Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"The world does not know us, because it did not know him" (Reflections on the First Reading, Jan. 3, 2012, 1Jn. 2:29-3:6)

About two years ago, a new edition of the Bible—nicknamed “the Green Bible”—was published. It’s stated aim was "to equip and encourage readers to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it". This first Bible of its kind included inspirational essays from a number of spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul II. The aim of the edition was certainly noble and admirable.

Surprisingly though, when the Bible did hit the shelves at bookstores, the first words of critique and rejection, came not from non-believers, but from certain fundamentalist Christian groups, their main argument against the edition was that Christians are called to “flee”, “shun”, and “reject” the world as the place of evil, torment, and suffering, and should instead look forward to the “world to come”. Talk of care for the environment and the earth, some of them insisted, was really no more than a facade for a kind of secularism that seeks to “water down” Christianity’s rejection of the world and its coming condemnation at the end of time.

Before we judge these Christian friends of ours too harshly, it is perhaps important to remember that the Scriptures as well as the constant teaching of Christianity’s greatest minds, have always reflected a rather ambivalent attitude towards “the world”. There are in fact, two ways of understanding that have been in a relationship of constant tension with each other throughout Christianity’s two-thousand year history.

On the one hand, there is the view rooted in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis which regards the world, as well as all of God’s creation, as “good”. The world isn’t evil, and humanity is not on the road to perdition. The “fall of humanity” is not denied; we are indeed sinners who have “fallen short of the glory of God”, but we are not totally and completely depraved. The world has somehow lost its way, that is true; but it is not beyond redemption. In fact, the Gospel of John says in no uncertain terms that “God so loved the world that He sent his only Son” in order to save it.

For us Catholics especially—who have taken seriously, the profoundly Judaeo-Christian understanding of the world, namely, that creation remains, despite the fall, a reflection of the goodness and greatness of God its Creator—the world is not an evil place; it remains fundamentally “good”. And human beings, despite their weakness and sinfulness, remain at their core, good.

This foundational idea lies at the heart of two very important characteristics that make us Catholics unique and different from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. In fact, it is a foundational idea that has defined the “Catholic identity” for two thousand years.

The first is our “sacramental understanding” of the world. Simply put this means that we Catholics believe that the world, as well as each human person, is able to reflect, albeit in a very limited ("veiled" and therefore, "sacramental") way, the nature of its Maker. Creation reveals its Creator, the world of nature itself reveals God who has made it, and the human person, despite the Fall, remains an “image and likeness” of God.

Hence, ordinary things, like bread and wine, can become “sacraments”, revelations of the subtle, yet undeniable, presence of the One who has made them. Water, oil, as well as other signs and symbols can aid us in catching a “glimpse”, no matter how vague, of the One who created them. To believe in Sacraments is to proclaim with the writer of Scripture, “the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth the work of His hands”. To believe in Sacraments, is to proclaim with every fiber of our being, that the world that God created and in Genesis declared “good”, remains good.

The second thing that so uniquely characterizes Catholicism, and has clearly and consistently defined our identity, for two thousand years—and which springs forth from our stubborn insistence that the world and humanity are good—is the fact that we Catholics (and this is something of which every single Catholic can, and should be proud), of all the Christian communities, has taken the command of Christ to “love one’s neighbor as oneself,” most especially the needy, the poor, the weak, and the “least of one’s brothers and sisters” with the utmost seriousness.

The “neighbor”, as it has come to be understood in the Catholic tradition, is not simply a “path” towards God. The “neighbor”, i.e. the “least of one’s brethren”, is himself a revelation, an epiphany, an incarnation of Christ himself. “We must love the poor, not because they remind us of Jesus”, says Teresa of Calcutta. And she continues, “we must love the poor because they are Jesus”.

The Catholic Church is one of the largest providers of social services to the poor and needy of the world. (This it has done consistently for two millenia, despite some of its less committed members' daliance with power and wealth, and identification with the rich and mighty of this world.) Think of the many founders of Catholic religious communities and congregations throughout the centuries whose groups have dedicated themselves to aiding the poor and disadvantaged.

