The first reading for this past Thursday's Mass centers around the infamous account of the Golden Calf, the golden idol that Aaron had fashioned for the newly freed Hebrews while they were on the base of Mt. Sinai.
It is ironic that the first major infraction that Ancient Israel commits against the Lord has to do with worship. I say that it is ironic because when God asks Moses and Aaron to go to Pharoah to gain the freedom of the Hebrews, He commands them to tell the Egyptian ruler to release the captives so that they can make a three-days journey to offer the Lord fitting worship. Thus, freedom for Ancient Israel is tied to worshipping the Lord.
Worship gives the soul the opportunity for an intimate encounter with God. It is interesting that in the various forms of cultic sacrificial worship practiced by the contemporaries of Ancient Israel (the Egyptians and later the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans), there was devotion from the faithful to their deities, but, there appeared to be no evidence of any love in return from the various gods. If, in Greek mythology, Zeus showed any hint of "affection" towards a mortal woman, it was mostly carnal and self-serving on his part. The fact that the Lord constantly displays deep and profound love for His people is something quite extraordinary.
Thus, God leads His people into the desert so that He may speak to their hearts. The language He chooses is the language of worship. But, the newly freed Hebrews would rather have something instantaneous. While I was pondering this particular account from Exodus, I was reminded of the many bridegroom parables that Jesus told the people. In the Jewish bridal ceremony, it was all about the bridegroom. Everything centered around him. The contract was made between the bridegroom and the bride's family. The protagonist, the pursuer in the relationship was the bridegroom. When the wedding feast finally came, it was the bridegroom whom everyone awaited. But, because he had to traverse all through town, one never knew when his exact arrival at the bride's house would be.
I believe that this example could be applied to Moses' lengthy meeting with the Lord, when the Lord was formulating the 10 commandments and the covenant with Ancient Israel. Moses was the mediator, so to speak, between God and His people. The 10 Commandments and the Covenant were, I suppose, the nuptial contract between God and Ancient Israel. The Lord was preparing His bride for Himself.
But, what did the bride wind up doing? She grew impatient. Ancient Israel, for lack of a better term, became the Bridezilla of the Old Testament. She grew tired of waiting for her Lord, not realizing that, just as the earthly bridegroom had to be away to build a house for himself and his beloved bride, the Lord needed to prepare everything for His intended. What should have been a time of awe and hope became a time of unfaithful debauchery and deprivation. The Hebrews forsook the beloved embrace of the God who had just freed them in a marvelous way and, instead, retreated head-long into worshipping the image of a "grass-eating bullock".
It was indeed a perverse form of worship, for the Hebrews were not only unfaithful to the Lord with their hearts and souls, but, with their bodies as well. Worship involves the whole person, body, mind, soul and heart. All of these need to be engaged. In the case of Ancient Israel, they were certainly engaged, but, in the wrong activity.
When we abuse the liturgy and ignore what the Church prescribes and teaches about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are not too terribly far away from what Ancient Israel did in the desert and what she continued to do in the days leading up to the Babylonian Exile, when she turned away from God and engaged in her own activities. Becasue of this particular infraction, God not only drove them into exile, He also allowed His own house, the Temple, to be completely smashed and His own city, Jerusalem, to be utterly destroyed. For Ancient Israel, the Temple was the end all and the be all of worship for it was only there that they could offer sacrifice to the Lord. Without the Temple, they could not worship God. Thus, they mourned the loss of the Temple, understanding that this was the result of their infidelity to God.
As the New Israel, the Church needs to guard against abusing the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Whenever abuses have crept in, these have not only affected the way relate to God, but, this laxity also seeps into our lives as individuals and our life as the Church. A friend of mine told me that abuses in the liturgy seem to correlate with the abuse scandals that have plagued the Church. When we fail to respect the sacred nature of the Mass, we, in turn, disregard both God and man. Pope Benedict XVI seems to make this link in the Stations of the Cross that he composed back in 2005, while he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:
What can the third fall of Jesus under the Cross say to us? We have considered the fall of man in general, and the falling of many Christians away from Christ and into a godless secularism. Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison Lord, save us (cf. Mt 8: 25).
I know that I have quoted this particular station on numerous occasions, but, it bears repeating. If we regard the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the source and summit of our life as the Church, then, we should do what we can to protect its integrity. If we get the Mass wrong, then, everything else loses its meaning.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Nuptial Feast of the Lamb. Christ is the Bridegroom of our souls. When we come forward to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, we engage in the most sacred act of intimacy we can have with Christ. As we receive His body, we are joined to His in an intimate embrace. Pope Benedict XVI shocked not a few people when he noted during the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, that Jesus "wants to kiss" us in Holy Communion. Shocking? Yes, quite so. True? Yes, and even moreso.
We even got a glimpse of this in Tuesday's first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel. The Temple that he saw in his vision was a reference to Christ. The water flowing from the right side of the Temple foreshadows the water and blood that flow from the pierced side of the dead Christ as he hung upon the cross. Just as that water brought life and transformed the salt waters to fresh ones by coming into contact with it, Christ, through His Blood and through the waters of Baptism, removes the bitterness from our souls. But, in order for Him to do this, He must be able to touch us. Unlike Zeus, who, at times, would force himself on mortal women, Jesus will not harm us, nor will he threaten us. He loves us with the intensity of the Bridegroom who yearns for His bride.
But, what is our response? Are we like the Hebrews who refused to wait on God and, instead, transferred their love to a golden calf? Or, are we willing to allow God's love to envelope us and to transform us so that we can fully love Him with all of our hearts, minds, souls and bodies, and our neighbors as ourselves? The choice is ours.