Twenty-second Sunday of the Year – September 3, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
Our two New Testament readings today urge us to genuine, inner Christianity. St. James calls us to be “doers of the word and not just hearers of it;” anything less he calls a delusion. Confronted with a Jewish oral tradition that the Pharisaic branch of Judaism took very seriously, requiring washings so as not to incur ritual uncleanliness–this has nothing to do with hygiene–, Jesus first warns against giving such traditions the same authority as God’s law and then lays down the essential principle: it is not a food or drink that comes from without that defiles one, renders one unclean, but rather what comes from within oneself, from the heart and mind. Evil thoughts and actions render one unfit to worship, moral uncleanliness, not physical or ritual.
It is useful to hear such reminders every so often. St. Augustine was regularly exhorting his people to serve God with the heart (corde) and not just with the body (corpore). Some of us are old enough to remember sermons against our thinking that it was enough to be present bodily in Church for Mass; real worship of God requires that we be present in mind and heart, too. God is not satisfied with an obedience that is merely external, any more than any of us would be satisfied with a marriage that is all external show, with no real love, devotion and fidelity.
Perhaps it is particularly important that Roman Catholics hear such reminders. We belong to a Church with a massive institutional bulk, a complex hierarchical system, highly ritualized sacraments, scads of laws and rules. Some people, both outside and (unfortunately) inside the Church, see only this, and it is not rare for acceptance of this structure and obedience within it to be thought of as the primary thing prized by our Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas perhaps can help us keep things in perspective. He asked what is the distinctive law of the New Covenant, what distinguishes it from other laws? His reply did not point to anything external, not to the sacraments, not to the hierarchy, not even to the divinely inspired Bible itself. He said instead that the essence of the New Covenant is the grace of the Holy Spirit, the grace by which God adopts us as his children, the grace by which we are enabled to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. Echoing the prophets, he said that it is a law that is written, not on stone tablets, but on our own hearts, by which he meant that it is an inner law, a law that compels from within, a law that liberates us to love what God loves and to hate what God hates and to find that true freedom, not externally imposed obligation but something within us–a transformed heart–that defines us, that inspires us, that animates us, that drives us–an innermost instinct, a “second nature,” as the saying goes. See it in the love of a mother for her infant child–it is instinctive, natural, generous; and if it may be called and be felt as a duty–an “ought”–, it is not an “ought” because some book says to do it, but because she loves the child and this is what her love enables her to see needs to be done. Love sees things that need to be done that are not seen by those who do not love.
That is what the distinctive mark of the New Covenant is, Aquinas says. Everything else, everything else–Bible, sacraments, hierarchy, canon law–everything else serves either to prepare us to receive that inner grace or to unfold its implications. St. Thomas was not denying that those other things are important; in fact, some of them he regarded as essential and necessary. But they are not primary; none of them is an end in itself; all of them are subordinate to and in the service of the love of God and love of neighbor, for the sake of what St. James calls “religion pure and undefiled before God the Father.”
It is easy to examine our consciences in terms of external obligations–Sunday Mass and fish on Friday–as Catholic life once seemed sometimes to be summed up. It is much harder to examine our consciences in terms of whether we love and how we love, to ask and to answer: Is our relationship with God one of love? Is it experienced as freedom? Is there any joy in it, any spontaneity? Does it overflow into love of neighbor? Does it translate, again spontaneously, into concern for others, into willingness to help them? But it is that kind of examination of conscience that our New Testament readings urge upon us today, if we are not to delude ourselves, if we are to profess and live a genuine, an inner, Christianity.