St. Joan of Arc once said, “Serve God first of all.” St. Joan of Arc, was a French saint who lived in the 15th century during the 100 years war between England and France. She lived at the time when France was very close to being totally defeated. At about the age of 12 Joan experienced her first vision she heard voices, and she listened. These voices were later identified as St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch. Over time these voices revealed to her the mission God had intended for her. She, a simple peasant girl, was to save France. At around the age of 16 she was told to present herself to the leader of France’s army, and she listened. She listened to God’s word given to her through the saints. After being investigated and in a “What do we have to lose attitude” she was allowed to lead the French army. And so she did, leading the French army to many victories making it possible for Charles VII to be crowned king of France.
At around the age of eighteen Joan was captured and sold to the English and placed on trial for heresy and witchcraft. And even though she couldn’t read or write she defended herself with great theological insight. But in the end she was condemned. On May 30th, 1431 she was burned at the stake. Twenty years later the Church totally exonerated her. If you want to learn more a good book to read is “Joan of Arc” by Mark Twain. He said himself that this was his best book. He spent months in France doing research in preparing to write it.
Now Joan’s lifelong motto was “Serve God first of all,” or we might say, “Listen to God first of all.” She was always listening. This is very similar to what we read in our 1st reading and Gospel. Both Moses and Jesus say, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This command is the great Sh’ma, the most sacred prayer in Jewish tradition; it’s recited every morning and night by pious Jews. It’s written on bits of parchment and placed on their foreheads, arms, and on doorposts. It is the defining prayer and belief never to be forgotten.
The Sh’ma is just as important for Christians; because we too are claimed by this great prayer. It’s our defining prayer too. The very first word of the Sh’ma is “Hear” and this word calls us to obedience to God’s word, and like Joan of Arc we listen. We are called to hear God’s word. We don’t just set our own agenda; we don’t just go our own way. And in calling for our obedience our Lord tells us to love Him with the entirety of our being, He’s the only one we are to love and we are to love Him above all things, as we’ve heard many times, with our whole heart, whole soul, and all our strength. So, Holy Moly, how do we do this? Maybe we begin by knowing that God is the source, the ground, and the goal of all things. The Lord is not one being among many, he is the One the One creative source of all things. Even as we desire a particular thing we can desire God in and through and under those things.
Suppose we desire to watch a baseball game. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and we want to sit in the Lazy boy and watch a game. This is a good desire, nothing wrong with it. But seen in the light of the Sh’ma we see the beauty and complexity of the game as being reflective of the perfection of God’s being. Suppose we desire a delicious meal, this is good. But seen in the light of the Sh’ma we appreciate the food as something that strengthens us for God’s service. We savor the meal as a foretaste of the delight of Heaven. Suppose we desire another person, this can be good if we see that person, that potential spouse, our spouse, or friend as a gift from God, someone meant to lead us closer to God. In light of the Sh’ma we see everything as a reflection of God. We love God in and through and under everything. We can desire God even as we desire worldly things if we see everything around us in God’s light.
I want to end with something about obedience. Moses in the first reading calls us to obedience and Jesus in the Gospel calls us to obedience. The great Sh’ma is a call to obedience. And maybe we don’t always understand the nature of obedience to God. This obedience is something that’s done in love. We listen to God because God is the God of love, and when Love speaks to us, we want to respond. Love is attracted to love and obeying God is an act of love.
Now part of this obedience in love is attending Mass every Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation like this past Thursday’s All Saints Day. Our Lord asks us to do this and it’s a shame that many Catholics do not fulfill this basic loving obligation to God. As an aside it’s still a mortal sin to miss Sunday Mass or Mass on a HDO. If we miss Mass we have to go to confession before we can again worthily receive Holy Communion.
Now some will say, and some have told this to me directly “No offence Father but I’m bored at Mass I don’t get anything out of it.” But this is the wrong approach. We don’t come to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to be entertained. We come to praise God, to Thank God, to repent of sin, to petition God, and of course to receive the Holy Eucharist. Mass is preparing us to praise God for all eternity in Heaven. At every Mass God will give to us. We have the opportunity to be filled with His grace and we may not feel it emotionally, but He’s always giving.
A way to prepare for Sunday Mass is to pray during the week every morning and night in the great tradition of the Sh’ma reminding ourselves that all things are of God. Maybe the Sunday obligation begins as an act of simple obedience but with time, hopefully, it is something done out of love with our whole heart, soul, and strength. Listening to and serving God first of all.
May we be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley