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Sunday 3, Year A: Liturgy of the Word – the Word as the “great light”

“I worship the ground you stand on.” To say that to someone expresses not only great love, but also submission and self-surrender. It’s like saying, “you are my life, my all, the meaning of my existence; I will do anything you want, so long as I can be yours.” These are passionate words which express passionate feelings. They treat the one worshipped as divine.

The Mass is worship. It is divine worship. There is none greater. The divine Son expresses in the Mass his utter submission and self-surrender to the divine Father. In his death and resurrection into which the Mass transports us, the Son has done what the Father wanted. Through his passion he has passionately loved the Father because of the Father’s passionate love for us. As St. John puts it: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” – almost as if we were more important to Him than His own Son. Such is this love of Father and Son for us that they have infused us with their own divine passion. In the Mass, we worship the Father through the Son because, I make bold to say, the Father through the Son first worshipped us. How else can we understand the madness of the incarnation and redemption? And so that worship which is the Mass is both the work of the Son and ours. But it’s only ours because it was first His, for He loved us first. We can only love Him back because His love makes us able to do so.

The word “Liturgy” (one of those “Catholic words” we hear but may not quite understand!) which you have probably heard used at church literally means the “work of the people.” It is the work given to us to do by the Father because it was first the work He gave to the Son to do by being born, suffering, dying and rising to reconcile us to God. The Liturgy we perform in celebrating the Mass is  not alien to our humanity. Rather, it befits our human nature. It involves our minds, our wills or hearts and our bodies. And that is because our human nature is created in the image and likeness of God. God is intelligence, as are our minds. God is freedom and love, as are our hearts or wills. Where we differ from the divine is in our bodies. God is without limit, but our bodies define us as limited, as creatures. Yet the marvellous truth is that God the Son takes on our body, so that God now has a body. It is in that body that he unites heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite, the divine and the human, the uncreated and the created. The human body is literally stardust. The stars which God created produced the stardust that makes up our material humanity. So by his incarnation, Christ takes the universe itself to himself, redeems it from death and, here is the even more marvellous truth, makes it share in the infinite, in the divine life of the Trinity itself.

But first, let us take the mind. When little children start asking “Why, daddy? Why mummy?” –the insatiable engine of the human mind is born. The mind desires to know the truth, reality that is true. It instinctively rejects lies and any so-called reality which is fake. Our mind is like a tiny seed with its inbuilt tendency to grow and flourish. We want to know. We must know. We are frustrated when things are hidden or when our mind may not have the strength or ability to understand due to limits of nurture or nature. But the nature of the human mind is to read reality, to understand it, to grasp it. Perhaps it wants to know so as to achieve some great feat, or maybe it is for the simple and glorious pleasure of just knowing. The words intelligence and intellect mean to read inside, to pierce with the eyes of the mind. God gave us the intellect to come to know everything, above all Himself, the source of all that is, the fountain of all truth and knowledge, living Wisdom itself. Had our first parents not broken communion with God we might well now already possess the fullness of knowledge. But it was broken and our minds were darkened. Not only did we not know everything, we began to forget what we knew and to misread reality. Think of all the pagan myths and religions which mistook planets or animals or things, or even the human being, as gods. Think of all the distorted reasoning which flowed from that and, alas, the spiralling descent into warped behaviour which followed. Sin distorted the human mind. All we have to do is mention Nazism to prove the point.

But the God who worshipped us, if we can say it that way, did not leave us in the dark with warped thinking and its consequences. As both the first reading and Gospel today tell us: “the people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. On those who lives in a land of deep shadow a light has dawned.” And as is clear from the Gospel, this great light is Christ. Christ is in person the intelligence of God. To use the words of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” The Word is the self-understanding of God. Christ’s words flow from his very being, and that being is the Word of the Father. His actions and deeds, his silences, his apparent absences, his prayer, his presence: all of these shine the great light of God upon the darkness and deep shadow of the human mind. As the Magi were filled with delight when they saw the star, the eyes of the human mind are filled with the delights of the truth when they contemplate Christ, when they watch Christ. St. Paul tells us that in Christ all things were created in heaven and on earth. He goes on to say that all things find their substance in Him, they hold together in Him. In other words, Christ in his risen body is like the great universal framework within which all reality is given existence, order and unity.

So, when He speaks, when he reveals himself in any way at all, the human mind again receives that great light which unlocks the depths of the truth. In St. John, Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” This means that being open to Christ, surrendering to Christ, obeying Christ and, yes, worshipping Christ is the royal road to the true knowledge of the deepest meaning of all reality. And Christ does not only reveal the Father to us, as if that were negligible, he does not only reveal Himself to us, but by the very act and fact of doing so, he reveals us to ourselves. He unlocks the door to our own personal mystery, our deepest identity. The great light He shines on our minds lights up everything that is in them as well as everything that is beyond them. It lights up our self-awareness so that we are enlightened to discover who we truly are, in all our beauty and also in our ugliness. And ultimately we are only who we are in His sight. He is the Light that judges us, that tells us who we are, that illumines the great potential of our minds and wills. That is why the Light of the Christian Gospel has been at the source of the great flourishing of Western civilization. It is also why the rejection of Christ has led to a new darkening of the mind in the West and to the decay of our civilization. But darkness cannot overcome Christ.

So, it is not by chance that the first major part of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word. It is literally the “people’s work of worshipping the Word.” We work as we listen to the readings because Christ himself has gathered us here to speak to us – now. So we may not listen to the Word as if it were any word. It is the great light of Christ shining upon our minds here and now, just as surely as it shone brightly upon the minds and self-awareness of the four fishermen called in the Gospel. Christ’s Word penetrated to the depth of their being, such that they left family and work to follow Him. The Word heard in faith demands an immediate response as we see in the apostles. The effect of truly listening with an open heart and active mind to the Word of God is a graced change of life, because when we truly listen, that great light goes on in our minds and hearts, we see and understand clearly who we are, what we should do and why we should do it. And as our first reading makes clear, the light it brings to our lives will “make our gladness greater, make our joy increase.” The Word also liberates us from the oppression of false ideas, mistaken understandings, misreadings of ourselves, of others and of God. As it also says in the first reading: “for the yoke that was weighing on him, the rod of his oppressor – these you break as on the day of Midian.” The Word breaks, snaps the yoke of Satan. And so it is that the Liturgy of the Word, from the first reading right through to the general intercessions, is Christ’s gift of his great light to our minds. We must hear his Word with a particular docility and humility of mind and leave aside the often arrogant and self-sufficient outlook with which our contemporary culture often tries to poison us. We need to pray rather for the attitude of mind of both Mary and of Christ: “Be it done unto me according to thy Word”; “Not my will, but thine be done.” Then we will be truly in a position to say, “Lord, I worship every word that comes from your mouth.”