23 Sept 2018
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
It was a place of great intercultural mixing, a place where differing religions touched each other. And it was a place of testing for a people of faith. Now, we could be talking about our 21st Century world, or we could be talking about ancient Alexandria, Egypt, where the Book of Wisdom was written.
The Jews there were constantly being pulled in this direction or that direction: ‘Think this;’ ‘Believe that.’ But the Book of Wisdom was written as a reminder for them to be true to their faith and to their God—even as they lived within a mix of cultures. And this situation is exactly what we deal with today.
We’re followers of Jesus Christ, members of his Catholic Church, and every day we’re influenced by ideas and beliefs which may or may not be Catholic or even Christian. Every day we have choices to make. Every time you listen to the news, every time you go to a blog, every time you read the newspaper someone is trying to sell a certain point-of-view. And the question is: What I am going to do with all that? Who am I going to listen to, who should I question? And, as we know, it’s very easy to get caught up in all that, and lose our way.
Now, in the letter of James, he suggests that what’s behind all the cultural divisions and arguments in (and in the Church) are our “passions.” He’s saying that sometimes we humans can feel so strongly about something—to the point that it affects our physical being and happiness—our passion can be strong that we actually stop listening to others; that we stop interacting with other people.
For example, we can look at the immigration issue today. We know both sides of the argument. But, as we also know, people can be very passionate about their view to the point that communication breaks down. And then you just have people shouting at each other. And that’s not helpful. It some respects, passion has to be dialed down a little bit because, in reality, immigration is a complex issue.
There are undeniable problems with families being separated. But there are also real problems with drug dealers and human traffickers coming into the country. There are also those people in the mix trying to seek legitimate refuge. And our own government does have a right and a responsibility to oversee its borders and to do what it feels is best for its people.
On this issue, the Church stands on both sides. Drug dealers and human traffickers should be dealt with and kept out; men, women, and children seeking to come in should be treated humanely and compassionately; and the country (per the social justice teaching of the Church) has that right and responsibility to protect and exercise its sovereignty. The Church has a pretty “dispassionate” approach to this, and so it can see both sides. But this approach to the question of immigration gets lost because passions run high, and people are divided.
Even right here in Mass, our passions—our beliefs and philosophies—can divide us. You know, whenever there’s a parishioner survey, there are generally a lot of critiques about the music at Mass. We hear that: People love the organ; people hate the organ. People want exciting, vibrant music; people want calm, inspiring music. People want new, modern music; people want traditional hymns. No matter what you do, you can’t win.
And these divisions are rooted in our passions (which aren’t necessarily bad)...our passions, our beliefs and convictions about: who God is, what Mass is about, what the Church is, and what kind of relationship faith and culture should have. And all these beliefs and convictions are shaped not only by what our faith tells us, but also by a whole society of competing philosophies about life and faith; competing ideas about happiness and fulfillment.
But the fact that we have all these ideas and beliefs floating around is not the problem. You know, part of being “Catholic” is that we’re interested in the wider “whole”—the entire Tradition of the Church would collapse if we weren’t open to other ideas in the pursuit of the truth of things.
The problem isn’t that there are a lot of ideas out there. The problem is in taking on ideas and beliefs without first asking: “Is this really Christian? Is this really Catholic?” It’s very easy to become so passionate and convinced about an idea we have that we block out the bigger picture. It’s easy to be carried away from the anchor of faith and to go worshipping other gods, particularly the god which is our own sense of rightness.
And—no surprise—we see this among the early disciples. Jesus tried to tell them about his passion and death; but they wouldn’t listen. They knew how the Messiah was supposed to be—and his being put to death wasn’t part of the Messianic vision of things. And so, they didn’t ask Jesus anymore questions. There was a breakdown in their communion with Jesus because of their own sense of rightness—they knew what was right (they thought).
And so, we’re not all that different from those Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, way back when. We’re not that different from those first disciples who honestly tried to listen to Jesus. We’re in pretty much the same boat.
And while we sit and ponder how to be a Catholic Christian in the world today, Jesus plops himself down right in front of us and says, “I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. I Am.”
And that’s nice, but, you know, in our society today Jesus isn’t all that relevant. Even among people of faith, Jesus can so easily become “what I want him to be.” As a priest, it happens that I ask (or tell) Jesus to help me do what “I’m doing.”
Jesus is easily overlooked. And, in that, he’s like that child he put in front of the disciples—a child who had no legal standing, who didn’t have much value in the eyes of the world at that time. Jesus puts himself in front of us and says, “Here. Do you want a compass to find your way through life? Here, take me—‘worthless’ that I am.”
And where does Jesus take us but to himself and…to his Church that he’s been building since forever. Ah, the Church—another “worthless and irrelevant” thing today. Jesus asks us to commit ourselves to a raggedy child, impoverished, unimportant, weak, and outcast. He asks us to commit ourselves...to him—and to somehow find truth and happiness in that.
That’s a pretty screwed up idea—according to many people we might hear today. I mean, why “throw life away” for him (or for anybody else)? Of course, that’s not what Jesus asks. We don’t have to stop listening to others. We don’t have to stop experiencing the wealth of cultures in our world. Jesus simply asks that we not let his voice get choked off in the midst of life around us; that we not let his light get shoved under a bushel basket.
The world is a wonderful place with wonderful cultures, even in the midst of terrible problems. But above it all is Jesus, our Guiding Light, our “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Above it all is our God, who asks us to passionate about him, to look up to see where we’re going; to know what’s good, beautiful, and true in our world.