“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Likewise, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We know that, right? The first of all God’s commandments. Along with the second. There is no commandment greater than these. Everybody knows that!
The scribe who asks Jesus the question in our gospel reading knows that (Mark 12:28). All the people of Israel gathered around Moses in our reading from the book of Deuteronomy (6:1-9) know that. For “deuteronomy” means “second law” – the Torah, God’s commandments, a second time. Or, how about this: deu-teronomy provides a do over.
Why a do over? Because the people of Israel stand at a monumental threshold. They are poised to re-enter their land after hundreds of years of absence; first as guest workers, then as slaves, in Egypt. A do over – the opportunity to get it right this time as a people. Love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor as your very self.
But this time, at this threshold, Moses offers the people clear, strong, tangible spiritual practices – inward and outward – so that they might re-learn what they already know about God and love. It’s the cascade of active verbs and sites of human embodiment that most draws me in (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7, 8, and 9).
Keep these words in your heart. Allow love for God to become the core energy and well-spring of living. [Preacher puts hand over his heart.]
Recite them and talk about them – put them out there, voice them at all the threshold of life [hand gesture of sound coming up from the throat and out the mouth]: when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Bind them as a sign on your hand [gesture of wrapping something around hand], fix them as an emblem on your forehead [touch fingers to forehead], and write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates [hand touching imaginary doorpost].
Being gifted with Jewish friends fills me with holy envy for how outwardly tangible these spiritual practices remain today. The two tefillin bound to the left hand and the forehead with strips of cloth: little leather boxes containing miniature Torah scrolls with words about God and love from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The mezuzah attached to the right-hand side of a doorframe – even a modern, metal doorpost in an office building. Jewish friends allow me to see my own Christian practice more clearly, even as they require me to see it differently.
Take our familiar sign of the cross. I know the order of sites on the human body is reversed, but still, can you picture “Blessed be the one, holy, and living God” [preacher makes sign of the cross] superimposed upon “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind” – throat, mouth, and head [slow sign of the cross: fingers to forehead]; “with all your heart” – the chest, our core [fingers to heart]; “and with all your strength” – represented by our shoulders and arms [fingers to left shoulder and then right].
Not just throat, mouth, and head in general, but specifically the forehead: that’s where our sign of the cross begins. The forehead: site of anointing with oil when we are marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism, or when we are sick. The forehead: where the ashes of our mortality and repentance are imposed at the beginning of Lent. Even those triple miniature crosses before the proclamation of the gospel during mass begin with the forehead and go from there: may this good news of God in Christ be always in my mind [sign of cross on forehead] and on my lips [on mouth] and in my heart [chest].
A tangible token of Muslim spiritual practice also instills holy envy in me. To see what is called the “mark of prostration” on a colleague: that bump or bruise or scar, almost, from years of kneeling and touching their forehead to the ground five times a day in prayer.
This makes me picture the sign of the cross engraving a kind of slowly cumulative spiritual tattoo – invisible, perhaps, on my body, but visible with my actions in the world – reminding me, encouraging me, to love God with every fiber of my being and my neighbor as my very self.
So, I wonder what clear, strong, tangible spiritual practices help you re-learn what you already know about God and love?
And I wonder – literally or figuratively – what we are invited to bind on our hands, fix on our foreheads, and write on our doorposts; what sort of do over, given the monumental thresholds at which we stand as a people?
I invite your responses.