Monday, 25 January 2010

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The 2nd Reading continues last week’s focus which was on the community. The metaphor used by St Paul to describe the Christian community was the body. “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body”. Through baptism we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. [1]

However, the theme is “The Law of the Lord” as we heard in the 1st Reading. In the 1st Reading Ezra the priest solemnly read the Law of Moses to the returning exiles. As they prostrated themselves before the Lord, it was a moment of re-dedicating themselves to God and as such it became a sacred day of rejoicing. That sacred day came to its fulfilment in the Gospel when Jesus at the synagogue proclaimed the programme of the new covenant.

How is the community, that is, the body related to the new programme of the covenant, that is, the laws? They are related because laws necessarily flow from a community as the community will always make its demand on the individual. Laws are expressions of a covenantal community. In the Church, the concrete demands of the “Law of the Lord” are set down through what is called the Code of Canon Law. It is defined as a codified set of norms or procedures that spell out the rights and duties regulating the well-being of this spiritual or mystical body called the Church. Generally, Catholics are not affected by Canon Law. Specifically, the effects of Canon Law are only felt when a Catholic wants to get married. Most of the time, the laws that apply to marriage are straight-forward. But, sometimes, they are not and this is when we encounter the oft-quoted complaint: Why is the Church so rigid?

The rigidity of Church discipline or law becomes a moment of reflexion for us. Are there laws in the Church that need to be updated? Maybe there are but that is not our concern here. Our concern is rather the attitude or the response we ought to take with regard to the law. Let me elaborate what attitude we should have by speaking of contrition.

What is contrition? It is defined as the “heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed, along with the intention of sinning no more”. Contrition can be described as perfect because it is based on the love of God or imperfect when it is based on the fear of punishment or some lesser motive. Our approach to contrition can help us to appropriate the law. For many of us, our relationship with God is not based on love but rather it is based on fear. So, in terms of contrition, this means that we often do all we can to avoid hell.

Sadly, when we do all we can to avoid hell the consequence is the law will become duty and therefore an imposition or an obligation. The response to an imposition is often calculative. The best example of this attitude is the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. His retort to the father was: "Have I not slaved all these years for you?" He was a dutiful son. Whilst being dutiful is commendable, it often leads to resentment. Those of you who have to take care of your ageing parents because your siblings have shirked their responsibilities know what this means. The same goes for parents. You have worked hard and the test comes when your son or daughter does something you consider to be illogical—like choosing a career which he likes but to you, it does not have a future or when the choice of your daughter’s life partner does not meet your approval. A common reaction can be: “Do you know how much I have sacrificed for you?" Does this sound familiar? When we approach life dutifully we often end up just fulfilling our bargain; calculating how little is needed in order to fulfil what is required. As stated above, duty is not bad but it may lead to resentment. In marriage it is often like that. One of the spouses is dutiful and the other takes advantage. Here I am not advocating turning the other cheek or accepting the status quo. What I am saying is that when fulfilling our duty is our approach, then watch where the anger, hatred, resentment come from.

On the other hand, perfect contrition is based on love and devotion. This is how our relationship with God should be as we aspire or go forward in such a way that the question to ask is not “Do you know how much I have slaved for you?” but “Is there more that I can do?" It was love that drove the Psalmist to cry out “The law of the Lord is perfect”. The basis of St Ignatius’ motto “ad maiorem dei gloriam” is this: “what more can I do, my God whom I love above all else”. It is in this context that laws or the covenant become liberating rather than enslaving. As long as we seek to fulfil the minimum requirement, we tend towards legalism like the Pharisees. But when we seek to do more than what is required, then our attitude towards the law will become moral. We will not stop at the minimum requirement of the law. And this is where we enter the terrain of sanctity or holiness, the territory of excellence and valley of suffering and loneliness and the feeling of being stupid because nobody shares your passion. This commensurate with who we are: Imago Dei. The image of God and the highest of all God’s creation.

Our guide is no longer the minimum requirement of the law but rather the moral compass of what is right and good. It becomes the freedom to embrace God’s will, no matter how difficult it may be.

In summary, as long as there is a community and because we are social and political beings, there exists the inevitability of the law. The demands of the law can be a source of tension because the temptation is for the individual to go at it alone, to live outside the demands of the community. Our approach to the demands of the community must be more than a dutiful response because the new covenant of Jesus in the Gospel is marked by love and that covenant can only be fulfilled if we dare to love. Duty can only take us this far. Devotion brings us to do more in order that the Good News will not just be news but good news of salvation. If we want to advance along the path of holiness, then our conversion must be from duty to devotion.
[1] Even though the word sounds a bit too “corporate”, in Latin, it actually points to the body and so, baptism draws us into the Body of Christ.