Words on the Word
6. Sunday A
Sir 15.15-20: If you wish, you can keep the commandments.
1 Cor 2.6-10: Wisdom predestined to be for our glory.
Mt 5:17-37: Not to abolish, but to complete.
A few days ago, a representative of the Holy See reminded us that we, as a Church, are in the middle of a dynamic process. She likened the process to the sea, ‘a changing, moving space, even when it’s quiet. People take risks when crossing it, and so people need to to figure out how to keep their balance’. The image is inviting. We imagine ourselves on a windswept Jutland beach looking out towards the horizon. What adventures in store! It is delightful to think of the sea when one’s feet stand firmly on land. But what when the ship sails? It matters to balance freight, of course. But it isn’t enough. Above all, we must know where we are sailing — unless we are simply out on a pleasure cruise? In addition we must know which stars to navigate by.
Are we unsure about where we’re bound and how we’ll get there? If so, we find a reliable map in today’s collect. In just twenty words it gives us what we need to travel safely. Its conciseness is a relief. The prayer begins, as these prayers normally do, by recalling something about God; then it formulates an intention. It goes like this:
Deus, qui te in rectis et sinceris manere pectoribus asseris, da nobis tua gratia tales exsistere, in quibus habitare digneris.
O God, who affirm that you will abide in hearts sincere and true, grant us by your grace to be such women and men in whom you may deign to dwell.
God’s purpose is to dwell in us. He invites us to union with himself. This union is a fruit of grace, sheer gift. It is not the sort of thing we can deserve. However, we can live up to grace. How? By having ‘hearts sincere and true’, though here I must correct myself at once. The choice of words is no good. The Latin speaks of ‘pectora recta’. We know the first of these two words from the expression ‘angina pectoris’, that scary pain in the chest that may signal heart a heart attack. ‘Pectus’ indicates the entire upper body. Symbolically it can stand for both ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’, for both the stomach and the soul. So we’re talking about perception at every level, from the most embodied to the most intellectual. Alt this is to be rectified. The adjective ‘rectus’ is concrete. It describes an object, a surface, or a direction that is straight. The prayer presupposes that our thoughts and feelings, senses and instincts are directed, oriented towards the goal towards which we move, i.e. union with God. Here we may return to maritime imagery. All that stirs in us to be directed by a reliable compass.
This compass is found, first and foremost, in the Word of God. In Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s most fundamental text, the key to all the other texts, the authority of Scripture is established reverently. To think that God has revealed himself and shown us how we may live rightly and gain a share in the wonderful gift he wishes to give! The Council goes on to speak of the obedience the Word of God requires. Obedience isn’t a word we care for much. We associate it with totalitarian demands. We suppose it is the opposite of freedom. We are wrong. When God bids us obey, obedience is freedom. He is a Father who loves us infinitely. He knows us better than we know ourselves. His purpose is that our joy should be complete (Jn 15.11), that our peace should have no bounds (Gal 5.1). Therefore the Council can say: ‘The obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him’ (DV 5).
Only on this basis can we make sense of today’s Gospel. It makes great demands. It reveals what God expects of us. What mother or father does not expect great things of their children? They want their children to grow up, to realise their potential, not to stay children. Sometimes I think that we, nowadays, do want to stay children. We want to be affirmed and comforted ‘carried on the arm, dandled on the knee’ (Is 66.12).
There is a time for such things. But let us not forget that God’s enterprise is the saving of the world and the sanctification of humanity. The fact that the world needs saving and healing, that it doesn’t work as it should, is pretty obvious. Were our hearts not of stone, each morning’s news broadcast would release an ocean of tears. On the ocean of humanity’s tears sails Christ our God. His ark is the wood of the Cross, the Spirit of truth is the wind in his sails. He bids us sail along, not circularly, round and round, but straight to the harbour.
The commandments are our code of conduct aboard and the map by which we journey. They promise life. Will we then choose to drown? Scripture assures us, ‘If you wish, you can keep the commandments’. God helps us. He wants to realise something new and beautiful in us. He shows us what we have it in us to become. We meanwhile hang on like grim death to what we are.
Here we confront what to my mind is the real quandary before us now: Do we believe that God is an all-powerfully transforming God, a God who can make all things new on the basis of a plan which is from the beginning, manifested in Christ Jesus, Alpha and Omega, whose Word is eternal, who calls us to live in him and who turns the sea into crystal (Rev 15.2)? Or do we create a god in our own image, one who leaves things be and does not interfere with our ways, letting us splash around in a skiff not too far from the shore, until the tide comes in?