Ritual only a starting point to discovering Love
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the scribes came near . . . he asked him (Jesus), “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
Then the scribe said, “. . . this is much more important than all
whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the
scribe answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the
kingdom of God.”
One biblical commentary says that this passage “. . . portrays
a friendly, rather than a controversial, discussion between Jesus and
a scribe . . . The scribe repeats the substance of Jesus’ words
adding a word about the primacy of love over even ritual sacrifice.”
Ritual holds an integral place in the lives of those of
us who are Roman Catholic. Of course, other religions also employ ritual — customs,
ceremonies — to express deep and mysterious realities. Even so-called
secular folk, those who profess to be “spiritual but not religious,” cling
to various customs in order to give substance, meaning and rhythm to
everyday life. Human beings need ritual to help nurture and maintain
healthy relations among themselves.
Burnt offerings and other traditional sacrifices can indeed
transmit the essence of what we cannot always put into words — although
I must admit that I tend to choke when incense rises up! But incense
or not, one concept should permeate every sincere, God-centred ritual:
Love is at the heart of today’s readings. Not some frivolous version of “feel-good” spirituality, but a challenging, searching love that encompasses, in all our imperfection, the heart, soul, mind and body.
Daily life, especially when we suffer great trials, does
not always flow with “milk and honey.” But perhaps, through grounded,
authentic love, we can infuse hope and sweetness into just one single
moment, as we greet a stranger on the street or as we welcome someone
in our community with whom we struggle.
Sadly, it’s sometimes much easier to feel — and act — holy,
reverent and prayerful within ritual than it is to actually put ourselves
on the line after we leave the church. The eucharist, for example, is
meant to feed us physically and spiritually. We can then proceed, after
the final blessing, to follow our calling, whatever that calling might
be, in a spirit of humble love and service. Eucharist, as with all ritual,
is only the beginning.
Despite what Moses says, even when we are faithful, our
days on this earth are not always long. It doesn’t always go well with us. We
aren’t necessarily going to be saved from our enemies. But then
we look to Jesus: he underwent so much suffering in a spirit of immense
love. It’s mind-boggling. Can we emulate Jesus? “. . .Unlike
the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after
day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he
did once for all when he offered himself.”
If we are in fact to “love our neighbour as ourselves,” we
must first take a path to discover healing and redemption from within
our own wounds, weaknesses and sinfulness. Only then can we begin to
truly love others through grounded, sincere, compassionate action.
A single encounter can begin a deep process of awakening,
change and new direction. But in the midst of everyday life we don’t always
pay attention. In his book, Thomas Merton, Brother Monk — The Quest
for True Freedom, Basil M. Pennington quotes Merton: “Attentiveness
to God is ‘not just a particular state or a peculiar kind of recollection,
but it is part and parcel of love in everyday life.’ ” It
seems that God’s love — and our love for each other — resonates
in small yet significant details.
Like the respectful scribe in Mark’s gospel, we can, within ritual,
discover a starting point in our journey toward God. But we must also
discover God in the midst of everyday life. When we’re out of balance,
swinging too much incense to block out reality, or placing too much focus
on ritualistic perfection, we tend to forget about compassion toward
ourselves and others.
If we’re to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might, then we need to expand this love for God to encompass our sometimes difficult neighbour. We can still partake in heartfelt, God-centred ritual (this includes using incense — on occasion!), but the fruits of our liturgies and other practices will be to then offer a deeper, more inclusive love to this hurting world, one person at a time.
Strachan is married with three children and lives in Nakusp, BC. She is a Benedictine Oblate with St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK., and a member of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild.