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Sunday 30, Year A: Obligation as Gift

It would be sad if a parent had to be told, “you have an obligation to love your child.” To love your own child goes without saying. It is natural. You could not not love your child. The obligation is there, of course, but it’s absorbed into the natural desire and need to love. There’s no need to announce over the loudspeaker at a football match, “ladies and gentlemen, when your team scores, you have the obligation to show your appreciation.” The announcement itself would be drowned out in the roar, “goal”!

The same is true when it comes to the obligation to love God above all things. It ought to be second nature to us, meet with a roar of approval. When asked, Jesus explains that loving God is the very first commandment; hence it is our first obligation. And yet what can “commanding love” mean? Love and command, like love and obligation, are not words that should go together if things are going as they should be.

And yet, when it comes to God, our experience is, alas, that we don’t always love Him spontaneously or with a roar of approval. God complains through the prophet Isaiah, “the ox knows its master, but my people do not know me” (Is. 1:3). In the prophet Micah, the complaint is more poignant, “O, my people, what have I done to you? How have I aggrieved you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3). The history of the Jewish people, like that of the Church herself, is filled with apostasy, with running after false gods. Examining our own lives, there are questions we must ask frankly and answer honestly. Am I as good as Isaiah’s ox that knows its master? Do I know the Lord? Does my recognition of God hold good for an hour on Sunday only? Do I consider His presence and will for me when making plans for my life, for my family? Do I only let Him come into my life thus far, but no further? Is true love of God my first obligation, never mind my first passion and the spontaneous reaction of my heart?

We need commandments only when we are weak and fall beneath what is expected of us. Being reminded of an obligation is a safety net, a salutary pointer in living well and avoiding danger. And the Lord knows our weakness. His compassion for us is immense. Yet, as Lord and Father, His compassion also includes teaching us discipline so that we will grow and mature as His beloved sons and daughters. No-one should need to be commanded not to kill, but the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” is needed for those whose weakness would make them forget that. The same is true of all of the ten commandments, especially the first. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” which Jesus takes and renders positively: “This is the first and greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your being.” 

You may have noticed that I have so far said nothing about the second commandment which Jesus mentions, the one about loving your neighbour as yourself. I’ve done that deliberately, because most Catholics today are already well aware of it. In Western society in general, there is a very positive awareness of the social dimension of the Gospel and of the corporal works of mercy. We are strong on social justice (though we could be much stronger still). This is something very good.

However, it sometimes seems that the emphasis on reaching out to our neighbour goes hand in hand with a loss of emphasis on our relationship with God. Prayer and Sunday Mass, for example, are frequently considered a waste of time when you “could be using your time for others” (and I wonder how many who say that actually do it!). And yet there is nothing in what Christ teaches us in the Gospel to suggest that it’s an either-or: either you worship, or you practice charity. In fact, he keeps the two together: it’s a both-and. He Himself is both the model of practical charity and the model of true worship of God. And there is a reason for that. It is only in prayer and worship, in living before the face of God and for His sake, that we come to know and experience directly God’s love for ourselves and for the whole of humanity. In communion with God, indeed, in Holy Communion with Christ, are to be found the source, the strength and the reason of practical charity. Christian charity is born from being imbued by the Holy Spirit with Christ’s own sense of urgent love for our neighbour. It is not so much about social justice taken as a political or ideological proposal, good though that may be, but as the expansion outwards to all people of the love of God we experience in Word and Sacrament.

Hence it is vital, even to our most intimate personal relationships, that we love God above all things and all persons. It is vital that we learn again to pray to God, asking for the grace to pray, asking to know His love for us personally. Human love is a beautiful love, a reflection of God’s own love, of course, in the way that the moon reflects the sun. In prayer and worship, though, that reflection becomes brighter, almost as if the moon becomes itself a sun. By giving primacy to God, by seeking His love actively and earnestly, and by loving Him in return, He takes nothing away from our human love. No, He only magnifies it to be ever greater, deeper, truer, stronger and more life-giving.

It is in this sense that we need to cultivate our obligation to love God. In the end, of course, it is not really an obligation at all, but an immense gift. As you know, we have the obligation (immense gift) to attend Mass every Sunday, for Sunday is the day of Resurrection when the Son of God, the rising Sun of immortality, consummated His love for us. During the year, there are other days or holidays of obligation which reflect that Sun in a particularly brilliant way. One of them is this coming Wednesday, the Solemnity of All Saints, those known and unknown to us who are already our friends and who, we hope, will welcome us one day into their company. They lived the obligation (immense gift) of divine love to the full and they call us to do the same. The Church in her love for us enjoins on us the obligation to honour them and to honour the Lord whom they served.

So, don’t consider the holiday of obligation an unwelcome intrusion into your week. That would be a terrible failure to grasp the Gospel and the life of the Church flowing from it. The holiday of obligation is a test of your love for God. Your attitude to it, as to Sunday, tells you volumes about your commitment to God. Now, of course, there is often good reason to do with family, work or health which may exempt you from attending Mass this coming Wednesday. But be honest with yourself. One thing is a genuine impediment, another is an excuse. I have noticed sadly during this past year that attendance plummets on holidays of obligation. Again, there may be good reason. If the Mass times here do not suit you, I have put in the bulletin different Mass times in five different churches nearby. In all these churches at all those times, Jesus calls you to love the Lord your God above all else, to receive the immense gift of His divine love. Would you not make a special effort for your child, your spouse, your friend? Come on, now! Let us stir ourselves to make that same effort of love for the Son of God by whose love we exist at all and by whose Cross we have been given the power to shine like the sun in all our other relationships and works of love.