Sunday, October 23, 2011

And With Your Spirit

(Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 22 & 23 September, 2011 at St. Mary's Church in Cranston, R.I. and Holy Cross Church in Providence, R.I.; SeeMatthew 22:34-40)

In just a few short weeks, with the Third Edition of the Roman Missal being introduced on the First Sunday of Advent, we will experience one of the most significant changes in our celebration of Mass since the period following the Second Vatican Council. Certainly the holy sacrifice of the Mass does not change. Our union with Christ in the Eucharist can never change for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). But many of the words and phrases in the prayers we offer and the responses we share each week will indeed change.

Well before that happens, of course, there will be pew cards available that will identify the words and phrases that are slightly different from what we have grown accustomed to for decades. Change is never easy but I am sure that before long we will become as familiar with the new expressions as we were with the previous ones. Hopefully we will even discover that the changes themselves are instrumental in helping us to draw ever more deeply into the mystery and the majesty of the encounter with the living God that we experience every time we gather together for Mass. We are doing something far greater than refining our language in the liturgy; we are embracing changes that will help us enter more intimately into the life of God.

Today I would like to focus on one of those changes, the very first one that we will encounter on November 27, 2011. On that First Sunday of Advent the priest celebrant will make the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass and greet the people with the words, “The Lord be with you.”

Instead of the response, “And also with you,” however, the response of the assembled community will now be, “And with your spirit.” I am sure you would agree that it is a very small change. In fact, you might argue that it is such a small change that perhaps it is not even necessary. Yet what is being communicated in that small change, and indeed throughout that brief exchange that we participate in at the beginning of every Mass, speaks volumes.

“The Lord be with you,” the priest proclaims in his greeting.

The Lord, who says to us in Sacred Scripture, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), this God is with us.

Christ, who abides silently and lovingly in the tabernacle of every Roman Catholic Church is with us.

Christ, whose body and blood are made present on the altar of sacrifice and received by His Church assembled before Him in the presence of the angels, He is with us. He is indeed with us!

“And with your spirit,” the community responds. And with your spirit. There is a spiritual reality taking place here in the Mass that needs to be made known at the beginning. The opening greeting and response set the tone for what we are about to enter into, a spiritual and physical encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We are not just bodies gathered together in His Church. We are bodies and souls and that is something we are in constant need of remembering.

The world in which we live does not always acknowledge the spiritual nature of our existence. Our culture is one preeminently focused on the body and the material world. If you are not convinced of this, turn on your TV or go to the movies. Even when there is an attempt to dabble in things spiritual, they are often explored only in as much as they relate to one’s existence in this world, this present life.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis, in a sermon he gave at Oxford University back in 1942 called The Weight of Glory, said that we are in urgent need of being rescued from “the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.” He explains how “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

In seventy years not much has changed in that regard. And yet the good we search for, the glory to which God beckons us, the “far-off country” for which we long, none of these have been found on this earth. Sic transit gloria mundi. The glory of this world passes. The good and the glory which we yearn for can only be found beyond this world, in heaven. How remarkably astonishing then, that the God of heaven and the God of glory should choose to come here to this earth and find us! That is what we are celebrating in the liturgy. God is with us, physically, and with our spirit.

In the Gospel for this weekend Christ is asked which of the commandments is the greatest. His response is not simply, “Love God, love neighbor.” That is a truncated and incomplete translation of what He gives in answer to that all-important question. He says not, “Love God, love neighbor,” but:

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 first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

—Matthew 22:37-39

With all your heart…and with all your soul…and with all your mind.

Christ acknowledges the whole person, the entirety of the human person whom He has created and redeemed and sustained by His love. Our response to so great a gift as life and redemption must be more than a mere physical obedience and pious action. We must love God with our bodies and with our souls, with our hearts and minds, our intentions and our wills, with everything we have and are. That is what it means to love God. Such love can only be complete, of course, when we take the same holistic stance in solidarity with and charity towards our neighbor.

At the conclusion of his sermon, C.S. Lewis holds up this love of neighbor as the hallmark of our own call to heavenly glory and union with God. He notes how it is certainly possible to be too concerned or too occupied with one’s own glory (a spiritual myopia, as it were). But, he says, “It is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”

Guided by this focused and passionate desire for our neighbor’s glory, our neighbor’s journey towards that heavenly homeland, Lewis notes how our perspective and our everyday relations regarding those around us can and must be changed. This spiritual nature, which we acknowledge whenever we gather together for the Mass –and with your spirit—this spiritual reality is one that negates any possibility for regarding our neighbor as ordinary. We are destined, body and soul, to endure beyond this world for all eternity. In heaven, or, God forbid, separated from God and heaven, we will exist beyond this place, in a life that never ends. That changes things; it changes everything.

“There are no ordinary people,” writes Lewis:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

How is God challenging us to help our neighbor to that eternal relationship with Him, to share in His glory in that heavenly homeland? How are we called to love God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds in our everyday relationships and experiences this week? May we truly come to experience this love which begins here on this earth and transcends all earthly bounds, and in so doing come to recognize all the more that God is totally and completely with us, and with our spirit.