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By Fr. John R.P. Russell, Catholic Exchange, September 24, 2018
The people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). So much so, that he felt the need to get into a boat — Simon Peter’s boat, as it so happens — and to put out a little from the land so that he could sit and teach the people from the boat (5:3). In their urgent desire to hear the word of God, which comes uniquely from Jesus Christ, who is himself the word of God, they were even making things a bit uncomfortable for him, such that he had to improvise from a boat a sort of makeshift ambo from which to preach. We can understand, maybe, their great insistence on hearing the word from him who is the word.
But are we so eager to hear the word of God? If Jesus were in town, would we press upon him to hear the word of God? As it so happens, Jesus is in town. He is in our churches every day. He is proclaimed in the gospel and present in the Eucharist. He is in our hearts and minds and bodies. He is alive in us and in this world. But are we even aware from moment to moment of his living presence among us? Or, do we live as if he is away in some far off place? Are we pressing upon him? When the gospel is proclaimed in the church, do we give it all of our attention? Or, do we let our minds wander off?
In Catholic churches, it is common to observe an overwhelming preference for the pews in the back. Often, we are far from pressing upon him to hear his word! It looks more like we’re trying to keep our distance. Zeal and eagerness to participate more fully are often in short supply. An attitude of minimum obligations prevails.
That is, we ask not how much we can do to grow closer to God in his holy Church but rather what’s the least we must to do in order to still call ourselves practicing Catholics. They’ve even drawn up lists of these minimal obligations. For example, in order to be a practicing Catholic, they say we must at least keep these precepts of the Church:
We must attend Divine Liturgy (or at least some Divine service) every Sunday.
We must confess our sins at least once a year.
We must receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Paschal season.
We must also keep holy the so-called “holy days of obligation.”
We must observe the Fasts of our Church.
We must provide for the material needs of the Church according to our ability.
Alright, fair enough, these are good things for us to do. I suppose you’ll get no argument from me about that. And I suppose I’ll even go along with the observation that if a person isn’t even interested in trying to do these things, it would really be a stretch to call them a practicing Catholic. However, the attitude that seeks the minimum so ardently that it needs to have all this spelled out has probably already missed the point.
Where is our fire and our love for the Lord and his word?
The Byzantine tradition offers a maximalist approach to the spiritual life rather than this minimalist approach. Our full tradition of liturgical prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline, and charitable work, which is constantly proposed to each of us by our tradition, is likely more than any one of us is even capable of, at least on our own. Of course, one of the reasons we are a Church and not a conglomeration of individuals with private pipelines to Jesus is that each member of the body of Christ has his or her own gifts. And together, we can do the work of Christ and live the Life of Christ more fully than we can alone.
And what is that work? Among other things, it is to preach to word of God both in words and, above all, by our love for our neighbors. Love of neighbor is our best and most effective tool of evangelism. It will bring people to the Lord and to the Church more effectively than persuasive arguments – not that there isn’t a time and a place for that as well. But we must always speak the truth in love. If we speak some truth, but not in love, it’s not really the word of God we’re proclaiming, for God is love.
This word of God we are to preach is like the nets, says St. Augustine, that Peter lowers into the deep for a catch (Augustine, Sermon 248.2). It brings in so many fish that two boats are filled to the point of sinking (Luke 5:7). Our evangelism should be so effective.
I want to see that in our churches. Let us go and cast our nets, which are the word of God, into the waters of cities and our towns.
What’s that you say? You tried that already and it didn’t work? You toiled all night and took nothing (Luke 5:5)? Nevertheless, go out into the deep and cast again. It is the word of God you are casting and it can haul them in so that our churches are filled to bursting.
First, of course, before we can become more effective evangelists, we must deepen our own love and obedience to the word by whatever means necessary. We won’t convince others if we’re not convinced ourselves – if we don’t take this seriously ourselves and strive with whatever strength we have toward God. It’s true that union with God can only be achieved by God’s own grace and not by our effort, but this is not meant to encourage laziness on our part.
When it comes to the spiritual life and growing closer to Jesus Christ, instead of asking, “What’s the least I need to do?” or, “What fulfills my minimum obligation?” let’s learn to start asking, “What more can I do? Am I doing everything I can to press upon Jesus to hear the word of God so that I can live it and preach it to the world?”
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