The First Tablet of the Law
The first three commandments, the focus of our reflections in this installment, combine to spell out how to love God with “all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The first “calls man to believe in God, to hope in Him, and to love Him above all else” (CCC 2134). Faith is the virtue which undergirds this commandment, demanding that we “reject whatever is opposed” to faith. Thus, obstinate doubting or even unbelief, heresy (denial of one or more doctrines of the Catholic Faith), apostasy (total rejection of the Christian Faith) and schism (refusal to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff) are all sins against the theological virtue of faith.
Sins against hope are despair (by which “man ceases to hope in God as His personal salvation) and presumption, which may be of two kinds: man trusting in his own powers to save himself or one’s expectation of obtaining “pardon without conversion and glory without merit” (2092). Charity is violated by indifference, ingratitude, lukewarmness, spiritual laziness or hatred for God.
In effect, the First Commandment protects the virtue of religion, the first act of which must always be adoration; in this regard, we see Mary as the most perfect adorer as she recognizes her own nothingness and God’s graciousness to her at one and the same time, praising Him for being who He is and for doing what He has done in her life (see Lk 1:46-49). Following adoration come prayer, sacrifice and promises or vows, which seek to give flesh and bones to the obligation to adore God.
An extensive discussion ensues on ways in which human beings worship false gods today: superstition, idolatry (included here are both polytheism and satanism but also the worship of “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the State, money, etc.”) (2113), divination (including astrology and recourse to mediums), and magic. Also condemned by the First Commandment are sins of irreligion: testing God in words or deeds, sacrilege (especially against the Blessed Sacrament), and simony. The phenomena of atheism and agnosticism are well presented, too.
On the matter of “graven images,” the Catechism notes that they are not forbidden by the First Commandment since no worship is given to them but is directed beyond the images to the reality being signified, as taught by the Second Council of Nicaea and Aquinas alike. A worthwhile observation is also made: Even the Old Testament itself did not have an absolute prohibition against such things, for we find God commanding the fashioning of the bronze serpent and the Ark of the Covenant with the cherubim (2130). Finally, the topic is referred to the mystery of the Incarnation, whereby God did indeed take on a human form, so that attempts to “image” Him are not blasphemous (2141).
Whatever the precise content of the original sin, it is safe to say that it was a violation of the First Commandment – a desire to be autonomous, to go it alone without God. How could our first parents break the First Commandment before it was given to Moses? In reality, this commandment was written on the human heart before it was ever committed to tablets of stone. That is what St. Augustine meant when he prayed: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Every human being needs to serve someone or something outside himself; otherwise, a self-centered, stunted development occurs. To serve oneself is to serve the unkindest, harshest master of all.
Believers today are often charged with backwardness for holding to their faith, especially in light of the horrors allegedly committed in the name of religion throughout the centuries. While confrontation is neither useful nor desirable, we should ask such inquirers where the atheism in movements like the “Enlightenment,” the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Nazism or Communism led us, and how people are happier today because of the secularization of the West. On the contrary, the clear evidence demonstrates – and it is no accident – that as we become a less Godly people, we become less human. How right were the Fathers of Vatican II when they asserted: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 36).
Those who have the gift of faith must give joyful witness to the continuing and salvific power of God. The modern world is filled with the wreckage of human hearts, with our failed recipes for happiness here and now. In God alone is found true happiness because God alone fills the emptiness in our souls. That is the liberating truth behind the words of the First Commandment, which can sound so austere at first hearing. And that is why we wisely echo the words of St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
The holiness of God’s Name
Moving on to the Second Commandment, we are made aware of the need to respect the holiness of God’s Name, which we must always “bless, praise and glorify.” Sins against this injunction consist in breaking “promises made to another in the name of God, (which) engage the divine honor, fidelity, truthfulness and authority” (2147). Also forbidden is blasphemy, which “use(s) the name of God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints in an abusive manner” (2162), as well as either casual or magical uses of the divine name. The Second Commandment also takes within its purview false oaths or perjury.
An excellent passage on the sacredness of human names is likewise offered. Interestingly, perhaps in an effort to go beyond both the Rite of Baptism and the Code of Canon Law, it calls for the giving of a distinctly Christian name at Baptism (2165); the former documents merely indicate that a name conferred cannot be contrary to Christian virtue. A fine meditation on the sign of the cross is given and the wonderful reminder that “God calls each person by his own name” (2167), again highlighting the individual’s relation with Almighty God.
How can believers help reverse society’s cavalier attitude toward God’s Name? By developing for themselves, first of all, what we might call “a spirituality of the holy Name.” That spirituality can begin with a careful examination of the biblical message.
