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People of Conscience

Just about the first thing that medical students learn is the bone structure of the body. Hence those marvellous pictures we have all seen of skeletons in the flats of medical students. Indeed, students of a certain era used to learn a kind chant in which the articulations of the various bones was reeled out. It seems a logical place to start. After all, without our bone structure, where would we be? It allows us to stand upright, to walk, to turn. It grows with us as children, allowing us to expand.

Our first reading talks about commandments, and Jesus does too (Eccles. 15.15-20; Mt 5.17-37) The commandments of God are like the bones of the Christian community. They give us an all-important structure. They shape us and help us to move. The commandments are essential. By commandments I think not only of the Ten Commandments, but also of teachings of Christ himself. To this we might add more generally the wisdom and experience of the Church which it has gathered through the centuries. To be a Christian is to be part of a community with a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is wise and what is foolish.

But of course a body is more than bones. When Ezekiel had his famous vision of a valley of bones, he was asked, ‘Can these dry bones live?’ (37.3). A human person is more than an assemblage of bones, more even than flesh and blood, tissue and organ. We have within us the flickering electricity of the Holy Spirit. This gives us not only consciousness, but also self-awareness. Through this gift, in which we are made in the image of God, we become people of conscience, people able to perceive not only the difference between right and wrong, but also people who feel challenged by circumstances, who to want to change things for the better. In our personal circumstances we may feel stuck, or may feel that we are living a life that is not worthy of our vocation as baptised Christian men and women. Our spirit calls us on, asks us to change. The same prompting sometimes occurs with regard to social or community issues around us. We hear of poverty, torture, injustice, and we wonder what can be done. Sometimes as we pray and think about these things, it becomes clear that there is some action that we can and should undertake.

Without commandments, without a moral structure, we become shapeless and sag. We need a strong sense of what is required of us. But we also need lively consciences. Without the commandments we are at risk of always pleasing ourselves. Without the spirit, we become rigid and legalistic. God gives us both the law and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly live as mature persons in Christ.

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