Saturday, November 25, 2017

OF KINGS, PROSTITUTES, THIEVES, AND PAUPERS (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ, a Different Kind of King)

It is perhaps one of the strangest things about Jesus that the very last recorded exchange of words he had before he died, was a conversation, not with a decent and respectable person, but with a criminal, with Dismas the thief. "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, Dismas says. To which this crucified king replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” 

Perhaps Jesus was just being consistent, simply being himself, merely being true to what he had been sent by his Father to do.

After all, the very first words that came out of his mouth, the very first utterance from his lips when he began his ministry were: "I was sent to bring glad tidings to the poor". 

How often do we, his followers, forget that!

And all throughout his life, it was to them that he felt especially close: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the sorrowing, the lonely, the lost, the unclean, the unacceptable, the shunned, the forsaken - all those at the margins of society.

And he tells us that at the end of ours, there will be one, and only one, litmus test of our commitment to him: 

"I was hungry and you gave food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you". 

How often do we forget! Tomorrow, Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. What kind of king? Not the kind we too often celebrate. 

Of course, he conquered sin, of course he was victorious over death, of course he reigns in the hearts and minds of those who seek to follow him. Yet sadly, our imagery often remains mired in the very kind of kingship he rejected and had asked his own disciples to shun.

When I was new in seminary, I will never forget what my old spiritual director said to me, partly in jest perhaps, though hiding a reality he probably found rather uncomfortable, even inconsistent. 

"Tomorrow is Christ the King", he said. "Notice all the gold and shiny things in the sanctuary", he added with a grin. I knew what Father John meant. I see it to this day.

Jesus was a different kind of king. Yet, how often we forget!

The closest I ever got to a seeing a real King, was when I was a student in Belgium. I saw the funeral of King Boudouin who was somewhat of a personal hero. He was a very devout and faithful Christian.

On April 4, 1990, when the Belgian government passed legislation to legalize abortion, Boudouin declared that he could not, in conscience, sign the law. So he decided to abdicate rather than agree with something his faith and his conscience told him was simply wrong.

The Belgian parliament passed the law without him, but because of their tremendous respect and love for him, they reinstated him as king the very next day. And admiration for him just grew.

But during Boudouin’s funeral in August of 1993, something even more unusual happened. There were several eulogies that were made by heads of state and close personal friends at the end of the liturgy. The most memorable, however, was done by a woman who stood up at the cathedral pulpit and said, “I was a prostitute”. 

You could hear the entire congregation gasping. Whose idea was it to pick her to give a eulogy?! Then the woman spoke of how she came to Belgium looking for a job in order to provide for her poor family, but instead found herself sold into prostitution. King Boudouin learned about her case and saved her.

While her story was compelling, you could tell people were uneasy that a former prostitute was standing in front of them, telling them how thankful she was to their King who to her was simply this kind man who had rescued her. Men of dignity and power do not normally associate with these kinds of persons. 

I can tell you that it was an even more uneasy moment for me to listen to her speak—because she was from the Philippines! We ourselves don’t normally want to be associated in any way with people like that.

And yet Boudouin was a different kind of King. He was more like Christ in today’s gospel. And I guess only ‘real’ kings can do what they did.

In life, Jesus associated with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and with other undesirable persons in his society. He always looked out for those who were lost. In the final moments of his life, the last person he chose to associate with was also an outcast.

The Parable of the Last Judgment puts before us and celebrates a totally different kind of King: one who refused to identify himself with the powerful, the wealthy, and the self-righteous of this world, but with the poor, the sinner and the undesirable. 

The life and death of Jesus turns the worldly idea of kingship on its head and demolishes it completely—at least for those who wish to identify themselves as his true followers.

The Solemnity of Christ the King reminds us that a lot of the times, Jesus reveals himself in persons and circumstances we least expect to find him, concealing himself in those we sometimes find unlovable. The outcasts of this earth are his “sacraments,” veiling him in the abjectness of their condition.

Consider the revealing ‘twist’ in the parable—something seldom noticed even in homilies. The gulf that separated the righteous from the unrighteous on Judgment Day, that thing that made them so different from each other, was paradoxically, one and the same: both failed to recognize that it was the King they were aiding. In that they were the same. 

But whereas the righteous aided despite their failure of recognition, the unrighteous failed to aid precisely because of their failure to recognize. Whereas the former would have aided, even if it had not been Christ, the latter would only have helped, if it had in fact been Christ.

What makes us acceptable to the King on that day when we shall see him face to face, is not how strongly we fastened ourselves to Him in this life, but how strongly we fastened ourselves to those in whom he dwelt hidden from our eyes.

The poor are the incognitos of Christ, veiling his glory with their pained and suffering humanity. Each time we wipe their tears, bind their wounds, and make life a little better for them, it is Christ’s tears we wipe, his wounds we bind, and his life we continue in the here and now.

