Let's Take It from the Top
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Jan. 1 we begin a 10-week countdown to the beginning of Lent. Ten weeks? Ten Commandments? Yes, in preparation for Lent, together let's make an examination of conscience by means of a weekly series of reflections on each of the Ten Commandments. In this first entry, we discuss the first commandment: God alone is to be worshiped.
By Chris Sparks
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol ... you shall not bow down before them or serve them. — Ex 20:2-5
False Gods. Don't have them.
Seems simple enough, and yet all throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites — heirs to the promises of God, parties to covenants with the Almighty, keepers of the Holy of Holies (aka God's dwelling place on earth) — you know, the guys who should have known better — often seem to do nothing other than start worshipping the wrong gods.
How could they be so stupid?
Well, we're all fallen. As Adam and Eve made clear in the Garden right at the very beginning of it all, even human beings who walk with God in the cool of the evening and are sinless right up until the snake shows up can fail to give God his due. As for the rest of us, well, St. Paul sums up our sorry state.
"What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate." (Rom 7:15)
And more — when we do not render to God the worship that is due to Him alone, or we give that worship to the wrong person, place, or thing, then we start walking a downward spiral towards real trouble. (see Rom 1:18-32)
That's why this commandment comes first. Not because God Almighty has a tender ego that must be assuaged by the right worship at the right times. No — God gives us liturgy, rules, and orders us to worship Him because we need it. We need to worship God — the right God.
Why? It's in our nature.
Some theologians, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the Russian orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, teach that humans are essentially created by God to be worshippers. Sounds like God is needy, doesn't it? Well, in a certain sense, He is — like a bridegroom is needy for his bride, or a parent for their child. God made us to love and be loved in return. Worship is the type of love most appropriate for a creature to give their creator. We are blessed with knees to bend before God, with mouths to sing His praise and receive Him on our tongues. We are blessed to be made in the image and likeness of God, with families and spouses and children. We are blessed in every aspect of our creation — we are icons of divinity. And we worship on behalf of all of creation, receiving the love of God and giving our own love in return.
And part of that love is sacrifice.
Now that's taken many forms down through the ages. Humanity has offered God everything, including cattle and sheep and the Son of God dying on the cross. The Eucharist at every Mass is the re-presentation, or making present again, of that once-for-all offering on the cross. The Mass is a time machine of sorts, drawing Christ's sacrifice across these thousands of years into the present again and again. When we obey Jesus and "do this in remembrance of Me," (1 Cor 11:23) we are there at the foot of the Cross, there at the Last Supper, present to every single Mass offered in the life of the Church, surrounded by the angels and the saints in heaven, joining in the endless hymn of praise, "Holy, holy, holy!" (Is 6:3; Rev 4:8)
That's right worship. That's true praise and thanksgiving, the worship of all time, a participation in the very life and love, the very liturgy and worship of heaven itself.
And false worship, or idolatry, is when we try to make creatures into the Creator, when we treat lesser beings as almighty God. Oh, it happens to the best of us, and to the very worst. Humans are endlessly attracted to lesser realities. We even offer them sacrifice. When we are gluttonous, we sacrifice our good health and dignity to our appetites. The same with lust. We pour out time and treasure into the service of our desires, often reaping no reward or even incurring great costs. When we serve our anger instead of God, we often cause harm to our loved ones — we offer a sacrifice to our anger. When we put our hatred of others first, or our pride, or our sloth, or any of the other deadly sins first, we always offer sacrifice. We always reap a "reward," disastrous and destructive.
Why do we do it? Because our idols seem easier to deal with than God. Because our idols are plainly sensed, right there in front of us, and God can be more difficult to perceive. Because we've formed attachments to created persons or things, and would rather give sacrifice — worship — to them than to the One who made all creation in the first place.
Sometimes, we put very good things in God's place. Parents can make their children into false gods, for instance. Soldiers can worship their country over their God. In the course of the abuse scandal, one could argue that the bishops put the reputation of the Church in the place of God, and offered a terrible sacrifice to that idol with catastrophic consequences.
So how do we heal from idolatry? Pope Francis shows us the way.
Before he was elected as Pope, then-Cardinal Bergoglio said in an interview with EWTN, "In today's society, new idols are continuously established and driven by consumerism, isn't that true? There is where people get hooked! Indeed, there is a strong need to renew the faith; to pray the creed with our hearts; to say 'I believe in Jesus.' In a similar way, the pope [Benedict XVI] teaches us what St. Paul told Timothy: 'remember Jesus Christ.' So ... remember Jesus Christ. Renew the faith; revitalize it. Only Jesus provides the answer to this rampant idolatry, and he reigns from the cross. If we deny the cross of Jesus, we deny Jesus."
Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Follow Jesus in faith, hope, and love. Surrender your attachments by submerging them in the love of God in prayer. Ask God for the grace to love Him with the fire and passion of the Holy Spirit. Turn to Our Blessed Mother, asking her to pray for us, that we may come to love her Son in some measure as she does. Ask the angels and the saints to help you run the race of the Christian life faithfully, without faltering or turning aside to seek comfort in the wrong places. And always — always! — trust in the Divine Mercy.
To learn more about the first commandment, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, articles 2084-2141.
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1. I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not have other gods besides Me.
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3. Remember to keep holy the Lord's Day.
4. Honor your father and your mother.
5. You shall not kill.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.