What’s the most important thing in your life? What’s the one call you would never ignore? For some people, the most important thing in their life is family. Family comes first. They would do anything for their spouses or their children. For others it might be career accomplishment: they want to leave their mark, want to make something of their lives. For some people, it is beauty. They love the arts, or nature. They cannot ignore the claim that beauty makes on them. We all have something and, as I have mentioned before, this one thing is what we actually worship. The one call we cannot ignore goes a long way to determining and explaining our lives. It gives them direction and drive. It is the basis of one’s conception of life, of one’s true religion.
This is why we should pay very close attention to what Jesus says in our Gospel today. Jesus is asked explicitly what is the greatest commandment. Jesus, the Beloved Son of the Father, God from God, light from light, Jesus is asked to say out loud what is the thing that defines his life, he the one who is true life. And what does he say? “Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
This is the great prayer of the Shema, which we hear Moses giving the people in our first reading. Shema Yisrael are the first words of the prayer. Hear, O Israel. This is the central prayer of Judaism. It would have been the central prayer in the time of Jesus; and it remains the central prayer today. There is a story that after World War II, Rabbi Herzog went on a tour of Europe looking for displaced Jewish children. These children had been separated from parents and families, and often taken in by neighbours or other seeking to protect them. Rabbi Herzog would identify them by praying this prayer and since the prayer was in the bones of all Jewish children, they would respond and so he knew them as God’s people.
This is the prayer that Jesus says is central. It is a prayer that sums up so much of the faith. Bishop Robert Barron says that all revelation is almost a footnote to this prayer. For those that have been doing our course on Tuesday night, one can see in it the very life of Dei verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on revelation. Its first line echoes this prayer.
However, what I want to suggest today is that perhaps the Shema might become the prayer for our community. This is because praying this prayer gives us a direct insight into the heart of Christ. In fact, in our Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist takes the place of the praying of the Shema in the Jewish synagogue liturgy. The praying of the Shema therefore can give us a renewed understanding of the life of God which we receive at Mass and which we are called to proclaim and to share.
The Shema begins with the command to listen. This will be the necessary first step for our parishes as we both seek to reconstitute ourselves after lockdown and open ourselves up to care for our neighbour. We must listen to God in the liturgy and we must listen to God in the needy. We must listen.
But the command to listen is directed to Israel, Israel which means the one who wrestles with God. When we listen, we will be challenged. The Word of God is living and active. It will seek out the sore spots that need healing. God will seek out those places we want to hide. God will demand everything from us. And if we are honest, we will struggle. We will wrestle with God. This is a sign of truth faith and lively hope. God is not someone distant, someone abstract, someone who asks nothing of us. We are the people who wrestle with God. And our lively faith, our struggles when lived honestly and shared properly, this will show our neighbour who the one true God is. God will be known to be alive and present.
And the statement of God is that there is only one God. There are no others. All the other things, all the other aspects of life that we might be tempted to worship, these are not God. The Lord alone is God. Once we know this – and this too will be a struggle – once we know this, then we also know that what follows is true. Once we know the Lord alone is love, then we know that we must love God with all our being. Total love demands total love. As I said, this is the message of the Gospel; this is our response in the offertory, and most especially the communion in the Eucharistic prayer which just is the person of Jesus.
Finally, the response of total love spills over, creating the second commandment. If we love the Father and the Son, then we cannot help but love our brothers and sisters. We begin to see them as equally called by God, equally wrestling with this vocation, struggling to live up to this divine reality. We see their preciousness, their fragility, their greatness. The Shema becomes the truth of creation.
All of this will be central to the life of our parishes. Perhaps we can see the very life of the parish as captured by this first great commandment, the very life of Jesus. How does the parish, how does my place within it, how do our gatherings, how do our missionary and evangelical efforts, how do all of these flow out from and manifest the great prayer of the Shema, a prayer made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, who is made present to us in the Eucharist and in our neighbour? How can we move deeper into this prayer such that we can become more transparent to the glory of God; that it might shine out of us and lighten the lives of those around? Please God make this prayer become our lives.