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Saturday, 3 November 2012

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Thirty-first Sunday (Year B)
(Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 12: 28-34)

Catholics and Christians generally today are not wholly at ease with those supremely important words of Our Lord:
The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'      
They are not wholly at ease with those words because, broadly speaking, though they recognize their unquestionable character, being perfectly clear and simple; and also their indisputable authority, being Our Lord’s direct answer to a question of absolutely supreme importance in Israel and for the salvation of mankind; nevertheless, they are not at ease with them because they quite clearly expect, call for, and even demand, that we not only agree with them but that we sincerely and seriously work at them:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'
As sincere Christians and -- as many would humbly say of themselves -- ‘ordinary human beings’, they want to engage in good actions, actions which do good and promote what is good: actions that -- as far as possible – prevent and counter,  thwart and redress, evil, both for the good of individuals and the benefit of society.  Intentions not, indeed, always possible or even realistic, but nevertheless mysteriously comforting and satisfying: ‘I tried my best’; ‘I did what I could’.
A commitment to personal prayer, on the other hand, they are inclined to regard as being wasteful of time in which opportunities for important good works are lost for ever.  Indeed, when provoked in some degree, they even seem to have and to cherish at the back of their minds, so to speak, the secret conviction that what they consider to be overmuch prayer is a somewhat selfish and reprehensible exercise, nothing better than physical laziness or spiritual vanity and self-seeking:
Mary sat beside the Lord at His feet, listening to Him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to Him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me!’  (Luke 10:39s.)
In the letter to the Hebrews from which our second reading was taken we find frequent mention of the words ‘High Priest’ in relation to Jesus:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him.
Now the office of High Priest was supremely important for the Chosen People because, as we are told in the letter to the Hebrews (5:1), he was their uniquely appointed and acknowledged representative before God; and since Israel had only become the Chosen People -- and an independent nation -- by the gift and grace of God, Israel’s continued national existence and prosperity as God’s Chosen People, was seen to depend upon her right relationship with the God Who had made her His own:
Every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. 
As you know, that right relationship did not endure, Israel sinned against her God and was ultimately punished, being destroyed as an independent nation and superseded as God’s Chosen People; and that fatal fragility of Israel in her relationship with God had been mirrored or manifested in the very person of the High Priest, for again, the letter to the Hebrews in our second reading, told us that:
The law appoints as high priests men who have weakness.
However, the author then immediately goes on to add, that, for the future, that situation would be remedied by God’s oath:
The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind…  You are a priest forever;
an oath which came after the law:
appoint(ing) the Son who has been perfected forever. 
He was perfected because, as Son, He was completely one with God the Father in His divine nature; and perfected forever in His humanity through His Passion and  Death on the Cross followed by His glorious Resurrection, whereby He now lives in human flesh at the right hand of the Father, continually interceding for us through all ages.  He is the perfect High Priest because He loves the Father supremely as the only-begotten Son, and because He was, as man, made perfect by the love with which He bore, for our sake, His personally unmerited and immeasurable sufferings.
It was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)
Love and obedience before God the Father is the supreme key to the perfection of the incarnate Son as our High Priest, and the whole of Jesus’ life on earth was one of continuous union of love in mind, heart, soul and will, with His Father for our salvation.  He was, He is, the perfect, and our sublime, High Priest.
The High Priest in Jerusalem offered bloody sacrifices before God on strictly limited ceremonial occasions in the Temple; but most of the time he was occupied in political negotiations and dealings with the Roman occupying force.  Jesus made no deals with those in power, neither with the Romans, the Herodians, nor with the Temple authorities; He ‘negotiated’ exclusively with His heavenly Father by means of total and most loving obedience together with constant and most intimate prayer, all culminating in the one sublime sacrifice offered by the Son on Calvary and accepted by the Father in the glory of the ‘third day’.
