22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; August 30, 2020
Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Ps 63:2-6,8-9; Rm 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27
By the mercies of God…
Everything begins with God’s mercy; our whole life and response to God should begin with the recognition of the great mercy that he has shown us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Today’s 2nd reading gives us a compact summary of the whole Christian life as a response to God’s mercy.
We are told that we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God; the translation then tells us that this is our spiritual worship. A more literal translation would be reasonable worship.
Both the specification of the body and the characterization of the worship as ‘spiritual’ or ‘reasonable’ are essential to the meaning of the passage.
To understand this we must, first of all, say something about our nature as human beings, composed of body and soul.
The soul is the principle of life for the body, it defines the body, it makes our body to be a human body and not some other kind of body. The soul is the inner form of the body, just as the shape of St. Joseph here is the outer form of the wood of this statue, making it to be a statue of St. Joseph, not of some other thing.
The same is true of the souls of plants and animals – yes, we can speak of plant and animal souls, but they are very different in kind. We can grasp the different kinds of soul, as principles of life, precisely by means of the living activities that characterize that soul – nutrition, growth, and reproduction (which are all common to the different kinds of plant life); sensation, desire, and self-movement (which the different kinds of animals have, over above the activities of plant life). From these activities, classical philosophy leads us to a grasp of the ‘powers of the soul’ that lie at their root. This powers in turn characterize the soul itself, which defines the whole living being.
Nevertheless, if we consider all the powers thus far mentioned, they are all bound up with the body and disappear with the death of the body. Thus, plant and animal souls are not immortal; they have no existence and life apart from the body.
Man, however, is characterized by two unique powers that surpass or transcend our bodily life.
First is the power of reason, thought, or understanding. This power is actually our window on reality. We are right in saying that someone who has ‘lost his mind’ is someone who has ‘lost contact with reality’. Sense power only touches the surface qualities of things; the rational power reaches to their inner nature that makes them to be what they are.
The rational power enable us to distinguish a dog from a horse and to know that, whatever the superficial variations, a dog in the time of Jesus is the same kind of thing as a dog today and a horse in the time of Jesus is the same kind of thing as a horse today. Likewise, the rational power makes it possible to know the difference between a man and a woman, in all times and places. Indeed, those who no longer know this difference have lost touch with reality. The rational power expresses its understanding in concepts which, in turn, are expressed in words, through which we are able to communicate with each other. Through the written word we are able even to understand what has been written in far different times and places.
Secondly, we have the power of the will, which is nothing other than our capacity to desire what is good and to make choices and decisions based on the knowledge of the purposes and possibilities inherent in things. That is what it means to have free will. Like the lower animals we possess some form of ‘animal instinct’, but we are not, or should not be governed by mere instinct, but by true knowledge.
The rational power is fundamentally ordered to the truth of a reality it did not make, while our will is ordered to a goodness that it does not make up. Nevertheless, the freedom of our will gives us the dreadful capacity to exchange the truth for a lie and real goodness for an artificial substitute of our own making. So, through reason and will we can either open outward to reality or close inward upon ourselves. All sin involves in some way the rejection of reality, truth, and goodness, in order to turn inward upon ourselves.
The rational power, here and now, exists in and defines our human bodily life, but surpasses the limits of the body in its capacity to reach to every time and every place, to conceive possibilities that will never be realized, and in some way to grasp all things, all of reality, even the very origin of reality, God himself. This shows that our soul, which is the root of all our living powers, surpasses and transcends the body, is able to exist apart from the body, and is, therefore, immortal.
Through our rational and immortal soul, we have uniquely been created in the image of God.
Through the gift of sanctifying grace, with its characteristic virtues of faith, hope, and charity, God wants to lift up our rational soul to something even higher, to share in his own life and nature, to share in his own life of knowledge and love, so as to be able finally to see him as he is (cf. 1 Jn 3:1); this vision of God is called the beatific vision and is the most essential component of the life of heaven.
In sacred Scripture, the word ‘spiritual’ often refers to the elevation of the human spirit to the order of grace. The spiritual man is the man who lives by grace and so shares in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The ‘animal man’ merely lives for this world. (cf. 1 Cor 2:14-15; 15:45-46; Jm 3:13)
The rational soul surpasses and transcends the body, but in this life we only have access to reality by means of our bodily senses, we cannot know independently of our imagination and memory, which reflect our bodily senses, nor are we capable of acting, except through our body. Nevertheless, our whole bodily life is meant to be ruled and directed by our rational power, elevated by grace, and ordered to God.
