The Commandment Crisis, Part II

Today at Holy Mass we read the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20. Let’s focus on the third commandment, since God Himself focused on it, by instructing the wandering Israelites to keep the sabbath, even before they arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the commandments.

moses_ten_commandmentsThe Western world has never officially adopted atheism as a principle of government, like communist Russia and China did. (France was officially atheist, but only for six months, during the 1790’s.) Here in the U.S., of course, we officially trust in God, as our money plainly indicates.

But: Hasn’t the sabbath vanished from our life as a nation? And doesn’t that mean that we are, if not atheist in theory, actually atheist in practice? I don’t intend this as a guilt-trip for anyone. Let’s simply consider what the sabbath means for our understanding of reality.

First and foremost, keeping the sabbath means that we put into practice our awareness that God is God. That He reigns supreme in unfathomable, holy goodness and beauty. That everything exists because of His merciful kindness.

Second, the sabbath means that we have immortal, spiritual souls. We human beings occupy planet earth in an utterly unique position, as the supreme pontiffs of creation. Among all the creatures here, we alone perceive the harmony and loveliness of God’s handiwork, and on the sabbath we praise Him and glorify Him for it.

These days supposedly sophisticated people don’t use the words “mankind” or “man.” Instead, sophisticated people say “humans.” But “humans” suggests that we are just one animal species among many. Whales, humans, monkeys, bats, etc. But mankind has a unique destiny, which we attain by keeping the sabbath.

deep seaSomeone rightfully asked me after my homily yesterday: Father, how can you say the crisis of our times involves the third commandment, when so many babies get aborted, in flagrant violation of the fifth?

An eminently reasonable question. But I think it actually serves to make my point. What would move us to such acts of violence? The crushing of innocent life in the womb, so full of promise for the future? The only explanation for millions of abortions and the culture of death is widespread desperate hopelessness.

So, why have we fallen into such desperate hopelessness? Because we have no silence, no rest, no interior space that God can fill with Himself—He Who is our only enduring joy. We never stop to contemplate Him. We have lost sight of the fact that contemplating God is the meaning of life. Life without the sabbath is a living hell. So it’s really no wonder that we have become so unchaste and violent.

But God is still God, of course. And mankind still stands at the pinnacle of creation as high priest. And Christ’s sacrifice still opens the heart of infinite divine mercy.

We can always find sabbath rest for our souls at the Church’s altars. And it seems to me that nothing will evangelize better than our having that sabbath refreshment within ourselves–and inviting others to share in its true joy.

זָכֹ֛ור֩ אֶת־יֹ֥֨ום הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֹֽׁ֗ו ׃

(Exodus 20:8)

Pope Francis Holds His Weekly Audience

As a pastor, I rejoice when I look out during Sunday-morning Mass and see my beloved people. Here’s our Holy Father:

Dear friends, we don’t ever thank Lord enough for the gift he has given us in the Eucharist! It is a very great gift and that is why it is so important to go to Mass on Sunday. Go to Mass not just to pray, but to receive Communion, the bread that is the Body of Jesus Christ who saves us, forgives us, unites us to the Father. It is a beautiful thing to do! And we go to Mass every Sunday because that is the day of the resurrection of the Lord. That is why Sunday is so important to us.

(General Audience, Feb. 5, 2014)

Ten-Commandments Marker

(Today at Holy Mass, while we read our way through Exodus, we come upon the Ten Commandments! Also: we read the Parable of the Sower.)

For some years now, we have endured the spectacle of public disputes about Ten Commandments sculptures. Judges or state legislatures or governors put them up; other judges or appellate panels or officials demand that they come down.

moses_ten_commandmentsLord Jesus declared that some seed falls on good soil, where its roots can grow deep. It sprouts, grows, and yields abundantly. Meanwhile, some seed falls on rocks or poor soil. Either it doesn’t sprout at all, or it lives only a short time and bears no fruit.

I am all for people having the opportunity to read and meditate on the Ten Commandments whenever and wherever possible. Anyone who lets more than a week go by without meditating on the divine Law is asking for trouble on Judgment Day, to be sure.

But the Lord didn’t inscribe the Ten Commandments in stone in the first place for us simply to chisel them endlessly, over and over again, on other stones. No, He gave them to us on stone to remind us that He had written them in our hearts, back in the Garden of Eden—but we did not obey them.

