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Friday, 2 November 2018

31st Sunday Year B 2018

                        31st. 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 the words of Our Lord:

The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment.

Many religious-minded people today who, while not declaring themselves to be Christians, nevertheless like to think of themselves as ‘morally acceptable’ people, are not truly at ease with those words I say, because those words of Our Blessed Lord are far too God-centred for them.  The Jesus they vaguely remember and the Christians they like to think of are known for doing ‘good’ to people, speaking ‘nicely’ to them, supporting social efforts for popular charities, all positive ways of ‘doing good’ … and all of which they approve because the ‘good’ they show forth is a popular good; the kindness, the niceness they manifest is always pleasing and somewhat emotional.  Oh, how a weeping woman or beaming child are sought after to ensure that such deeds can be appreciated and praised by all!

Our Blessed Lord’s words however speak of One Who is above us and this world … He is not to be found in it, not that is, unless you are a very religious person: perhaps one of those Catholics who go to Mass on Sundays and can even be found, at times, holding beads and whispering something to themselves  That God has to be worshipped and prayed to, even though time spent in prayer is generally regarded by ‘normal, not very religious people’ as time wasted, a time in which opportunities for ‘proper’ work for others is squandered.  Indeed, some even seem to entertain the suspicion that such prayer is basically selfish, a reprehensible exercise in spiritual self-seeking.

In our second reading we heard mention of the words ‘High Priest’ with regard to Jesus; and how alien those words seem to those moderately-minded people who have only vague memories of Jesus and Christianity being centred on doing ‘good’ and being ‘nice’!

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. (Hebrews 3:1-2)

The office of High Priest was supremely important for God’s original Chosen People because, as we are told in the letter to the Hebrews (5:1):

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.

The High Priest represented the Chosen People before God, and that is why it was the supremely important post, because Israel had only become God’s Chosen People and an independent nation by the gift and grace of God; and Israel’s continued existence as a nation and as the Chosen People, depended upon her being in a right relationship with the God Who had made her His own.

However, as you know, that right relationship did not endure; Israel sinned against her God and was ultimately punished, indeed ultimately destroyed as an independent nation and superseded as God’s Chosen People.   This fatal fragility of Israel in her relationship with God was mirrored or manifested in the very person of the High Priest, for again, the letter to the Hebrews, as you heard in our second reading, tells us that:

The law appoints as high priests men who have weakness.

Nevertheless, the author then immediately goes on to add that that situation would eventually be remedied by the appointment of a new High Priest for the new People of God:

The word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son Who has been perfected forever. 

God’s oath appointed His Son as High Priest, the Son made perfect forever: perfect, because He was, by His very nature as Son, most sublimely united, indeed consubstantial, with God the Father; and as man, He was made perfect forever through His Passion and Death on the Cross followed by His glorious Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.  He now lives in His-and-our 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 made perfect as our High Priest by the love with which He bore, on our behalf, His Personally unmerited and humanly 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)

The ritual High Priest in Jerusalem, even though he offered bloody animal sacrifices before God on limited ceremonial occasions in the Temple, was, for the most part, occupied by Sanhedrin religious in-fighting, and by political dealings with -- and even at times on behalf of -- the Roman occupying force. 

The supreme key to the perfection of Jesus as High Priest, however, was His love for and obedience to God His Father: the whole of His life as man on earth was one of continuous union of love in mind, heart, and will, with His heavenly Father as He manifested and proclaimed the Gospel of Peace to all those of good will who would hear and learn from Him. He offered but one sacrifice to the Father: that of Himself on Calvary; and His subsequent, eternal, ‘negotiating’ on our behalf is by means of prayer to, with and before, His heavenly Father.

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 are above all, called to and consecrated for 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, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment.

As a man with a mission, Jesus sacrificed countless opportunities to do good works during His time on earth: people were looking for Him and He moved on; He avoided the crowds; He imposed silence on many He had cured; and, generally speaking, He did not seek out sick persons to heal, rather He had to be sought out by those who wanted healing, and He had to be persuaded by their faith.  Meanwhile, 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 intensely to this prayer relationship of Son with His heavenly 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, above all, to be one with Jesus in giving:

Glory to God in the highest and peace toward men of goodwill.

Glory to God, that is, oneness with God in loving obedience and communion that leads to eternal life: the salvation that God the Father wants to bestow 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 today as we have seen, want tangible success if they are to practice 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” brings about a distaste for what is regarded as the “nothingness”, the “dryness”, the “uselessness” of prayer.  This reaction is, of course, the result and the 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.   However, since Jesus both died and rose again to glory, 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 in the second reading:

He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives 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 Christians and Catholics need to learn anew how to appreciate the supreme importance and value of prayer before God; for the angels’ proclamation at the birth of Jesus was, as I have recalled:

Glory to God in the highest and peace (salvation) to His people on earth,

and every act of true prayer, because it is indeed for the glory of God, is also, and supremely, for the salvation of all mankind.

Those who side-step the difficulties of prayer and concentrate on doing good works, are not only trying to put the cart before the horse, but also can easily harm themselves by slipping into the trap of vainglory by seeking either the sensible reward of human appreciation of their labours, or else by sliding into the trap of self-approbation, imagining that they themselves are doing the works on which they set such store.

True prayer, however, is often the painful awareness of our own emptiness and need of God, only occasionally being sweetened by a passing experience God’s great goodness.  Works done to avoid the difficulty of prayer can, at times, become an outward display covering an increasing awareness of spiritual emptiness before God.  For the perseveringly faithful disciple of Jesus, on the other hand, aridity and difficulty in time devoted to prayer -- especially in prayer of praise and thanksgiving -- can result in a joy and inspiration, a peace and strength, that show themselves, secretly indeed, but yet convincingly, as though the One Who would not endanger our prayer with His favours, does not hesitate to make us mysteriously aware of His presence in the ordinary circumstances of years and seasons, days and nights, and in the special moments of perseverance in and through suffering and striving.