This brings us back to the words of St. Paul. To offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, our rational or spiritual worship, means to direct the whole of our bodily life to the worship of God, under the direction of reason, elevated by faith to the life of grace. St. Paul says the same thing elsewhere in different words: Whatever you do in word or in deed, do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17)
Now that ‘everything’ in our bodily life falls into three spheres of activity: activity that relates directly to God; activity that involves the proper care of our self; and activity in the service of our neighbor. Note well that care of self has its place here: unless we take proper care for our own soul and for our bodily life (in that order), we will be incapable of giving right worship to God, nor will we really be of any benefit to others.
These are all the commandments of God, summed up by Jesus Christ.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, will all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Mt 22:37-40)
The ten commandments are like a guard rail, specifying the limits of love of God and love of neighbor. For example, if you take the name of the Lord in vain, you have departed from the path of the love of God; if you commit adultery, you have departed from the path of love of neighbor. If you depart from the path of love of neighbor, you have failed also in the love of God; if you depart from the path of love of God, you have failed also in the love of neighbor.
Now, if we consider well what is being asked of us, we will realize that this will be impossible so long as in our minds we remain conformed to this age or to this world. By ‘the world’ or ‘the present age’ the Scripture refers to human society organized apart from God for the sake of attaining goods, real, but limited, or merely apparent and illusory, that will pass away with this present mortal life. By turning away from God and from the life of grace, by turning away from the promise of eternal life, and by directing human energy purely to progress in this world, the human mind inevitably falsifies reality and even the real goods that are pursued become distorted and harmful.
The person who is subject to this worldly mentality can take part in the externals of religious practice, but he cannot truly offer his body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.
The spirit of ‘this age’ is present in every time and place in human history, but the modern era, rooted as it is in a conscious rejection of God and Christ, is particularly subject to the spirit of this age.
That means we must make a special effort to reject this lying spirit, to refuse to conformed to the thinking of the world, to embrace faith in the word of Jesus Christ as the foundation for our whole mental outlook, so as to be transformed by the renewal of our mind in Christ.
All of this will be impossible without the grace of God.
There are two kinds of grace that come into play here: grace as life and grace as help. There is the life of grace, sanctifying grace, the elevation of the soul to share in the life and nature of God. Then there is actual grace, which refers to the concrete helps that God gives us, light to the mind and strength to the will, to discern and obey his will in all things.
This leads us to today’s Gospel, because grace comes to us, sinful men, through the Cross of Jesus Christ. That is why it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to be killed, and to rise again on the third day.
We need Jesus Christ both as the source of grace and as our example. He has given us the most perfect example of what it means to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and pleasing to God. He has told us: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
Because we carry the inheritance of sin within our own flesh and because we have been subject to the spirit of this age, we must continually reject the temptations of the flesh, the world, and the devil, so as to turn anew to Christ, seeking the renewal of our mind so as to offer our bodily life as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This means the Christian life is a life of continual self-denial, a true way of the cross, but a way that leads to true life.
That again leads us back to grace; without grace we cannot live self-denial; we cannot follow the way of the cross.
Grace comes to us from the Cross of Jesus Christ, through the sacraments. Nevertheless, grace is not ‘automatic’; grace will not transform us unless we cooperate, unless we are open to the life of grace, unless we pray.
Indeed, we must not only pray, but we must live a life of prayer; we must, during the course of the whole day, again and again, turn away from ourselves and turn towards God, repenting of our sins, recognizing his presence, giving him glory, and begging his grace.
We offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, when everything we do and say is directed by God, through our reason, lifted up and illumined by grace, and when we return everything to God, through prayer and self-offering.
All of this comes to a focus in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
At the Mass, through the ministry of the priest, Jesus offers anew the one and same sacrifice he offered once for all on the Cross, the source of grace. At the Mass, we need to bring together the sacrifice of our whole life, the offering of our body, in order to make the offering through, with, and in the offering of Jesus Christ, in his Body, the Church.
Further, the whole of the Mass, if it is rightly celebrated, should become the pattern of the mind that has been transformed and renewed in Christ.
If this is to happen, we must not import the spirit of this age into the celebration of the Mass. Rather, the celebration of the Mass should surpass and transcend our present time and place. Rooted in the timeless tradition of the Church it must become a window to the light of heaven. The Mass, if it is the Mass, always contains the reality of the sacrifice of the Cross rising up towards the throne of God and the reality of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, coming down from God to sanctify us and give us life. Nevertheless, when the celebration lacks due reverence, when the laws of the Church are not followed, when tradition is abandoned, or when the celebration is used for the advancement of human agendas, the very celebration becomes an obstacle to the grace of Christ. The Mass becomes conformed to the passing world.
Instead of being conformed to the world, we must be transformed by the Mass, so as to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and pleasing to God, through, with, and in Jesus Christ.