Christ has taught us how to obey them. “Thou shalt have Ten-Commandment sculptures in front of thy capitols and courthouses.” That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.

But “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice”—that comes from the mouth of the One Who wrote the Ten Commandments in the first place.

The best “memorial” of the Ten Commandments is a humble, God-fearing person who actually tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount.

Our Friends the Ten Commandments

King David harp

First reading at Holy Mass on Sunday: the Ten ___________________.

Let’s briefly meditate on a few of them, and we will discover a wonderful truth. Not only do we love God, but we also love ourselves best by following them.

We can get off to a good start with Commandments #1 and #3, just by going to Mass.

What about #2? You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.

Invoking the Lord’s name in anger, to be sure, violates this one. But what about if we fail to give good example in our daily dealings with others?

Bernardine with ihsWe Catholics represent Christ and His Church everywhere we go and in everything we do. He sends us as His ambassadors. We carry His banner, with the Holy Name of Jesus on it, into every situation in which we find ourselves. We take that Holy Name in vain if we behave selfishly and meanly, or if we are just as ravenous for prestige and pleasure as anyone else.

#4. Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long life in the Promised Land. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul emphasized how this commandment comes with a promise of blessings.

My own dear, departed dad had some habits that made the years I spent growing up kinda difficult. But somewhere along the line, the Lord gave me a great gift. I started to think of my dad as a struggling human being, just like me. Then I realized that whatever meager masculine strengths of character I may possess, I have my dad to thank for them.

To honor one’s father and mother really means honoring oneself. Honoring one’s elders, one’s country, one’s cultural heritage: all of these are acts of wholesome and genuine self-esteem. The Lord does not ask us to idolize other human beings. But He wants us to love ourselves enough to have reverence for our own origins.

God brought us into being, not from scratch, but through a living history, of which we make a part. Each of us has something altogether unique about our personalities. That unique aspect is like a jewel which sits in the setting of our family background and cultural inheritance. We can’t be ourselves, really, without revering who and what we have come from. And we have the duty of handing on to the next generation all the riches that we have received.

Any other commandments on which we should briefly meditate? While we are on the subject of parents and children, I guess we ought to sink our teeth for a moment into the sixth commandment, everyone’s favorite.

moses_ten_commandmentsSome young people seem to have the idea that Lent is the time of year to fight the battle of chastity. A high-school senior I know, who shall remain nameless, openly declared, in front of his whole class, that he would not touch his girlfriend at all during Lent. I asked him if she agreed with this resolution. He assured me she did.

More power to this young man and young lady. I must say that many of us older Catholics probably think of something else when we think of Lent. Like eating fish on Fridays and putting money in a Chinese-food take-out box for charity. But we can hardly delude ourselves about the seriousness of our culture’s sixth-commandment problem.

Somewhere deep within, we all know that the only genuinely good sex is sex that is fruitful and consecrated by vows of fidelity until death. Anything else is demeaning, desperate, and lame.

But the crassness of our pornography-infested culture can harden people’s hearts. Our movies and tv shows cloud over the light of truth that guides us from within. Our consciences will always move us towards true chastity and the love that makes promises and keeps them. But all around us, on the airwaves, the idea is: casual sex is fine. Masturbation is normal. Sodomy is normal. Blah blah. Etc.

Also, as our Holy Father Francis has pointed-out on a number of occasions, a great crisis of courage besets young people these days, when it comes to getting married. Marriage takes courage. Fornication and co-habitation do not. Living together outside of marriage is the refuge of cowards.

pope-francis_2541160kTo get married and stay married requires constant supplication before God, seeking the help of His grace. Fulfilling the sixth commandment is a matter of supernatural grace. We cannot be chaste by our own power. May God give us all the courage and the genuine self-esteem which can make us chaste. Let’s do like the young man: let’s go to war this Lent against anything and everything that interferes with our faithful and joyful observance of the sixth commandment. Especially visiting the wrong websites.

The truth is that the Ten Commandments, all of them, are among the best friends we have in this life. Let’s make sure we know them cold. Let’s all meditate on them regularly, once a fortnight at least.

May the commandments of Sinai become a ten-stringed harp which plays in our souls. The commandments given to Moses express the fundamental inclinations we all have inside, toward what is good.

God made us to be moral creatures; He made us to be the creatures that follow the Ten Commandments. Birds praise Him by singing. We praise Him by following the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are our human song to God. May we play this ten-stringed harp to Him our whole lives through.