The Shema is the great prayer that resounds through sacred Scripture and bears witness to the unity and transcendence of God. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is the one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.” In the first reading Moses uses it to instruct the people and in the Gospel reading Jesus uses it to engage with the scribe and to point out the corollary between love of God and love of neighbour. It was always part of the teaching of the Law that love of God implied love of neighbour, and not just of neighbour, but of the outsider, and sojourner. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus makes this abundantly clear. It was also always part of the Law that it should not be simply an externally imposed set of rules, but something that was an internal principle of correct belief and conduct. The Ten Commandments are nothing other than a summary of the natural law. In biblical imagery this interiority is expressed by language of the heart. Moses says to the people “Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.” Elsewhere, God says through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26): “And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.” This interior nature of the Law will be fulfilled perfectly by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will create the participation in God’s nature that is the goal of human life. The first Letter of John is the most eloquent summary of this profound and moving theology:
No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit. Moreover, we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as saviour of the world. Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God.
There is, of course, a rather large fly in the ointment. That is that given that we are all fallen creatures, our hearts and minds are wounded by the effects of original sin. The prophet Jeremiah puts it with fierce clarity: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” And through the Psalmist God says that his people wandered in the desert for forty years with their wayward hearts. Of course, human beings are not wholly corrupt, but we do have a tendency to fall away from God and to follow our designs. Idolatry, then, is the great temptation of the wounded human heart. We can make idols out of our own desires, a political belief, money, power; in fact, virtually anything can be made into our idol. The final word of the first letter of John is the stark warning: “Little children: keep yourself from idols.” This was the great trajectory of God’s leading a chosen people, to draw them away from the idolatry that surrounded them to the knowledge and worship of the transcendence and beauty of God.
One of the ways God did this was by establishing a form of worship which emphasized the ineffability of the divine life and presence. Even the very name of God could only be pronounced once a year by the High Priest, in the dimness and silence of the Holy of Holies. When the roman general Pompey took the city of Jerusalem in 63 BC he went directly to the temple to look at the “god” of the Jews. Upon entering the Holy of Holies he encountered absolutely nothing. In a very different but related way St John of the Cross says what we encounter at the summit of the mystical Mount Carmel is precisely “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
The good news of the Incarnation and the gift of the Spirit is that all the beauty and transcendence of God are now accessible through a sacramental encounter with Christ. The gift of the Spirit strengthens our hearts and minds to appreciate both the transcendence and the nearness of God, so we have the hope that we may not be far from the kingdom of God.