The following are a few stray thoughts that came together as a homily on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (January 28, 2020). The readings were from the Second Book of Samuel, where David dances upon the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, and the Gospel, Mark 3:31–35, has Jesus saying that his mother, and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God. Someone suggested that I post this here, and so here it is:
David is dancing… dancing around the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant. This ark contained the tablets of the Law. These were, after all, believed to be the very tablets God had given to Moses. They had been carried by the Israelites for centuries, housed in various makeshift shelters. One day they would be housed in a magnificent temple, in the Holy of Holies and would become the center of the temple devotional life.
Why this rejoicing? Because the tablets of the Law, what we now call the Ten Commandments, were a concrete, palpable, living symbol of God’s love for his people, and of the people’s love for God. Much as the Eucharist is for us today. People streamed to the temple in later centuries to be near these symbols of the Covenant, to draw nearer to the holiness of God, to achieve a well-ordered common life.
St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate today, was a radical for his time (the thirteenth century). He said that the precepts of the Law are not simply about prohibition: don’t do this, don’t do that. They are about charity: self-giving love, because God is love. What a refreshing idea: The commandments boil down, he says, to selfless love of God through love for our neighbor.
Many Catholics, and perhaps others, have a tendency to over-legalize the Commandments—to turn them into cattle prods. Did I do this, did I not do that? Did I violate the law of God? We can turn God into a monster and ourselves into neurotics. But love of God and neighbor turn us outward, away from ourselves alone, and toward others: they are ordered to the common good so that God’s justice might prevail in all things: meaning that everything should be ordered to what is true and good and beautiful for each person, and for the community as a whole. Or so Thomas taught.
The questions we should be asking ourselves each day are like these: Did I respond to the call to love this day? Did I live for others and not just for myself? Did I help another when they needed help? Did I at least care about, and not judge, someone unlike myself?
Jesus was a radical, too. He said that anyone is a member of his family who does the will of God, by which he meant to love the neighbor. His understanding of family is, like the Law itself, ordered toward love of God and neighbor, toward a world of harmonious justice, the Kingdom, something bigger than ourselves: A common good that reaches beyond our sometimes pinched view of things, where we limit ourselves to family ties, parties, or identities.
At a time when there is so much discord, when the common good seems to have been subsumed by a pursuit of personal benefit as an absolute value, when we witness a zero-sum game in politics in Washington, when we can easily become focused on our own problems and sufferings, we might remember that there is an alternative, a vision of how things could be, how they can be. A common good, flowing from and back toward the good that is God, who is love.