Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 31: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Gestures of love

Dt 6:2-6; Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Heb 7:23-28; Mk 12:28b-34

In early October, we celebrated the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most revered saints of the Catholic Church. Thérèse’s life story is a paradox. 

She left her hometown only once in her life, to visit Rome with her father when she was 12. She asked the pope for permission to join the cloistered Carmelites, but he refused. She finally did enter the cloister when she was 15 and died in 1897 of tuberculosis at the age of 24. 

No one outside of the convent and her own family knew much about her, but her spiritual autobiography, published posthumously as “The Story of a Soul,” took the church by storm. Thérèse catapulted to sainthood in 1925 and was declared a doctor of the church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Bright, determined and down to earth, Thérèse developed what she called her “little way.” Within the small circle of her life, she would make every action, every gesture as she called them, an act of love, no matter what the circumstance. 

Some of her reflections might be considered bold. She noted, for example, that when Paul the Apostle described the members of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians as the hand, the foot, the head she said she could identify with none of them. Instead, she wrote, she would be the “heart” of that Body: “My vocation is love … in the heart of the church … I will be love.”

Toward the end of her life, with intense suffering from her illness, she wanted to extend her love worldwide to every missionary proclaiming the Gospel (for which she was declared the patron of missions by Pius XI).

Why recall Thérèse on this Sunday? The Gospel selection from Mark and the first reading from Deuteronomy are two of the most fundamental affirmations in all of the Bible that the heart of the matter is love, love of God and love of neighbor. 

The reading from Deuteronomy is especially dear to Jews. Taking its cue from the first word of the text, “Hear then, Israel,” it is known by the Hebrew word “Shema” (“listen” or “hear”). The passage is an intense call to love “the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” 

Obedient to this text, observant Jews recite the Shema daily in the synagogue, and place a copy of the text on the lintel of their doorposts and strap a small leather box with the text inside on their arms and forehead when they come to pray.

No doubt Jesus himself treasured this ardent text and recited it faithfully. In Mark’s version of the story (different from Matthew’s version,  where the question is put to Jesus as a “test”), a scribe earnestly asks Jesus the “teacher” what is the first commandment of the law. Jesus replies by reciting the Shema and then adding to it another important biblical text from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe is deeply touched by Jesus’ wisdom. The command of love, this man agrees, is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Without love, even the beautiful temple liturgies and offerings are meaningless. The scribe’s sincerity is rewarded by Jesus’ approval: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Here we find, in harmony with the reading from Deuteronomy, the core teaching of the Scriptures, one intensified by Jesus himself who couples to the command to love God with all our heart, the equally compelling command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Additionally, we discover the compassion and respect Jesus shows to a man who is sincerely seeking the truth, desiring, as our eucharistic prayer puts it, to “see the face of God.”

Like all the authentic saints before and since, this nameless Jewish scribe and a young French woman named Thérèse understood what truly counts. As Pope Francis pointed out in “Laudato Si’,” every “little gesture of love” becomes an antidote to acts of violence, abuse and indifference. Through such gestures the church is called to build a “civilization of love.”


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