Summary: what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions.
Thursday of 4th week of Lent 2014
The name “Israel” was given to Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca, after an incident in which this patriarch wrestled all night with a divine being. That name means “God-fighter,” and it applied well to his descendants. Our OT reading tells how shortly after agreeing to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alone, the Israelites fell into idolatry. Throughout their history, these Hebrews heard the word of God and then did just the opposite of what God wanted. St. Paul told us that this is the history of every man and woman. “All men have sinned,” he said, “and fallen short of the glory of God.”
The Hebrews were clearly bored waiting forty days and nights for Moses to come down from the mountain of commandments. Human beings are body-centered people. We like what we can see, touch, taste, smell. So they made a golden calf–something they could see and touch–probably not thinking it was actually a god, but that it would be a tangible reminder of the real god. People need also to worship in community. But these people worshiped as if they were at a party–it was what the Bible calls “wanton” worship, not what God asked for. He was ready to destroy them and start over with Moses. But Moses stood in the breach, as it says elsewhere, and pled with God to change His mind.
The Gospel tells us that God doesn’t change His mind. God wants only the best for us–after all, he made us in his own image and likeness. Jesus is the perfect image and likeness of God, and the one in whom and through whom God wants us to worship. But He also asks us to follow the great twin commandments to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. Like the Hebrews, we’d rather do it our own way, loving ourselves above all things and our neighbors only to the extent they are useful to our own plans. That is exactly the self-absorbed state of imprisonment that Jesus came to rescue us from. That is why we come here, to confess our sins and receive healing through word and communion in and with the true body and blood of Christ.
The popes remind us that this transcends our own narrow existence: “The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes”.35
“Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated. For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, an idea might suffice, or perhaps a book, or the repetition of a spoken message. But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion. There is a special means for passing down this fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships. While the sacraments are indeed sacraments of faith,36 it can also be said that faith itself possesses a sacramental structure. The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.”
We are all “body people,” and so the Church worships with physical things, bread and wine and incense and oil. All these things point toward the transcendent reality, which the Church teaches is not just a pie-in-the-sky spiritual reality, but a transformed creation in which we will give glory to God, with our spirit, soul and resurrected body, together in the forever-united Church, the kingdom of God, into eternity.