Year A Ordinary 30
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” This is the commandment that Our Lord singles out as being the most important of all. This is a truth that was first given to Israelites by Yahweh and became a prayer known as the Shema that, by the time of Jesus, was repeated twice a day by every Jew. It was their foundational prayer, a personal acknowledgment of God, and the taking upon oneself the burden of the Kingdom of God. The Jewish people still say the Shema before going to sleep at night, over a baby boy on the night before his circumcision, and at death. It is a prayer that accompanies them from cradle to grave, and well it should, because it is the perfect encapsulation of the meaning of all the law. Why follow God’s commandments? Because this is how we love God.
We know that the Pharisees are asking this question to trip Jesus up. they want to see if he will answer differently, to say that the most important thing is armed rebellion against the Romans or political action or putting a lot of money in the offering basket when he passes it around after his miracles…They want him to say something they can use to create a wedge between him and God the Father, but of course his entire will is bent to doing his Father’s will, which means that all his devotion and adoration belongs to his Father. There’s no way this question could possibly have confused Our Lord or drawn a controversial answer from him. His heart was in his Father’s hands from the very beginning.
His love for his Heavenly Father was so great that he allowed it to drive him into the wilderness. With great humility he fell from heaven into our human existence, and here on earth he suffered, felt the pangs of hunger, the sting of betrayal, and ultimately bled out into the dirt of Golgotha as the entire universe darkened in fear. When he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is what he’s asking. Will you die for me? Will you make your life a sacrifice for others?
The question isn’t only for Peter. God asks the same of us. Do you love me? Where is your heart? As human beings created in his image, we are given this choice, we are called to love, but that is so hard! Love is a gamble. It’s marching into the wilderness where we’ll probably get good and lost. Can you work it out with a spouse when it seems all you do is fight? Hold your tongue when a person talks about you behind your back? Can you love the terrorists who persecute the Church? Love the abortionists and the satanists? Love those who annoy you so much your blood pressure goes up just being in the same room with them? Love those who have hurt you, those who don’t love you in return?It certainly makes life harder, and we find our priorities are radically re-shaped by this prayer that is seemingly simple and obvious -“Love the Lord your God with all your heart.”
Recently we celebrated the traditional feast day of the English Martyrs, to whom I have a particular devotion because many of them prayed for and guided me in my own conversion to Catholicism. These martyrs lived in 17th century England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and included men such as Robert Southwell who was Shakespeare’s cousin, and Edmund Campion. Campion as a young man at Oxford was not an active Catholic, in fact it was illegal and impossible to practice Catholicism at the time because any priest discovered by the Queen’s spies would be put to death simply for the crime of being a priest. So Campion had conformed to the English Church and, in fact, was so intelligent and well-regarded that he was given the honor of giving a speech to the Queen when she visited the University and he was widely considered a rising star and a potential future Archbishop of Canterbury. But Campion had what I would call a disastrous encounter with the love of God. He converted and so was set on the path for martyrdom. At that time, all the Englishmen who wanted to become priests would go overseas to France or Italy to attend seminary and be ordained. Some never went home again. Some sneaked back into England and offered Mass in secret locations at night, hiding in holes in the walls of houses the rest of the time. These priests never lasted more than a few years. This was the fate of Edmund Campion when he returned. He was eventually caught, tortured, and put to a gruesome death that I don’t even really want to describe. I mention him, though, because while in hiding he wrote a remarkable letter to the Queen. The letter, known as “Campion’s Brag,” assures Elizabeth that he and the priests who bled out for love of God and England were also dying because they loved her. He writes that they will, “cheerfully carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never despair your recovery, while we have a man left…to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.” In other words, even as she was murdering them, they were praying for her and hoping she would repent and return to the Church.
We may each of us wonder at times when life has us down – Why am I afflicted? The answer? Because God loves you. He sees a life beyond this one and is attempting to fit you to it, to take you out of your own will and conform you to Christ. God’s love is destructive; the old person you were is drowned in the waters of baptism. Out of that emerges a new person whose heart is turned in an entirely new direction. Our life with him does not end at the beginning, though – He sees it through. This is why Christianity is such a great adventure and the force of it is enough to propel men like Campion to die for their faith, and why it can seem to demand so much and seem so daunting. As the poet George Herbert puts it, we are racked from dust to infinity. In other words, we pick up our Cross as an act of love and walk with it all the way to Heaven.
Whoever loves me will keep my word, says the Lord,
and my Father will love him and we will come to him.