desires us and desires that we rest securely in the love God continually offers.

Sending Forth

When I was a young teen, my friends and I attended the Saturday evening Mass. Somehow we had it in our heads that Mass “counted” so long as we were in Church by the time the Gospel began and stayed at least through reciept of the Eucharist. So we hung out outside of the church until we estimated it should be time for the Gospel and left as soon as we returned from the altar rail. This allowed us to go home and dutifully report to our parents that we had been to Mass.

I sigh now at that behavior, even as I observe many people leaving the Church each Sunday immediately after they receive the Eucharist, missing an incredibly important part of the Mass.

The closing rite of the Mass includes a sending forth. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists as one of the elements of the closing rite “the dismissal of the people by the deacon or priest so that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing God.” Having just listened to the Word of God, having received the Body and Blood, we are commissioned to act on what we have just experienced. I think the language recited by the priest or deacon is meant to call to our minds Jesus’ instruction to his disciples before his Ascension to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Thus, the closing rite is not just a throwaway. It gives us a reminder we need that our prayer and our lives must be integrated. In the words of one commentator, “if prayer shapes belief, then together they find their true authentication in genuine Christian living. To ignore this inner connection between Eucharist and life is to ignore the bond between the life and mission of the church.”

A Full Life

In the course of going through some old files in my office, I came across a yellowed printout of something I received about ten years ago. The author recounted a story he told his law students on the last day of class, knowing many of them were heading off to high-pressure jobs in an environment where earning more and wanting more were common.

The story told of a fisherman in a small Mexican village. When a young American tourist to the village noticed that the fisherman came back each day with his boat only about half full of fish, he asked the fisherman why. The fisherman responded that he caught only as much as he needed to take care of his family. In response to the tourist’s query what he did with the rest of his time, the fisherman said he had a very full life. After returning from fishing, he played with his kids, took an afternoon siesta with his wife and spent his evenings drinking wine and playing music with his friends.

The tourist (who had a business degree from a fancy North American university) explained that this just wasn’t satisfactory. Instead, he explained patiently, the fisherman should fish longer each day, which would allow him to save up enough money to buy a second boat. He could then hire some workers, which would allow him to continue making more money and buying more boats. The idea, explained the tourist, was to continue to expand to the point where he could take his business public, something that would take him about fifteen to twenty years, at the end of which he would be very rich.

The curious fisherman asked what he would do at that point, to which the tourist responded, Ah, then you could retire to a small, village, do a little fishing in the morning, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife in the afternoon and spend the evenings drinking wine and playing music with your friends.

There is a lesson in that story for all of us, not just end of semester law students.

I, And No Longer I

I’ve just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, which I talked about in a post a couple of days ago. I’m very grateful to my friend Julie for recommending it; there is a lot here on which one could profitably spend a lot of time reflecting.

One of the things that resonated very strongly with me is Radcliffe’s discussion of Paul’s line in Galatians, where he says that it is no longer he, but Christ who lives in him. Quoting from Pope Benedict’s 2007 Easter Vigil sermon, Radcliffe suggests that a proper understanding of this idea offers something of a middle way between the secular Western view of the self as “having a purely self-contained identity, hermetically sealed from others,” and the understanding expressed in some versions of Buddhism of non-self as meaning that the “I” is “utterly swallowed up on some impersonal ocean of being.”

Instead, our Christian understanding is really that in Christ we remain “both ‘I and no longer I.’” God gives each of us an identity; there is an “I.” But the “I” is not isolated; instead, it finds itself within the vastness of God. We have identities, our “individuality is not abolished,” but our identity is defined not by separation but by communion – with Christ and with each other.

As I was repeating to myself the words “I and no longer I, but Christ,” I realized that what helped me absorb the idea most vividly was not so much my actual experience of “I and no longer I, but Christ,” but my analogous experience of “you and no longer you, but Christ.”

The months, and especially the last few weeks, before my father’s death from pancreatic cancer six years ago were very difficult for me. Visits to the hospital, anxiety and worry, talking to out of town relatives about his condition, concern for my mother… all were very exhausting.

Often during that period, as at other times during the years I lived in the vicinity, I made frequent visits to St. Ignatius Retreat House for afternoon daily Mass, in addition to whatever programs brought me there. One of the Jesuits on the retreat house staff was at one time my spiritual director and is someone for whom I have a great deal of love and admiration. During that period, there were any number of occasions on which he saw me walk in, doubtless seeing the stress, anxiety and exhaustion, and simply held out his arms for me to walk into. Each time he hugged me, I felt as though I were being wrapped in the arms of God. I felt God’s presence. I felt completely supported and loved and strengthened and for those moments felt better.

What was clear to me then was that it wasn’t that it was God and not my Jesuit friend. My friend was there – but it was both him and more than him. Him and God at the same time. It is hard to put it clearly in words, but understanding “him and no longer him, but Christ,” helps me to understand what Radcliffe and Pope Benedict are trying to convey by “I and no longer I, but Christ who lives I me.”

Obedience

Yesterday I talked about word many people often have an instinctive negative reaction to – sacrifice. I was considering what other words cause that kind of reaction and the one that immediately came to mind was obedience. It is a word that causes some people to bristle instantaneously.

I asked my daughter once what images come to her mind when she hears the word obedience. I think her images express well what people often conjure up when they hear the word: she spoke of an image of an overlord, of obedience school for dogs, and of notions of force, constriction and absence of choice. This is blind obedience, obedience out of force or fear. And if that is our image, it is no wonder we find the word so unpleasant.

But that is not the only way to understand the word. Joan Chittister once described obedience as “a sensitivity to the impulses of grace in our lives.” She suggested that when we talk about obedience to God we are talking about a vow “to obey the word of God in our life, to understand that there is something other than ourselves that should be directing” what we do with our lives.

That is a much more affirming statement. Obedience is not imposed on us externally by force. It is, rather, something we accept as a consequence of our essential nature – the beloved creation of a God who (in the words of Michael Himes) “assigns the end and goal of your existence.” Our obedience reflects our choice to act in accordance with who we are. If we understand obedience in these terms, it becomes a much less daunting (and more attractive) concept.

Update: My friend John reminds me that the word “obedience” is from the Latin, ob audiere, which means to listen attentively. One of the links he pointed me to includes one author’s suggestion that obedience might best be understood as “mutual collaboration.”

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is one of those words we sometimes shiver when we hear. It sounds so unpleasant, being asked to sacrifice something.

And if we think of sacrifice merely as giving up something, it is unpleasant. It is also a bit hard to understand. Why is sacrifice good?

Sacrifice becomes a lot easier to understand, and to accept, if we think about what we are sacrificing for. Kenneth Stevenson, in Eucharist and Offering, defines sacrifice as “the destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of something having a higher or more pressing claim.” In other words, sacrifice means giving up the lesser good for the greater good.

I find it particularly helpful to recall this definition when I’m dealing with a temptation to do something that I really want to do that by any objective standard is a good, but which would stretch my capacity to meet my other obligations. I could do it, but at some cost either to my health, my family or other things I’ve already committed to. To think, not in terms of merely giving up my ability to do what I want to do, but in terms of giving up one good for another, superior, good is a help.

Or, to use my friend Aidan’s words, “Sacrifice is not only a death. It is a death that brings life.”