‘The Life of Man is the Glory of God’- Reflection for Mass of June 28, 2010

28 Jun

Monday, June 28, 2010
Memorial: St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr
Readings: Amos 2:6-10, 13-16; Psalm 50: 16bc-23 (R:22a); Matthew 8:18-22

About two weeks ago I spoke with a journalist on the subject of heresy, admittedly not a topic that I think about often. “What is heresy? Who are heretics?” were the basic questions asked of me. As it was suggested to me, I had in hand the definition of heresy from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith.”[1] Unfortunately, that definition only got me a few minutes into our three-hour conversation.

With my mind drifting while I was preparing to meet the reporter, I thought briefly of St. Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies,” directed against the Gnostics.[2] In the second century, these Gnostics were teaching heretically that the spirit was imprisoned within our corrupt material bodies and that it could ascend to eternal life only upon our physical death. Irenaeus’ main counterpoint was that body and spirit were created by God, were good and will ascend together to eternal life.[3] Any mention of Irenaeus’ treatise, though, would have been even more futile in my discussion with the journalist.

Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies,” however dense, nevertheless contains some magnificent quotations. Perhaps his most well-known is this, included in today’s Office of Readings: “Life in man is the glory of God. The life of man is the vision of God.”[4] Here, St. Irenaeus provides not so much a denunciation of heresies but a tremendous testimony to the dignity of humankind, created in God’s image, and in turn to our dependence on God.

To lose our notion of these two fundamental truths, I posit, is the ultimate heresy. Pride that disregards God and thus cannot have a proper grasp of human dignity is as seductive in our time as it was in the era of St. Irenaeus. The wilful ignorance of God by the ancient Israelites at the height of their prosperity drew the ire of the prophet Amos. Today we hear from Amos the startling finale of the six “oracles against the nations,” of which the first four are directed against foreign peoples, the fifth is against Judah, and the sixth is a scathing criticism of the ancient Israelites’ decadence.[5] This was not what Amos’ target audience wanted to hear; Israel was reminded that it, more than other nations, had benefitted from God’s grace in its history, having been delivered from Egypt and from the Amorites.[6] Israel, more than its neighbouring peoples, knew better than to have abandoned its covenant with God.

As Amos’ oracle shocked the ancient Israelites, our Psalm response in today’s liturgy still has an alarming character. Not many Christians can or ought to ignore this warning: “Remember this, you who never think of God.”[7] The repetition of these words, however disturbing, should make us think and pray: How often do I think of God? How often do I adore and thank God? How often do I embrace the divine gift of my vocation above “a place to lay [my] head”[8] or above religious or secular ritual,[9] however important these are? Most of us are quite adept in such areas, but we can always improve with regular and attentive prayer.

Without denying the corruption of sin, we must remember the presence of God and unite ourselves to Him. God, St. Irenaeus wrote beautifully, is with us as “a constant goal toward which to make progress.”[10] In His love for humanity, God sent His Son, the Christ who “revealed God to [us] and presented [us] to God.”[11] Let us pray that we might be ever mindful of that relationship between humankind and God- Father, Son and Spirit- to whose glory and by whose abundant love we are given life everlasting.

WRS


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2089.

[2] The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek gnosis, for knowledge. Gnostics in general believed that secret divine knowledge had been revealed to them that had not been granted to all Christians as a matter of faith. Valentinus, of whose writings only fragments have survived to the present, was the particular target of St. Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies.” See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.1.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.6.

[4] Ibid., IV.20.7.

[5] Philip J. King, “Amos,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 1:246.

[6] Amos 2:9-10.

[7] Psalm 50:22a

[8] Matthew 8:20

[9] See Matthew 8:21-22. Jews in Jesus’ time had great reverence for the dead, and much emphasis was placed on proper burial to honour deceased family members. The teaching to “let the dead bury their dead,” designed to shock first-century hearers, should be understood as an example of a hyperbolic proverb. The point of this saying is that discipleship of Christ must take precedence over ritual, although the latter might be of profound importance. This instruction is not that the rituals themselves are wrong or trivial, but that they, too, come from God. However, these are subordinate to the greater gifts of fellowship and mission in Jesus Christ. See also the Lukan parallel of today’s Gospel reading, found in Luke 9:57-62.

[10] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.7.

[11] Ibid.

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