Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
[Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34]
This past week I took a flight out of town for a few days. Getting through security and on the plane necessitated the standard identification checks. The ID card has my photo on it, so that the agents can compare what is seen on the card with the real person standing in front of them. If the photo on the card and the real-life person match, the identity is confirmed.
The need to have image correspond with reality is not limited to getting on a plane. In fact, in a deeper sense, it is what must mark the entirety of our lives as Christians. At Baptism, we are provided with an identity card, if you will. By that wondrous sacrament we are given, in fact, a new identity as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. The “photograph” on that card is a life lived in obedience to the teachings of Christ and the faith of His Church. By faithfully following the commandments of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, we make visible the Christian identity we have been given by Baptism. From this arises the question: if people were to look upon the way I, in fact, live my life and compare it with the “image” on my baptismal identity card, would my Christian character be verified? Would I be recognized as an authentic follower of Jesus Christ?
Let’s hold on to this question as we turn to the text from the Gospel of St. Mark. There we hear Jesus spell out very concretely the way of life that must mark his followers. To put this another way, he is forming the “photo” that makes visible before others our identity as his disciples, an image to which our daily lived reality must conform if we are to be verified as the people we claim to be. As we make our way through the text, let us consider our lives carefully and ask if photo and reality match.
In the passage, a scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment of all. Jesus responds to the question by citing the passage from Deuteronomy given in the first reading. This text is Israel’s great profession of faith. It begins with the proclamation of the uniqueness of God: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord, is one.” There is only one God, who is Creator of all reality and governs all things. This one and only God has been fully revealed to the world by Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God., and one and only Saviour of the world. Here a first consideration emerges: “what other ‘gods’ am I actually following?” Whenever I worship something of human making – real or illusory – rather than the Creator, there is a break between what I claim to be and my way of life, and my identity as a follower of Jesus is in consequence difficult to verify.
Next, let’s listen to how Jesus says we are to love this one God: with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Each of these is a different way of saying that we must love God with the whole of our being, yet considered distinctly they bring to the fore particular questions. Is my heart divided between love of God and things of this world? Do I willingly give over my soul, my whole self, to the will of Jesus, or
am I holding back in any way? Is my mind focused on understanding his Word that I might put it into practice, or do I pay attention instead to trends or ideologies that have nothing to do with the Gospel? Do I draw my strength from the love of God and from trusting in Christ, or do I find my energy dissipated by self-concern, worry or fear? Careful attention to how we answer these questions will reveal the extent to which my real life is at odds with my baptismal image.
Finally, we hear Jesus link this all-embracing love of God with love of neighbour. Here the image on the baptismal identity card takes final and definitive shape. Since love of God and of neighbour are inseparable, we make concrete and visible our love of the Lord by the love we bear our fellow human beings. Specifically, Jesus tells us we are to love our neighbour “as ourselves”, by which is meant valuing and honouring the life and dignity of the other as highly as we do our own. From this it is clear that a life marked by self-centeredness and indifference towards the needs of others does not conform to the baptismal photo.
Clearly, by the photo Jesus imprints upon our Christian identity card, he sets a very high standard for our lives, a measure that he himself helps us to attain by the gift of his grace. Alone and unaided, human weakness could not achieve the full correspondence between real life and baptismal image to which we are called. From this arises the need to pray daily for the help we need so that we can be recognized by the way we live as authentically Christian.
I’ll conclude with one final question for reflection. This occurs to me not from the scriptural texts but one particular aspect of the ID check at the departure gate. In this time of pandemic, all passengers wear face coverings as we approach the agent. In order to verify our identity, we have to lower our masks briefly so that our faces are fully visible. With respect to our Christian identity, are we ready to lower the mask? In an age when the commandments of God and the teachings of the Church are not only ignored but also mocked, I fear that sometimes we are less concerned with living our identity authentically than we are with masking it altogether. If we are so tempted, let’s remember that Jesus himself asks us to lower any mask that hides our identity as his followers. He wants our light to shine.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that while today, Halloween, is the day that masks go on, tomorrow is the day they come off; and tomorrow is the Feast of All Saints. The saint lives unmasked, ready always to demonstrate an authentically Christian way of living. By the grace of this Eucharist, may our Lord bring our lived reality into full correspondence with our baptismal identity, and strengthen us to manifest that identity fully, freely, and joyfully before others.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
October 31, 2021