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The virtue of religion: giving God what he is due

I recently came across some information on the early days of Rome. Some of us may remember Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a she-wolf but then raised by a local shepherd. 

It would be Romulus who founds what would later be known as Rome, only after having killed his brother. 

While this is all almost certainly legend with little connection to the truth, it is interesting that the Romans didn’t leave out that their founder murdered his brother or that he led his people through decades of almost constant war. What is even more interesting is the Roman legend about Romulus’ successor, the second king of Rome.

Numa Pompulius was elected king by the people and was in many respects an odd choice. For one thing, he didn’t want to be king. He enjoyed spending his time in service to the gods. Numa was something of a pacifist. But he was revered by the Romans because it was he who tamed the Roman passion for war with religion.

Numa understood that the violence of his society would eventually lead to ruin. So it was he who first set the religious practices of the Romans. He instituted the vestal virgins, who maintained the eternal flame to the goddess Vesta. This goddess oversaw the home and hearth. Numa understood that at the heart of a society, the family home must be maintained and kept sacred. 

Numa also set up a chief priest titled the Pontifex Maximus who would be in charge of all the religious practices of the Romans, making sure the proper rituals were done at the proper times. He also made sure that the king couldn’t be this chief priest because he knew that the king’s obligations to fight wars would inevitably lead to a neglect of religion. Eventually, the emperors in later Rome would take that title for themselves, until of course Christianity came around. Today, the pope carries the 2,600-year-old title Pontifex Maximus, which in English translates as “the great bridge builder.”

What does all of this have to do with us today? Apart from the interesting trivia about the pope’s title, and keeping in mind that Numa’s story is also something of a legend, it does remind us about the deeply human importance of the virtue of religion and its role in society. 

The virtue of religion falls under the umbrella virtue of justice, and it involves giving to God what he is due. We have everything because of God. Christians and Jews believe that God not only created us, but that he sustains all existence. We are right now alive because God wills it. Therefore, God is owed our worship. He has a right to it. We have a deep moral obligation to offer it to him and to do so on his terms, not ours.  

This is important as we enter into the season of Advent and then Christmas. Public displays of our devotion to our God are easier this time of year, but sometimes we mistake those displays for true worship. Or, one might say, sometimes the Christmas cheer gets in the way of giving God what he really desires from us, which is time set aside just for him. Our God is a jealous God, we are told in sacred Scripture. He wants to know us and pour his love into us in grace. This Advent, before we get too lost in the Christmas cheer, which will have its own season, let us practice the virtue of religion and give to God what he desires: our hearts.

Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.

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