In that way the supreme importance of prayer to God was established for all ages among the new People of God.  And since, as St. Peter tells us, the new People of God are a priestly people being members of the Body of Him Who is the High Priest of our confession, we too are consecrated first and foremost to prayerful union with the Father expressed in the words of Our Lord we began with:
The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'      
As a man endowed with a divine mission and given little time by His fearful and unscrupulous enemies, Jesus deliberately sacrificed countless opportunities to do external good works: people were looking for Him and He moved on, frequently avoiding the crowds; He imposed silence both on devils who would fearfully reveal His true majesty and on many former-sufferers grateful to Him for their cure.  Generally speaking, He had to be sought out by those who looked for healing and, when found, needed to be convinced of, and persuaded by, their faith.  On the other hand, however, Jesus was, at all times and in all circumstances, communing with His Father, and He emphasised this personal and private relationship by often seeking solitude, in order to give Himself more urgently in prayer -- both avid and humble --  to His Father.
We can, therefore, surely recognize how wrong it is to think that Christianity is, first and foremost, concerned with doing worldly, physical, visible, good to people; wrong, because our aim has to be one with Jesus’ proclaimed destiny:
(giving) glory to God in the highest and (bringing) peace toward men of goodwill.
Peace with God, that is, oneness with God that leads to eternal life; the salvation that God the Father wills to confer on all mankind in response to the intercession of Jesus, our heavenly High Priest, together with that of His priestly people here below.
Influenced by the world around them, many people want tangible success in their practice of religion: they want to be seen, or at least to see themselves, achieving something; and, often enough, they find prayer, which produces no immediate or tangible results, difficult and unrewarding; and this lack of “success” easily brings with it a certain distaste for what is regarded as the “nothingness”, the “dryness”, the “uselessness” of prayer.  This reaction is, of course, the result and sign of a deep rooted selfishness common to us all in one form or another, for prayer is first of all God centred: it is homage to, appreciation and praise of, God; it is not something entered into for our own immediate satisfaction and pleasure, indeed, it is a most important step in the practice, demanded of us by Jesus, of dying, with Him, to ones-self.   And since Jesus not only died to self but also rose again to glory in God, where that native selfishness is done to death by a sincere and persevering approach and response to God in prayer, that prayer is indeed able to develop into a supreme delighting in God. 
Jesus intercedes before His Father as the only-begotten, beloved, Son, as we heard:
He is always able to save those who approach God through Him, since He lives forever to make intercession for them.
Here, you will I trust, notice, that the second commandment mentioned by Our Lord has not been forgotten:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
The fact is, People of God, that it is impossible to love the Father in spirit and in truth and then to fail to love one’s neighbour.  Modern Catholics and Christians need to learn anew how to appreciate the supreme importance and power of prayer, and the true value and ‘quality’ of work inspired, sustained, and fulfilled by prayer to God, for such prayer rightly gives all glory to God whose wisdom alone secretly and subtly guides and enables the worker, while His mercy graciously and appropriately prepares the recipient, all in accordance with the angels’ song (Luke 2:14):
Glory to God in the highest and peace toward men of goodwill.  
Those who side-step the difficulties of prayer and concentrate on the perceptible rewards of good works, are not only trying to put the cart before the horse and, consequently, sometimes finding themselves blundering where angels fear to tread, but they can also easily harm themselves by slipping into the trap of vain glory either by seeking human appreciation for, and approval of, their labours, or else by imagining that they themselves are doing the works on which they set such store.
True prayer, however, often involves the painful awareness of our own emptiness and need of God, only occasionally being sweetened by a passing experience of God’s great goodness.  Nevertheless, for the disciple of Jesus, aridity and difficulty in time devoted to prayer -- especially in prayer of praise and thanksgiving – can gradually result in a joy and inspiration, a peace and strength, that show themselves, secretly indeed, but yet convincingly enough: as though the One Who would not endanger our prayer with open favours, does not hesitate to comfort and confirm us mysteriously by a certain awareness or secret sense of His presence in ordinary circumstances as well as in moments of personal suffering and special striving:
He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to  him.
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our abode with him.   (John 14:21, 23)