Year A Ordinary 22
I remember, about 15 years ago, feeling like God had tricked me after I became Anglican and moved to New Haven, Connecticut.
I started out as a good, Midwestern Pentecostal at Oral Roberts University where the men had to wear ties to class and dancing was forbidden. The amount of beer I’ve seen our Men’s Club drink in a single evening is more than the entire campus at ORU consumed in an entire year. While there, I started my journey towards Catholicism by being received into the Anglican Church, which in some ways is very close. I thought at the time that I was, in a way, becoming Catholic but that’s a long, different story.
Then I managed to get into Yale Divinity School and moved to New Haven, where the two viable political parties in our city elections were the Democrats and the Communists. In seminary I found myself in class with atheists and could only get into the building by sneaking past a group of protesters because some professor said he didn’t like women priests, and I swear there was a sort of plant-mother-earth worship thing going on in the chapel once. My New Testament professor swore she would fail anyone who tried to argue in a term paper that miracles are real. I seriously almost had a nervous breakdown.
This is all to say, when I read the prophet Jeremiah complain to God, “You duped me!” I nod my head in sympathy. I thought I was following God’s plan for my life and I was suffering all sorts of discomforts as a result. Looking back on it, I probably was following God’s plan for my life and was suffering all sorts of discomforts as a result. Have you ever had that experience, where, in order to obey God you ended up suffering? That doesn’t mean you made a bad choice or are being punished – it means that you took up your Cross.
To follow Our Lord means being permanently at odds with the world. Jeremiah was so annoyed by this that he decided to retire. He writes, “I will speak in his name no more.” He can’t help himself, though! “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones”
St. Paul knows the same truth, that to follow Jesus means a radical departure from life as usual. He encourages us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, once wrote a short story about a king who asks his priests to show him God. When they can’t figure out to do so, a shepherd coming in from the fields steps forward and tells the king that his eyes aren’t good enough to see God, but the king persists. “Then we must exchange our clothes,” says the shepherd. The king gives his royal robes to the shepherd and has himself dressed in the poor man’s simple garments. “This is what God does,” says the shepherd.
The theologian Von Balthasar sums it up, saying to God, “You make us rich, and then again, you make us poor.”
Why does being Catholic put us at odds with the world? Why does it in many ways make us poor? Our faith causes tension, to hold our beliefs dear and run the risk of being called bigots or fundamentalists, to struggle with our own sin and vice when it would be so much easier to simply float along and feel no guilt about anything. Why is it that the Catholic Church is persecuted and martyred?
The answer is simple – The Cross. God is totally Other, and his Kingdom is not of this world, so when he arrives he is an existential threat and must be eliminated. Jesus took up his Cross and we must take up ours. He makes us rich, but then again, he makes us poor.
When Our Lord into our hearts, he brings with him the entirety of the divine presence. That, my friends, is impossible. Grace re-makes all that comes before it, it re-shapes the soul, it spiritually kills and then resurrects us.
It’s hard to explain, because there is so much beauty and goodness in this world. We aren’t meant to abandon it, but we are meant to redeem it, and it is certainly true that there’s an apocalypse lurking nearby, and so all of the beauty of this world points just around the corner to a mysterious reality in which the painful longing and nostalgia of this world are satisfied. Think about how difficult but wonderful the experience is of looking back at old pictures and remembering how much love and happiness there has been in your life while, at the very same time, there is a sense of grief that those days are gone forever and will never, ever return. Pope Benedict XVI says that this is why beauty is like an arrow to the heart, alerting us to the fact that there is a greater beauty out there and we won’t be satisfied until we find it.
This is why the Mass is so beautiful and mysterious, it’s a moment when time and space break apart and an infinite reality becomes present where it ought not be. So we watch in silence, or use symbols such as incense and candles. God is transcendent, totally Other, and his presence is weightier than anything we have ever had laid on our shoulders before.
We are at odds with this world, and always will be, because this world is focused on lesser goods, or even stoops to calling evil good. This world is hurting and anxious, there’s a sense of dread in the air and everyone is trying to stay forever young, to take a million iphone pictures to own a moment forever, to find meaning in goods that are not eternal and thus are not worthy of the dignity of the human soul. We need a goodness and a beauty that is fitting to us. We are eternal, and only God’s eternal goodness is enough. The problem is that the desire is there but the only way to fulfill it is through divine grace, through the sacrifice of the Cross.
This doesn’t rest easy with those who would be their own master, which is why there is enmity, why the prophet is always disliked, why the Catholic Church will always be mocked and reviled and slandered, why we must take up our Cross daily. The world is a dead cistern, God is the fount of life. This world is hungry, God is the bread of life.
In order to bestow his riches upon us, he first must humble us. He isn’t duping us, he is offering the chance to leave behind what is unimportant and enter into the very reason for our creation, which is to live with and love him forever. Don’t weary of holding your Cross, for it is the opportunity to leave behind your old life and step into the new life that God has prepared for you. You may give everything else in this world up, but that’s a trade worth making. He makes us poor, but then again, he makes us rich.