HOMILY for 22nd Sunday per annum (B)
The temptation in reading today’s Gospel is to say that only the intention and motivation matters, and that external matters are unimportant. But that would be true only if we were angels, that is, purely spiritual beings; pure intellect. The other temptation we often face is to resort to just the performance of the act, going through the motions for the sake of due observance, but our heart is not in it; the external act is stripped of it’s interior meaning and significance. Just as animals feed but don’t dine, the merely meaningless performance of an act inclines us towards our animal natures. But we’re not beasts either. We human beings are rational animals, a combination of the angelic and animal, being a unity of body and spirit, of external physical acts and the willed intellect.
But this tug towards one extreme or the other, this temptation to divide body and spirit, mind and matter, to dichotomize rather than unite, is nothing new – one of the oldest heresies of dualism, indeed. For one of the lasting effects of original sin is precisely this dis-integration of the human person so that we constantly struggle to hold the internal and the external together. For all too often our acts become routine, and our mind wanders. Many times, I have sung the Divine Office, and not noticed it. Or we can sit at Mass and the familiar actions and words wash over us without our hearts ever engaging in it. Conscious of this, the Second Vatican Council called for “full, conscious, and actual participation” in the Liturgy. Not “active participation” as it’s often been mistranslated, because we can make an idol of just actively doing things, but participatio actuosa, actual participation. In other words, we’re reminded to put our hearts into what we do, and to do what our hearts incline us to. Hence, for example, we sing because our hearts are full of love and joy, but at the same time, that very act of singing stirs up our love and joy.
This is what it means to be a sacramental people, for meaningful –significant – actions best suit our human natures. God could just have used words to appeal to our minds and just communicated with us spiritually, but because we’re a union of body and soul, Christ affirms the goodness of material things, and uses these outward signs to communicate his grace to us. And, so, in a similar way, external acts can be said to reveal an inner disposition and also actualize what they reveal.
The danger of our ‘sacramentality’ is that we risk concentrating just on the externals, obsessing over the details to the extent that we forget why we’re doing these things. Then, our deeds become heartless, and we are prone to behaving unjustly, or even uncharitably for the sake of such externalities. But the other extreme is to react against this legalism by ignoring and neglecting all externalities, their proper rules and details, and to think that in doing so, we’re being simple and pure and concentrating on what really matters. But we can’t do this by neglecting matter. Both these approaches are dangerous and, because they are dualistic, they’re unnatural to the human person. The human way is to pay attention to both inward and outward matters, and to hold both external and internal in tension, so that one mutually enriches the other. So, where the temptation is often to dichotomize and say “either–or”, the Catholic way, which appeals to our body–soul human nature, is to unite, re-integrate, and say “both–and”.
We see this being expressed in today’s readings which exhort us both to observe the external demands of the Law and to examine the heart that underlies our actions, so that the two come together gracefully. As St Augustine said: “The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled”.
So, in the First Reading, the Law and commandments are understood to be God’s privileging of his beloved people, an expression of his love, given for our good. Hence, God shares his wisdom with us, teaching us how live well, to order society justly, and so, to achieve peace, flourishing, and happiness. This is the purpose of the Law: that we should know God’s love for us, and so, love him in return. But the problem arises when we just do things legalistically, without really knowing why we do them, and so, without actually appropriating the wisdom embedded in the Law. This often happens when we’re just told to do things in a particular way but without understanding why. Thus, the laws, our external acts no longer communicate the wisdom which they embody; they lose their ability to form us in virtue.
Or we develop a reflexive habit, so, for example, for days, I still walked into the room upstairs where our tabernacle was and unthinkingly bent my knees upon entering! But, of course, what each consciously willed act of genuflection is meant to teach us is the reverence and awe that is due to God – an act of justice, then – and also to express devotion to him, who is present with us in this loving and humble way. So, the genuflection is aimed at fostering justice and love. If we keep these aims in mind, then the Law, our rubrics, and external actions begin to acquire a beating living heart, so that they do indeed teach and form us to be just and loving persons.
But while neglecting to pay attention to the why of our actions can be due to our human distractedness and bodily laziness – so-called carnal sins due to the weakness of the flesh –; on a much more serious level, we can commit spiritual sins in which we use external deeds deliberately to mask our true thoughts and intentions. Then, our acts become masks and we become actors, which is where the Greek word hypocrite comes from: the stage. So, we might kiss our spouse as usual and act like a dutiful husband, but in our hearts we long after another. Or we might behave agreeably towards a boss to curry favour, but in secret proclaim her an idiot. Or we might wear religious clothing to hide our insecurities and win respect. None of this means that we should, therefore, stop kissing our wives, or being courteous, or wearing the habit in public. But it does mean that our external deeds, and, ultimately, our observance of the Law, should challenge us to examine our hearts, so that, if necessary, we purify our motivations. As Jesus says: “the things which come out of a man are what defile him”, so we need to beware of duplicity and mean what we do, so that our observance of the Law is a truthful search for grace, for God’s wisdom. When we receive this grace, learning God’s wise ways through the observance of the Law, then, as St James suggests, we’ll have “true religion” – an authentic love of God and neighbour. Thus, in acting justly and lovingly, the Law is gracefully fulfilled.
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