In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus distilling the Law of the Old Testament down to its fundamental components. The reading says that when…
…one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and 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.’ (Mark 12.28-30)
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one…” Jesus is here quoting a verse from the book of Deuteronomy (6.4). Rabbis down through the centuries have considered this verse, which they call the “Shema,” to be sort of the distilled essence of Jewish monotheism. As such, it holds a very important place in the round of daily prayer for Jews. It is the centerpiece of the Jewish services of morning and evening prayer, and its twice-daily recitation is considered by many to be a “mitzvah,” an obligatory commandment. Many observant Jews recite it as they go to sleep each night, and strive to recite it as they die, making these their final words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Today we find Jesus teaching that this is the first and most important element of the Law – that we have one Lord, and that we are to love him with our whole being. There is something important to notice in the Shema, in the monotheism it “packages,” and in our Lord’s commendation of the whole thing to us as the essence of the Law.
What are we supposed to see in this? Most fundamentally we can see that, as we say in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in ONE God.” And in the unity of this one God whom we confess and worship, we can see the basis for this God’s main “project,” namely, the unity of all things together with him. Our word for this “unity together with him” is comm“union.” St. Paul put it very succinctly and very beautifully when he said, “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross,” (Colossians 1.19-20).
The disunity of mankind and the tearing apart of God’s creation are the consequences of our sin, and are one of the primary aspects of the obscuring of the image and likeness of the one God in us. That is to say, God made mankind in his image and likeness. He made us one. And we have wrecked our unity-in-his-likeness through sin. The Fathers of the Church insisted on this point. Saint Augustine, for example, noticed a correspondence between the four letters of Adam’s name and the Greek words for the cardinal directions, and Augustine comments: “Adam himself is therefore now spread out over the whole face of the earth. Originally one, he has fallen, and, breaking up as it were, he has filled the whole earth with the pieces,” (Commentary on Psalm 95, quoted by De Lubac).
In the same vein, Origen of Alexandria said, “Where there is sin, there is multiplicity, schism, heresy, and dissension,” (Homily 9 on Ezekiel). Convicting words for an Episcopalian to hear – or at least they should be. Our multiplicity, schism, heresy, and dissension are in proportion to our sin – and reveal the great distance between ourselves and the one God.
Commenting on Maximus the Confessor, the great 20th century theologian Henri de Lubac put it this way:
Maximus the Confessor… considers original sin as a separation, a breaking up, an individualization it might be called, in the depreciatory sense of the word. Whereas God is working continually in the world to the effect that all should come together into unity, by this sin which is the work of man, “the one nature was shattered into a thousand pieces” and humanity which ought to constitute a harmonious whole, in which “mine” and “thine” would be no contradiction, is turned into a multitude of individuals, as numerous as the sands of the seashore, all of whom show violently discordant inclinations. “And now”, concludes Maximus, “we rend each other like the wild beasts.” (“Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man”)
It is a mistake to think, as we often do, that the remedy to this dissolution, this fragmentation of mankind, is somehow to try to be more “one” with each other. It is a mistake because our fragmentation is an effect of a deeper problem, and that deeper problem is sin, our turning away from God. To remedy the problem, we must address this cause, and turn back toward God. And so we come to the second part of this “great and first commandment,” (Matthew 22.38), namely, that you should “love [this ONE] Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” In short: you must turn and give God everything. And St. Theophylact notes that this includes the bad as well as the good. He says that even “anger and desire” are included in the offering of our hearts to the Divine Love. God wants everything.
And the only man who ever gave God everything, without reservation or qualification, is Jesus. So we can do it only by him, with him, and in him. In other words, to we want to fix our most fundamental problem, the problem from which all our other problems arise, we can only do it by communion with Jesus – by being ONE with him, the ONE Son of the ONE God.
Which brings us inexorably to the mass. The words of the ancient prayers that we recite Sunday by Sunday point us in this direction: The Lord be with you / And also with you / LIFT UP YOUR HEARTS! Offer your heart, the deepest center of your being to God in union with Jesus, whose Body and Blood we are about to present to the Father, which the Father has already accepted, once and eternally, and for all. We lift up our hearts to the Lord, to whom it is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks and praise, joining our voices with angels and archangels, and with the whole company of the saints in heaven, and the holy souls, and with Christians throughout the whole world, who sing the same praises to the same One God, through the same Jesus Christ, his ONE Son, our ONE Lord.
The mass is the place where the COMMUNION that is our ONE God’s enterprise, is carried out and put into effect. It should be as it were a fountain, overflowing into our lives throughout each week reminding us of Jesus and of the communion with God that is ours in him.
Clement of Alexandria said this about the Mass, and the summons of our Lord to Unity in the likeness of the one God by means of it:
Be instructed in these mysteries and you shall dance with the choir of angels before the uncreated God, whilst the Logos will sing the sacred hymns with us. This eternal Jesus, the one high priest, intercedes for men and calls on them: “Hearken,” he cries, “all you peoples…! I summon the whole human race, I who am its author by the will of the Father! Come unto me and gather together as one well-ordered unity under the one God, and under the one Logos of God! (“Protreptic”)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.