Last week, All Saints hosted the Eighth-Grade graduation exercises for Guardian Angels Catholic School. Several of the students made verbal presentations and a couple of them did musical presentations; it was very impressive to see middle schoolers engage so willingly in such activities.
One of the students, who read a text during the Graduation Liturgy, was visibly nervous during the rehearsal. I offered a few suggestions about how to deal with the nervousness that can be brought on by public speaking. I don’t know if the student took my words to heart, but the student performed admirably at the graduation ceremony.
It’s often helpful to follow good advice when trying something new or challenging. There are other times, however, when advice is insufficient. Today’s first reading provides an example.
When God invited the People of Israel to ratify the Covenant at Sinai, Moses wrote down all the requirements of the Covenant and explained them to the People. God promised to bring the People to a Land of their own; in return, the People were required to promise to obey God’s commandments. Today’s first reading says, “they all answered with one voice, ‘We will do everything that the Lord has told us’.” (Ex. 24:3)
The terms of the Covenant were called commandments because they were choices and actions required of everyone who participated in the Covenant. Unlike the advice I offered to one of the graduating students, the commandments were laws to be obeyed. Advice can be heeded or ignored on the basis of one’s free choice; ignoring advice does not necessarily entail any penalty. Commands, on the other hand, must be heeded; there is always a penalty for ignoring commands.
There was a simple reason that the Israelites were required to follow God’s commands in order to be the recipients of God’s Land of Promise. The Commandments were a set of laws that guaranteed that the People would have happy, productive lives in the Land of Promise. The Commandments were given, not to restrict personal liberty, but to ensure social harmony. In fact, the Scriptures state clearly that the Israelites enjoyed peace and prosperity when they obeyed the Commandments and, further, that they suffered defeat and humiliation when they ignored the Commandments.
The story of the ratification of the Sinai Covenant is used on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ as a reminder of the meaning of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is our weekly renewal of the Baptismal Covenant. In Baptism, we promised to live according to God’s will; in Eucharist, God strengthens us to fulfill Jesus’ commandments. Please take note: the Eucharist is solely and entirely a renewal of our promise to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Jesus’ two great commandments are neither advice nor suggestions. Rather, they are commandments; we ignore them at our own peril.
Just as the ancient Israelites needed the Law of Moses in order to receive God’s Promise of a Land of their own, we need Jesus’ commandments in order to inherit the promise of Resurrection and new life in God’s Kingdom.
All of this above, of course, is entirely antithetical to the values inculcated by our culture. We live in a culture that teaches us to be self-serving, arrogant, and overly entitled. Everyone is required to be a winner because second place is nothing more than the first loser. It’s not popular or respectable to follow laws; laws are to be ignored unless there is a significant possibility of being caught.
In the eyes of secular culture, there is no reason at all to follow Jesus’ commandments of love. And sadly, there is only scant evidence to support the validity of the Christian faith, but the evidence is this: take a look at the world around you. The civil conflict here and abroad, the constant threat of war, the growing polarization of society, the widespread dissatisfaction and despair, in short, all social and personal evil – these are the products of expecting God to do what we command rather than striving to do what God commands.
Only a little rational thought is required in order to conclude that granting forgiveness to enemies, showing mercy to all, and being grateful to God for one’s life are the requirements for living in harmony with other people. Jesus’ commandments are required behavior for this single reason: left to follow our own advice, we fall inevitably into self-destructive behavior.
In this Eucharistic celebration, we receive the pledge of salvation, but it is a salvation that comes at a very high price. Jesus gave himself completely over to God’s will for our sake and God expects no less from us, namely, that we give ourselves over completely to God’s will for the sake of the world.
Secular society offers endless advice about how to have a happy and productive life; the results of following that advice are clearly visible in our fractured and fractious society. The Gospel proclaims a message very different from the message of secular society. The Gospel tells us to follow God’s will without making amendments or exceptions. The only guarantee of participating in the Covenant of redemption is to echo the voices of the ancient Israelites, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.” (Ex. 24:3) Our reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is no less than that: our promise to do all that the Lord has told us to do.