The one and only: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 12:28b–34:

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Today’s readings reminds me of a funny and touching scene from Rudy, the movie about Rudy Ruettiger’s unstoppable determination to play football for the University of Notre Dame. Having overcome both a learning disability and his physical stature to succeed at an entry level college, Rudy finds himself almost out of chances to enter the university. He tells Father Cavanaugh that he’s done everything he can, and asks him to intercede.

“Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts,” the priest answers. “There is a God, and I’m not him.”

I think of that answer often, and it comes to mind in today’s readings. What does it mean for us that Jesus died for our sins, even though He remained blameless and sinless Himself? How do we reconcile the mystery of the Trinity with today’s Gospel reading and our first reading from Deuteronomy? We are given the answer by Paul today in one of his most important and perhaps underappreciated teachings about the nature of salvation and the model which Christ fulfilled.

Both this Gospel reading and Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy focus on the core teaching in monotheism. Not only is there a God, Moses and Jesus teach, but there is the God, and only the God. He is the Creator of all and therefore worthy of our highest love and devotion:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

As in today’s Gospel reading, this proclamation requires an implicit acknowledgment that cuts closer to the bone. If the Lord is one and is our Lord alone, then … we are not our own personal god of the universe. Our worship must be directed to Him, and not to ourselves or other men and women in His creation. We owe Him our devotion and our sacrifice, in the forms that please Him the most.

If there is a God, and we are not Him, then how do we accomplish that? Moses gave the Israelites the Law, first in the Ten Commandments and then in the Mosaic laws that governed Israelite life. This created a temple authority that would provide for sacrifices at an altar as well as beg forgiveness and provide atonement for the sins of the community. That was the duty of the high priest, who would govern the sacrifices and plead for the life of the Israelites on account of their sins.

That design had one key flaw, however — the fact that although there was only one high priest, he wasn’t God either. High priests were subject to the same tendencies for sinfulness as the rest of us, as were the judges of Israel and then the kings. The structures of humans suffer from the same failings as humans, which serve to remind us of our place as not-God in God’s creation.

However, God loves us perfectly even while we love Him imperfectly — or at times, not at all. In order to bridge the gulf between our own innate imperfection and the perfect love of the Lord, we need a high priest to champion our cause. As Paul writes to the Hebrews, Jesus came to fulfill that role into eternity:

The levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but Jesus, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

This letter to the Hebrews apparently answered a pharisaical objection to Jesus performing as priest, and therefore sacrificing for the world, based on his descent. Jesus’ human nature descended through the tribe of Judah rather than Levi, and only the descendants of Levi were eligible for the priesthood. Paul writes a powerful rebuttal to this by invoking Melchizedek and arguing that this priesthood preceded the Levites in the Lord, and furthermore has been validated “on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.”

In essence, however, this gets back to the primacy of the Lord. The Lord appointed the Levites as priests, but that doesn’t restrict the Lord from appointing others as priests, too. We are bound by the commandments of the Lord, but the Lord is not bound by our laws. There is one God, and we are not Him.

The Lord sent His Son to fulfill both the role of the High Priest and the sacrifice to atone once and for all sins and people who join in His sacrifice. It is the perfect meld of the priesthood to the sacrifice, and can only be accomplished through the perfection of the Trinity. It is why we celebrate only the one sacrifice, which takes place outside of time throughout eternity, and participate in it ourselves at the Mass — in which the priest performs in Christi capiti to transubstantiate the Eucharist and bring us all into the marriage of Christ the bridegroom to His bride, the Church.

There is only one God, and we are not Him, but we can participate in His love while preparing ourselves to be as worthy as possible for the sacrifice. We are not perfect, but through the grace of Christ and His sacrifice, we can be cleansed for eternal life. That in itself is a testament to God’s love for us, one that we can appreciate even without thirty-five years of religious study. Although that probably wouldn’t hurt.

Here’s the clip from Rudy, with Sean Astin as Rudy and the late Robert Prosky as Father Cavanaugh. I hope it provides as much meaning for you as it does for me, even nearly thirty years later.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.