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Terrance KleinJuly 10, 2024
Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash.

A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Amos 7:12-15 Eph 1:3-14 Mark 6:7-13

As we await a fully artificial intelligence, here is a question to consider: How artificial has our own intelligence become? Have you noticed our retreat from the world we call “flesh and blood”? Here are a few examples.

Most every day of the spring and summer, the news opens with the devastation wrought by some storm on some community. But who among us remembers any of those images a week later? By then seven new storms will have blown through, and seven new faces will have appeared on our screens, lamenting everything that was lost. But it was lost to them, not to us. We flickered through the squall.

More than 40,000 people have been killed since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent invasion of Gaza. Half a million have been killed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The media records these deaths, but where does the reality of the lives lost come to rest? Our hearts seem dulled by data.

At the gym, I watch high school and college students spend more time on their phones than exercising, and I wonder: What will old age mean for them? Will it be full of memories that sights, smells and sounds bring back to mind? Or will their old minds be blank, because screens erase themselves with each new image?

Or consider the transmission of worship over the web during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some then asked themselves: Why did we not think of this before? Why go to church when it can come to me? This question is, what came to you? Ideas and images?

How artificial can our intelligence become before it ceases to be something our ancestors would have called human? Are we cutting ourselves off from the world of flesh and blood?

The current crisis of belief among Catholics runs deeper than a formulation of what happens in the Eucharist. As the theologian Romano Guardini pointed out a century ago, modern men and women are increasingly separated from the world of nature, and hence from rituals that express our relationship to each other and to the world around us.

We are, as we say, a union of soul and body, mind and matter. We cannot be human, cannot be ourselves without others. To be human is to be of flesh and blood, but that is hard to remember when even our meat comes wrapped in plastic!

In The Forgiveness of Sins (1942), the Anglican theologian and novelist Charles Williams reminded us how removed we have become from the origins of our faith, of the relationship between the soul and blood. The elect of ancient Israel were ordered not to consume anything with blood in it. “Do not eat of the blood; for blood is life; you shall not eat that life with the flesh” (Dt 12: 23). Why? Because blood was the great sign of a living thing, of what had received life from the Lord. And as such, blood—all blood—belonged to the Lord.

It was the life of the flesh and it made atonement for the soul. It was sprinkled before God for the soul, instead of the soul; that is, as a substitution for the soul. The expiation for the sins of the soul (since sin was necessarily of the soul) was by the life of the flesh, either by the flesh that was in union with the soul that had sinned or by some other.

In Leviticus, ancient Israel was told that atonement for sins would come with the sacrifice of blood. Aaron—and after him the high priest—was to enter the inner sanctuary with incense and sprinkle the blood of a bull upon the Ark of the Covenant and then do the same with the blood of a goat.

Thus he shall purge the inner sanctuary
of all the Israelites’ impurities and trespasses,
including all their sins (Lv 16:16).

If blood sacrifice sounds abhorrent to us, is that because we have become more refined or more artificial, more removed from the reality of the world around us?

Yes, Christianity declares that the holocausts of the old covenant have passed away, but this is not a rejection of blood’s living link to God. No. There is a new and final sacrifice of blood. Scarcely a book of the New Testament does not echo what we hear in the Letter to the Ephesians:

In him we have redemption by his blood,
the forgiveness of transgressions (1:7).

But our artificial intelligence reduces even the bloody sacrifice of Christ to a point of knowledge. We seem to believe that you only need to know about the Atonement. Then you can move on with your life, confident that God is content.

But the Gospel is not a gigabyte. It is not information about what has been done for us. It is a call to the new Israel to enter the sanctuary with Christ, our high priest, and there to offer our own lives with his. At each Eucharist, he calls us to himself as surely as he called his first disciples. With him, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to become living sacrifices to the father of mercies.

We are asked to embrace lives marked by acceptance and asceticism, not to earn salvation but to allow it to sink into the very sinews of the earth. Grace is free but it is not cheap. It cannot be reduced to data, something lost in a stream of increasingly artificial consciousness.

Our contemporary problem is much greater than belief in the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. No, everything is being hollowed out. We think sacred scripture is one word among many, that whatever God really knows he is keeping to himself. We do not believe that Christ is present in the assembly we call the church—and that it must assemble to be church. We simply hope that God passes through our lives at some point.

Everything is being hollowed out. Our intelligence is passing out of this world. Of its own volition—though one can see the mark of the ancient foe in all of this—it is entering a digital domain that promises contentment. We stare at our screens as though drugged. Are we staring because we are content or because hope continues to torment us? Why does the image containing contentment never arrive? Because digital images are not life; they are only the shadows we cast. Life is in the blood, in the physical world.

Ancient Christians rightly dreaded the day of judgment when the heavens would collapse and earth turn to flame. How could they ever have envisioned the real apocalypse? Our intelligence grows so artificial that it fails to notice the earth around it frying, until a digital screen flickers, and we die with it.

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