What Does ‘All’ Mean?
Q: In Mark 12:29, one of the scribes asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” He responds: “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (12:29-30).
Can you help me understand this verse? How can I live my life to fulfill this command? At times, it seems impossible!
A: In the passage that you cited, Jesus is quoting the shema, the foundational prayer of Judaism (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The next verses say: “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (6-9).
Jesus is saying that we cannot think of God as someone who fills in peripheral parts of our lives; God must be at the center. God must be “all or nothing,” according to St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Carmelite and Doctor of the Church.
We are tempted to compartmentalize our lives into God’s part and our part, some areas where we accept God’s values and others where we live by different values.
The greatest danger in the Old Testament was that the Chosen People might eventually consider the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as simply one god among many. After all, their neighbors all believed in many gods.
Followers of Jesus can fall into a similar danger by thinking that they can give part of their lives to God (90 percent, for example) and then act as though God ought to be very satisfied with that much.
Allow me to use an analogy: God’s grace is like helium gas newly introduced into a closed room. It disperses itself through the total volume available. In this context, sin resembles trying to protect part of that room from the gas. Sin always attempts to seal off some portion of a person’s life from God’s grace, to build a defense but argue, “It’s no big deal.”
Whenever someone converts, he or she is tearing down some defense and allowing God’s grace to touch more of his or her life. Whenever that happens, that same grace helps this person respond generously to it.
Although I cannot say which areas of your life you may have sometimes declared “off limits” to God’s grace, prayer and reflection on your part can probably identify one or two examples. The same is true for all of us.
Jesus’ saying quoted above does not ask anyone to do the impossible or to become paralyzed by the challenge of allowing God to become one’s “all.” That saying, however, reminds us that God can never be squeezed into peripheral parts of our lives. God must be our center—“everything in all of you”—as one translation of 1 Corinthians 15:28 reads.
After the verse from Mark quoted above, we read, “The second [commandment] is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:31).
The birth of Jesus and his later ministry show that both commandments can be lived out generously. May the Child of Bethlehem always be your strength as you deepen your conversion.
Was Mary a Virgin During Childbirth?
Q: From time to time, I have heard the expression that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin in partu. What does this term mean?
A: The expression means “in the act of giving birth.” Some Christians have thought that belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary requires saying that Jesus did not come through Mary’s birth canal when he was born. Thus, those same people speculated that Jesus was born in some miraculous way.
They have also pointed out that the pain of childbirth was connected to Eve’s punishment for her part in the first sin (see Genesis 3:16). If Mary did not suffer from Original Sin, they reasoned, she could not have suffered the normal pains of childbirth for Jesus. Thus, they could speak of Mary as being a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus.
Although respected theologians have used the expression in partu, I very much doubt that today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would say that the Catholic Church’s belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity requires believing that Jesus was born miraculously and not by passing through Mary’s birth canal. Believing that Jesus’ birth occurred normally would not destroy belief in Mary’s virginity before and after the birth of Jesus.
Does TV Mass Count?
Q: I am a high school sophomore. Today I asked my theology teacher a question that has bothered me for quite some time: If you watch Mass on TV, does that count as going to Mass on Sunday? My teacher suggested that I pose this question to you.
A: The Church allows the Mass to be televised primarily for the benefit of those in hospitals or nursing homes or people confined to their own homes. Televised Masses also enable people around the world to participate in some way in papal Masses for Christmas, Easter, World Youth Day, beatifications, canonizations or other special events (for example, the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the Mass during which Pope Benedict XVI was installed in his ministry as pope, etc.).
Someone who is well enough to go to Mass on Sunday, however, cannot fulfill his or her obligation to participate in Mass by choosing to stay home and watch a televised Mass. Why not? That would be privatizing what should be a community celebration. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls for “full, conscious and active participation” in the Mass (#14). If you could go but choose not to, you are not fully participating.
By Baptism, we become members of the Church. Through directly sharing in the Eucharist, our baptismal identity is reinforced and our conversion to God’s ways is deepened.
We become Church by praying as Church.
Was Katrina an Act of God?
Q: Shortly after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans and wreaked havoc nearby, some Christian preachers said that this was God’s way of punishing New Orleans for being “gay friendly.”
Are hurricanes acts of God? Do they have free will? What do I say to people who say that God caused all those deaths and destruction of property?
A: Hurricanes have no free will because they arise from climatic conditions and disperse when those conditions dissipate. God does not send hurricanes or other natural disasters as punishments for anything. Insurance companies’ usage of this term is poor theology.
Yes, Katrina—and later Rita—did immense damage. Most of the people who suffered, as well as those who have donated time, money or goods to help in the cleanup, believe in God and live good lives. They understand God much better than the preachers you mentioned.
The support that people give to the Red Cross, Catholic Charities or other relief efforts indicates their solidarity with those who have suffered because of Hurricane Katrina and their belief that God encourages such compassion.