Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost—19 August AD 2007
The Vision of God
Eugene Pluchart (1809-1880), "God
Appears to Moses in Burning Bush" (1848),
St. Isaac of Dalmatia Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Ordinary of the Mass
In the Old Testament it was revealed to Moses that “no
one sees the face of God and still lives.”
Moses had encountered God on a number of occasions, but had never actually
seen him. While still in exile in Madian for having killed an Egyptian
slave master, Moses encountered God on Mount Horeb in a burning bush that
burned without consuming itself.
He ascended Mount Sinai twice to receive the Commandments and the Mosaic Law,
but God would allow him only to see His back.
God conversed with Moses in the meeting tent “face to face” but always
under the appearance of a pillar of cloud.
Yet even though he had not seen the actual face of God, when Moses came down
from Mount Sinai, his own face was so radiant that he had to wear a veil so as
not to frighten the Israelites.
So powerful was the glory of God that it seems to have imprinted itself on the
face of Moses.
Saint Paul refers to this event in this morning’s
epistle. But He refers to the Law “engraved in letters upon
stones” as “the ministration of death.” He tells us
that “the New Covenant [is] not of the letter, but of the spirit.” Yet, as Christians, we still place a great
deal of emphasis on the Commandments—we memorize them, and we study each one
in some detail in the lessons of the Catechism.
Clearly, Saint Paul was not repudiating the Commandments.
Life would be more or less impossible without them—no society can last very
long without God—no society can function if people kill and steal and cheat
and lie to each other. Even if God had not given us the Commandments, we
would have developed them from our own natural reasoning abilities. What
Paul is putting forth is the idea that under the Old Covenant, the
Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic Law were observed out of the fear of
God. The people weren’t even allowed to come near the mountain when
Moses went up.
The ark of the covenant, which contained the Commandments, and upon which God
took His seat, was off limits to all comers—people were struck dead, even
Levites appointed to care for the ark, if they but touched it.
The Israelites were afraid of God, and considered themselves most favored
among the nations because God had given His law to them, giving them what they
considered to be the secret of avoiding His wrath: “He has not done
this for any other nation; His ordinances He has not made known to them.”
The law became sort of a fearful game. The people
thought up ways to observe the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.
The Bible prescribes that the people were to wear a verse of the Scripture in
a leather box on the forehead—it is called a “tefillin” or
For many, this quickly went from devotion to God’s word, to a mechanical act
performed to appear religious. Our Lord spoke of the hypocrisy of the
Scribes and the Pharisees in that “all the works they do, they do to be
seen by men: they widen their phylacteries and enlarge their tassels.”
The tassels were supposed “to remind them to keep the Commandments of the
Lord,” but the Pharisees used them to show off the supposed depth of
Paul is insisting that under the New Covenant, the law
must be kept, but the emphasis must be placed on the spirit of the Law.
Many of the legal prescriptions like phylacteries and tassels, and ritual
impurities, and eating kosher foods have been abolished. Under the New
Covenant we follow the Law not so much to avoid God’s wrath as we do to
please God and gain His favor. Love has replaced fear as our major
motivation. We are no longer hired help, but have become members of
God’s household, His adopted sons and daughters.
In Saint Matthew’s account of this same Gospel, we read
that it was the scribe’s intent to test Jesus. Perhaps they were
hoping that they could get Him to declare that one of the Ten Commandments was
more important than the others—perhaps they hoped to get Him to declare that
theft was worse the falsehood, or adultery worse than murder.
In any event, the correct answer to the question of the greatest Commandment
is one which the Hebrews already had: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with thy whole heart, and soul, and strength, and mind—and thy neighbor
as thyself”—the first phrase comes from the Old Testament book of
Deuteronomy, and the second phrase from the book of Leviticus.
Keeping the Law, then, is not some game designed to avoid
God’s wrath. Rather it is an attempt to know and love God to the best
of our abilities—to know Him in prayer, and in His Sacraments, and in His
Scripture. It is an attempt to love our neighbor as well, even if he is
not particularly loveable, at least to love him because we love God. We
can love God by the good works we do for those around us. We may pray
for our neighbors and wish them sell, but sometimes we must get our hands
dirty and give a bit of our fortune and our time. The good neighbor is
not the priest or the Levite who crossed over to the other side of the road to
avoid the wounded man, but the Samaritan who physically took care of him.
We started out by saying that the vision of God was a
fearful thing in the Old Testament—“no one sees the face of God and
still lives.” The New Covenant is somewhat different. We do,
of course, see God in Jesus Christ. Peter, James, and John even saw Him
transfigured: “His face shone as the sun, and His garments became
as white as snow.”
But what they say was His glorified humanity, and not the unapproachable
divinity. But as Catholics we know that a great prize awaits us in
heaven if we are faithful, for then, at the end of this earthly life, the
Scriptures tell us, we shall see God face to face.
What is impossible through even the most scrupulous observance of the Mosaic
Law has been made possible for us through the Sacrament of Baptism.
Pope Benedict XII tells us that in heaven we will “see
the divine essence with an intuitive and even face to face vision ... the
divine essence manifests itself ... plainly, clearly, openly.... Those who see
the divine essence in this way take great joy from it, and because of this
vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly
blessed and possess life and eternal rest.”
How do the baptized gain such a prize. The answer
is simple: You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and
soul, and strength, and mind—and your neighbor as yourself”