From the call of Abraham to the call of Moses, the Chosen People did not know the name of the God they worshiped. Knowing a person’s name was an indication of great intimacy; there was also the suggestion that one gained power over another person by discovering his or her name. No wonder, then, that the God of the Hebrews kept His people in the dark for so long in this regard. Whatever the reason for the delay (perhaps to prepare the Hebrews better), the Scriptures inform us that Moses pressed for the name, claiming to need it to accomplish his mission (see Ex 3:13). And God complied with the request. Or did He?
Moses is told that “I Am Who Am” (Yahweh) is God’s name. Biblicists have debated for centuries its cryptic meaning, with various interpretations. The most popular explanation sees in the name the notion of God as the source of all life and being. A more cynical view would hold that God’s answer was, in fact, a non-answer, essentially telling Moses to mind his own business! If that was the divine intention, it was lost on Moses, who immediately took it for an unequivocal reply.
Having received the name of their God at last, the Hebrews were warned about using that name irreverently or casually. Why? Because a name, like a face, is so intimate a part of a person’s identity. And we surely would never dream of bruising the face of one we respect or love. Traditions gradually grew up in Judaism such that the Sacred Name would never be uttered, even in prayer, so that a variety of synonyms came into use to avoid misusing the “tetragrammaton” (a reference to the “four letters” of “Yahweh” in Hebrew script).
As we move into the Christian Dispensation, we hear St. Paul teach the Philippians that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (2:10). While bowing or bending the knee may not always be possible, whatever happened to that beautiful Catholic practice of bowing one’s head at the Sacred Name? The reason for such a devotion can be found in the lovely hymn which urges:
Christians, sound the Name that saved us,
Proudly let our voices swell:
Jesus Christ, the Name all-holy,
Name whose splendor none can tell;
Jesus Christ, the Name almighty,
Name that crushed the gates of Hell.
A spirituality of the holy name will be demonstrated by what we say and do, as well as by what we do not say. Negatively, it will involve a personal commitment never to misuse the name of God. Positively, it will mean the development of an attitude of praise and gratitude upon hearing the name of the Lord. Further, it will cause us to begin a personal campaign to encourage others to respect the Sacred Name, whether among family, friends, co-workers, or in the media. Finally, such a spirituality will have a very practical effect on the way we live our lives, so that others will know by our actions that we are people who worship a God who is the source of all life and whose Son saved mankind from sin.
Keeping the Sabbath holy
The Third Commandment enjoins one to “keep holy the Sabbath.” The Hebrews of old observed this law for three reasons: to remember God’s creative activity and rest; to commemorate their liberation from slavery in Egypt; as a sign of the unbreakable covenant between God and the Chosen People. Christians accept all that, change the day to the first of the week and celebrate God’s re-creation of humanity in and through the resurrection of Christ. For this reason, Christians are required to worship the Lord through the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice each Sunday, which is “the principal holy day of obligation” (2177); also mentioned are the other holy days of obligation. “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin,” we are instructed (2181). As part of the rationale given for worshiping with the entire assembly of believers, the assertion of St. John Chrysostom is cited: “You cannot pray in your own house as you can in church, where there is a great number, where the cry is sent up to God with one heart. Also there is something more – the union of spirits, the harmony of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests” (2179). It is fondly to be hoped that the truth of Chrysostom’s assertion has been learned in a most visceral way with church lock-downs.
Last of all, we come upon the Sabbath rest, which calls for “the faithful to abstain from tasks or activities which hinder the worship due to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the practice of the works of mercy and the relaxation appropriate for spirit and body” (2185). A special plea is sent up to use the Lord’s Day “to cultivate family, cultural, social and religious life” and not to engage in activities which will force others to forego the joy of the Sabbath by making them work (2194-5). While Catholics in the United States are generally better at Mass attendance than most others in the secularized West, our observance of the Sabbath rest may well be the worst and, therefore, in need of the correction given in the Catechism.
If Sunday worship is so important, our attire ought to reflect the seriousness of the occasion. No one would dream of going anywhere significant dressed in jeans and a T-shirt (at least, I would hope not, but in this era of the “cult of the slob,” who knows?). Yet millions of Catholics go to church dressed just that way, week after week. What we wear is a sign of what we think of the action we are performing. Whenever I mention this topic from the pulpit, invariably someone comes up to me after Mass and claims that “God doesn’t care what we wear, as long as we’re there.” To which, I reply only half-facetiously, “When did He tell you?” I go on to remind the individual of the biblical injunction: “Worship the Lord in holy attire” (Ps 96:9).
Sometimes the person goes on to argue that priests ought to be glad that people are there in any condition at all; but I, for one, am not – especially since such an attitude shows a complete lack of understanding of why we do worship God. At the risk of being too literal, let’s remember that Our Lord Himself indicated that only those wearing the appropriate garments would be admitted to the banquet (see Mt 22:12). On the matter of dress, Catholics could learn a great deal from our Jewish and Black Baptist friends who dress as though they have a personal appointment with the King of Kings – which they do, as do we (and even more so). Would that our attire reflected it!