And so we have to open not only our eyes, but most especially our hearts. For Jesus is there, in the poor, the needy, the sorrowing, the outcast, the unloved, the unlovable, the difficult, the pained and wounded. He is there in anyone who is in “need”.

He is in that difficult co-worker you try to be kind to. He is in your spouse when he or she has had a bad day and isn’t being his or her best self. He is in your children, even when they act up or disobey. He is in that student of mine who’s having a tough time in class or is indifferent, or sometimes even disruptive. He is in your teenage son or daughter who often finds his or her stage in life confusing. He is in that superior or parishioner who’s giving you a hard time. And he is in that poor family you might consider giving some cheer during the coming holidays.

Christ the King, identified himself with the lowliest of the low so that we can in turn, identify him in each other, especially the weakest among us. And he identifies himself with the weakest among us, so that one day, when we see him face to face, he can say to us: 

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you. For whatsoever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, this you have done unto me”.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

"With the 'failures' and 'losers' of this world, I choose to cast my lot." (Reflections on the Beatitudes, on the Solemnity of All Saints, November 1st, Matthew 5:1-12)

I was once asked a very interesting question by one very ‘perplexed’ student in a theology class at university a number of years ago.  We were analyzing the structure of the Beatitudes where Jesus pronounced those who are poor, meek, humble, and persecuted to be blessed and proclaimed woe on the proud, vain, arrogant, and mighty, one of my students raised his hands and asked: “Father, do you think anyone who takes Jesus’ advice seriously can survive in the world?” 

Consider the wording of the Beatitudes:

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you."

My student wasn’t asking a trick question; nor was he simply trying to be argumentative. It was a sincere question. Could anyone seriously follow the prescriptions of the Beatitudes? Can anyone survive this life if he did? 

Even I, had to pause and consider my answer—as I somehow recalled something the Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli said as a word of advice to would-be rulers: “It isn’t necessary to be good and righteous, in fact it can actually work against you; what is necessary is to act as if you were (to give people the impression that you are), but to always be willing and ready to act otherwise if that becomes necessary”.

Still, before I managed to reply to my student's question, he followed up with a statement: “Good guys finish last, Father. Good guys finish last. The bad boy always gets the girl”. Everyone began to laugh.

Do we think that’s true? Do good guys really finish last? Before we answer, perhaps we need to consider that in society, most often than not, those who are cunning, devious, and clever, are the ones who do seem to succeed. Even the psalms, written thousands of years ago, make that observation: “Why, O Lord, do the evil prosper?”

Does the bad guy really win? That would make good guys losers, wouldn’t it? People like Socrates, unjustly condemned to drink poison, Sir Thomas More, beheaded for standing firm in his principles, Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated for his unyielding stand for peace, Sister Dorothy Stang, 73-year old American nun from Ohio, shot in the face in Peru, just a few years ago, for her defense of poor farmers, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who defended the rights of the poor in El Salvador, felled by bullets while celebrating Mass, a number of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus; the list goes on and on, and it would certainly include the men and women commemorated in today’s Solemnity of All Saints.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a rather dark and negative view of human nature is known to have said, homo homini lupus, “man is a wolf to other men”. And so we either aggressively assert ourselves and grab what we want, before others beat us to it.

In a dog-eat-dog world, where the rule is “survival of the fittest”, “big fish eat little fish”, and where the basic law of evolution is “natural selection” in which the strong survive and the weak die, it would indeed seem that “the good guy finishes last”.

But is there any other way? “Nature does not care for the individual”, one of my philosophy professors in Louvain used to say. “Nature cares only for the species, for its survival; and it does this by favoring the strong”.

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche would agree. This is part of the reason he called Christianity, with its commandment to love and care for “the least” in this world, a “disease”. If all were to obey the commandments of Christ, Nietzsche argued, humanity would eventually be wiped out. Nature demands the survival of the fittest. Natural selection dictates that the strong must overcome the weak; the weak must be weeded out so that the strong may increase in number. 

If you have any doubts about this, just observe a litter of puppies or kittens, and notice how the runt fares. Already the smallest and weakest, and therefore the one needing nourishment most, it’s very smallness and weakness almost guarantees that it won’t get what it needs unless someone intervenes. But why protect the runt, when by doing so, one only guarantees that the undesirable genes will be passed on to the next generation? Nature, left on its own, will see to it that the weak are not allowed to go on; it is our humanity, our compassion, that somehow "thwarts" it.

Yet, Machiavelli writes in The Prince:

“Human persons are contemptible, simple-minded and so dominated by their present needs, that one who deceives will always find one who will allow himself to be deceived... Since men are a contemptible lot and would not keep their promises to you, you too need not keep yours to them”.

A number of years ago, a lady whom I knew since my seminary days was given an award by a Catholic Foundation for her work with the poor and needy. She shared the award and the substantial sum that came with it, with another person. Now she herself was poor. In fact, we would every once in a while help her out with her finances. When she received the check, we encouraged her to save some for herself, for her future health needs, and just to make sure she’ll have something for a rainy day. Instead, she went to archbishop, told him she was giving him the money and that she wanted it to go to charity. All of it!