In the United States today, the Catholic Church is second only to the government in providing such services to the neediest members of the human family. In the Philippines and in much of the developing world, the situation is not too different. We may not always be the Church "of the poor" - though that has always remained an ideal towards which we strive, yet at our best, we are, and have always been, the Church "for the poor".

A student of mine who had been wavering in his commitment to the Church and was becoming attracted to the “Christian” communities (mostly fundamentalist groups) that were operating at the university where he was studying, once asked me, “Father, what makes us Catholics unique? Why be a Catholic, when there seems to be a lot of things the Bible says that don’t seem to agree with our practices?” (He had heard this argument from his fundamentalist friends).

My answer to him was simple, “No Christian community has a corner on making every single practice of its faith and its life coincide perfectly with the words of the Bible. But there is certainly one Christian community that has taken with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, what Christ says, is going to be the one and only important question we shall all be asked on the day of Judgment, "I was hungry; did you give me food? I was thirsty; did you give me something to drink? I was naked; did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison; did you visit and comfort me?" That community is the Catholic Church. And it is that seriousness with which we have, for two thousand years, taken Christ’s command to love the least of our brothers and sisters, that makes us Catholics unique in all of Christianity, and in all of humanity. It is also what defines in the clearest possible way, our identity”.

This is why we Catholics do not shun the world, nor do we take flight from it. There is, for us, no world “alongside” God; there is no world “apart from” God; nor a world “separated and isolated from” God. In the words of Saint Paul, in God, we and all the world, “live, and move, and have our being”. And as followers of Christ and believers in the truth and beauty of the Gospel, we are called to “win” the world for Christ through the witness of our lives.

The Christian is called to live “in” the world as a witness of the Good News that Jesus had preached, one that proclaims redemption from sin and liberation from pain, misery, and unnecessary suffering. The Christian must therefore work in order to make the world a better place; and he must strive to protect and care for the earth for the sake of future generations. And John Paul II as well as the popes of the modern age have constantly reminded us that the work of justice is an integral part of the proclamation of the Gospel. We must labor within the world in order to bring the world closer to the ideal and plan that God has for it.

At the same time, however—and in this we must somehow agree with our non-Catholic friends who have a far less positive view of the world and of humanity—we must never forget that there is a necessary “againstness” that’s built into our being followers of Christ. We are “in the world”, but are never “of the world”; it is not our destiny, nor is it our home. As such the Christian must realize and accept that there is only so much he or she can do to “influence” or “transform” the world.

Scripture itself, while teaching that the world is “good” and remains “loved by God”, also—in a number of places—regards it as the domain of evil, a place of testing, a vale of tears, and the place where “the prince of the world” is constantly at work. “The world does not know us, because it did not know him”, declares the First Reading at Mass today.

There is a very real sense, in which the follower of Christ will always find himself somewhat of an “alien” in the world and in the society in which he or she lives. This is not a Christian’s “home”, and as such, he must be constantly on guard lest he “water down” or worse, “lose” his identity as Christ’s follower as he strives to “live in the world”.

The “way of the world” is not the “way of Christ”, nor is it the “way of the Gospel”,
and a Christian must always be aware of that—no matter how seriously he takes the injunction to love the world, care for it, and seek to bring it closer to God's ideal and plan.

This is especially true of the Christian's involvement in politics. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who wrote the book entitled, "Resident Aliens", points out that it would be a rather curious thought to imagine Jesus commanding his apostles to change the Palestine of his day by engaging in political action that would transform the social, political, and economic landscape by imposing the ideals of the Gospel.

We Christians today must therefore be wise with regard to such engagement, lest we mistake "action on behalf of justice", for the "imposition" of our commitments, no matter how seemingly religious and consistent they are with our interpretation of Christ's teachings. This isn't an invitation to retreat or timidity, only caution and prudence.

The way of the world is not the way of Christ, and never the two shall meet.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)