A question that invariably comes up in discussions of Sunday Mass is how to handle children who do not want to go to church. The most effective approach is to use reason and personal example: Explain that attending Mass is both an obligation and a privilege; that doing things we don’t necessarily want to do is a sign of maturity and also a sign of love; that millions of our brothers and sisters in the Faith around the world participate in the Sunday Eucharist at great risk, due to governmental oppression; and that claiming a Catholic identity without performing this very basic and all-important Catholic action is dishonest. After all, you can’t belong to the club if you don’t go to the meetings.
So much for logical persuasion. What if a teen-age or adult-child (still living at home) refuses? It’s then time to exercise parental authority, calling the young person to accountability. If a child is enough of a child to be financially dependent on his parents, then that child should likewise abide by parental policies – including Mass attendance. Frequently, we hear that such an approach “turns off” young people to the Church. My many years of teaching high schoolers and collegians have demonstrated the exact opposite; countless youngsters have shared with me their surprise at their parents’ lack of conviction and, yes, guts in this regard.
Eastern Christians hold very strongly to the belief that the Sacred Liturgy is a foretaste on earth of God’s heavenly kingdom., which gives us a reasoned Christian hope that what we celebrate in sign will spill over into the reality of our daily lives. St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter of 1998, Dies Domini, began thus:
The Lord’s Day – as Sunday was called from Apostolic times – has always been accorded special attention in the history of the Church because of its close connection with the very core of the Christian mystery. In fact, in the weekly reckoning of time Sunday recalls the day of Christ’s Resurrection. It is Easter which returns week by week, celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death, the fulfilment in him of the first creation and the dawn of “the new creation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17). It is the day which recalls in grateful adoration the world’s first day and looks forward in active hope to “the last day,” when Christ will come in glory (cf. Acts 1:11; 1 Th 4:13-17) and all things will be made new (cf. Rev 21:5).
He ended that excellent teaching document with this hope:
Therefore, dear Brother Bishops and Priests, I urge you to work tirelessly with the faithful to ensure that the value of this sacred day is understood and lived ever more deeply. This will bear rich fruit in Christian communities, and will not fail to have a positive influence on civil society as a whole.
In coming to know the Church, which every Sunday joyfully celebrates the mystery from which she draws her life, may the men and women of the Third Millennium come to know the Risen Christ. And constantly renewed by the weekly commemoration of Easter, may Christ’s disciples be ever more credible in proclaiming the Gospel of salvation and ever more effective in building the civilization of love.
Having learned our duties toward God, we are now prepared to hear of what we owe our neighbor, presented in the installments that follow.
2134 The first commandment summons man to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him above all else.
2135 “You shall worship the Lord your God” (⇒ Mt 4:10). Adoring God, praying to him, offering him the worship that belongs to him, fulfilling the promises and vows made to him are acts of the virtue of religion which fall under obedience to the First Commandment.
2136 The duty to offer God authentic worship concerns man both as an individual and as a social being.
2137 “Men of the present day want to profess their religion freely in private and in public” (DH 15).
2138 Superstition is a departure from the worship that we give to the true God. It is manifested in idolatry, as well as in various forms of divination and magic.
2139 Tempting God in words or deeds, sacrilege, and simony are sins of irreligion forbidden by the First Commandment.
2140 Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the First Commandment.
2141 The veneration of sacred images is based on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It is not contrary to the First Commandment.
2160 “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (⇒ Ps 8:1)!
2161 The Second Commandment enjoins respect for the Lord’s name. the name of the Lord is holy.
2162 The Second Commandment forbids every improper use of God’s name. Blasphemy is the use of the name of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the saints in an offensive way.
2163 False oaths call on God to be witness to a lie. Perjury is a grave offence against the Lord who is always faithful to his promises.
2164 “Do not swear whether by the Creator, or any creature, except truthfully, of necessity, and with reverence” (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 38).
2165 In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.
2166 The Christian begins his prayers and activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
2167 God calls each one by name (cf ⇒ Isa 43:1).
2189 “Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (⇒ Deut 5:12). “The seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord” (⇒ Ex 31:15).
2190 The sabbath, which represented the completion of the first creation, has been replaced by Sunday which recalls the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ.
2191 The Church celebrates the day of Christ’s Resurrection on the “eighth day,” Sunday, which is rightly called the Lord’s Day (cf SC 106).
2192 “Sunday . . . is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church” (⇒ CIC, can. 1246 # 1). “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (⇒ CIC, can. 1247).
2193 “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound . . . to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body” (⇒ CIC, can. 1247).
2194 The institution of Sunday helps all “to be allowed sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives” (GS 67 # 3).
2195 Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day.
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