We would probably call that noble. The world would call it stupid, crazy, irresponsible, impractical, and ridiculous. When we asked why she gave all the money away and didn’t even think of keeping some so that she’d have something to use if she got sick, her answer nearly brought me to tears: “That’s why I have you guys, right. You’ve been very good to me. I take care of other people. I’m sure there will be people who will take care of me. My life has always been in God’s hands”. Even I struggle to have that kind of faith.

[When she passed away about two years ago, having suffered tremendously from cancer, I came to celebrate one of the Masses in her memory. In the homily, I spoke of how I and many other priests - whom she knew as seminary students years before - were inspired by her simplicity, faith, and generosity to likewise seek to give ourselves completely to the vocation of serving God's People. At the end of the Mass, as I greeted the people leaving, one lady came up and thanked me for my "kind words". She introduced herself as one of the relatives of the deceased, and then she said: "You know she would've had a little more money to spend on herself when she got sick, if she didn't give away all that award money years ago. She was such a devout woman, but that just wasn't very smart". I was stunned; though somehow I understood the sentiment.]

Do good guys really finish last? Are they really losers? In the gospel account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, Jesus is shown in his glory together with Moses (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Law) and Elijah (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Prophets). His clothes become dazzling white and the voice of God the Father is heard saying: “This is my beloved Son. My Chosen One. Listen to him”. The apostles are dazzled and amazed.

Before this particular passage though, comes Jesus’ words to his disciples, telling them the cost of following him. “If anyone wishes to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me… What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” These were very hard and difficult words for the disciples to accept. They all wanted a powerful Savior and Messiah, not a suffering one who would be killed. They wanted glory and power.

In the very same chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the “Messiah, the Son of God”. The gospel of Matthew says that when Jesus tells Peter that he is going to suffer, Peter rebukes him. “God forbid that you suffer”, Peter tells Jesus. To which Jesus responds: “Get thee behind me Satan. Your thoughts are not God’s thoughts, but the thoughts of man”.

Even for the disciples, it was hard to understand and accept the way of Jesus. The way of the world, the way of power, wealth, and glory, was more attractive. Why suffer when you can be powerful and strong? Why do it the hard way when there’s an easier way? Why be the good guy who loses? Why can’t we be the bad guy who wins?

In this view, Jesus would be the world’s greatest loser. But so would the countless men and women whose feast is celebrated today—the numberless, often faceless and anonymous band of persons who sought with all their might, and against this world’s judgment, to live lives rooted deeply in Christ; they would all be losers in the face of the world.

And who would be the winners? Stalin, Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot of Cambodia, the Duvaliers of Haiti, the dictator Marcos, the bigshots at Enron who robbed people of their hard earned money, Bernard Madoff who stole from thousands of people in the largest pyramid scam in history, the greedy people at the big banks, at Wall Street?

If these are the kinds of people the world judges to be winners, then I’d rather have my name on the list of “losers”. I’d rather cast my lot with those the world would judge its “losers” and “failures”. 

Not only because, as the Beatitudes in the gospel proclaim, a great reversal is due in which those who are judged successful in this world are to be the failures in the next, but because these men and women stood for something that lasts, something that transcends the fleeting character of the good and pleasant things of this world, something that “rust cannot corrode, moths cannot eat, and thieves cannot steal”, something that lasts unto eternity. 

Now that is real wealth; that is true success; that is genuine treasure

In the gospels, the Father confirms Jesus in his mission—one that in the eyes of the world will be nothing but a failure—“You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased”. But it wasn’t only a confirmation of his task, it was also an affirmation, a way of strengthening his Son for the difficult task that lay ahead. It was Father’s way of telling Jesus (and all those who seek to follow him): “Be strong. You have chosen to follow my way and not the way of the world. And because of that I will remain with you, forever”.

We can choose the way of the world. We can take our chances and say, “Oh, I can have both. I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s nothing wrong with being worldly from time to time, right?” As long as we realize that our choices have consequences, we are free to do and choose what we want. But we must always bear in mind that for Jesus, there is no “middle ground”. We either choose him, or we choose the world. We either cast our lot with the men and women whose heroism and resolve, we commemorate today; or we ally ourselves with those the Machiavelli's, Hobbes', and Nietzsche's of this world proclaim champions. Shall it be Christ, or Machiavelli? We just can't have both. 

If we choose Christ's way, the world will probably judge us losers—just as it has most likely judged the band of holy men and women we commemorate today. And that can be very hard. 

If we choose the way of Jesus, our only reward will be this: when we finally come face to face with the God who shall judge us, we shall hear him speak to us in the words he spoke to Jesus, his Son: “You are my beloved child. You are my chosen one. In you, I am well pleased”. On that day, it’s the world (and its Machiavelli's, Hobbes' and Nietzsche's ) that will be judged the loser, not us.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you.
Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”

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