Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's wrong?

After a long hiatus, I'm going to write about an opportunity missed, and why it is part and parcel of what ails us.

Before I begin it is important to note that the readings for Sunday were Gn 18:1-10a, Col 1:24-28, and Lk 10:38-42. These three readings are about the relationship between Faith and diakonia (i.e. ministry, service). Abraham, in the Lesson, serves the three strangers for selfless love of them. He does not know the truth of their identity, and serves them even though he is ignorant. His is a truly selfless love. But it still appears to be primarily about meeting the needs of the "flesh" rather than the "Spirit" as St Paul would distinguish. But the Gospel reading helps make this clearer. It is a commentary on the Lesson. The Gospel reading is very hard on us Moderns. We listen to this proclaimed and are affronted. How unjust for poor Martha! She's busting her mmhmmm to serve Jesus and He seems to snub her. But ... is that really what goes on? This Gospel lesson is not to poo-poo Martha's service per se, it's perfectly salutary to serve others. But the point Christ makes is that it should be done in a context where Faith, and literally listening to the Word of God is central. Mary listens first to the Word, literally, before engaging the world in its toils. And thus the Gospel informs the Epistle. This is how St Paul is able to "fill up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" by service that is Christ-focused and Christ-centered. It started with Christ and returns to Him. And so we come full circle to the Lesson, where we now realise that Abraham's diakonia was worthy of reward because of how Christ-like it was. He who yearned for a Saviour acted most like him in this selfless service, precisely because it did not just meet the needs of the "flesh" but, as it were, proclaimed the Gospel even before it was proclaimed by Christ.


This brings me to what struck me on Sunday. Immediately after we profess our Faith, using the ancient and yet still ever-present formula of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, we then offer up a set of prayers that are supposed to pray for the corporate needs of the particular parish. All of the prayers were ones for God to meet needs of the "flesh." Examples included that political leaders respect the poor and marginalised, that those who are financially distressed receive relief from their distress, that our military in harm's way be protected from harm and come safely home, and that the sick and their caregivers be a source of healing and comfort to each other. These are fine in and of themselves -- who does not want our troops to come safely home? -- but is there anything particularly Christian about them? Could atheists not offer the same sentiments? I'll return to that question. What about something like "... bring them safely home, and may they spread the Gospel wherever they are sent in thought word and deed"? This is not fashionable. I can see the papers decrying our troops being used as missionaries with guns. But that's not what I just prayed for. Rather I want someone out there in the far-flung reaches of the globe to see our troops living the Gospel and thus ask the question "why does he love like that? How can I love like that?" and thus come to be saved.

This is more than just an opportunity lost, although it is certainly that. I ask again the question, could not an atheist or other secular person offer those sentiments? Yes. And that's the problem. That's one of the main reasons so many churches are hurting. Many of our leaders in the Faith are out there involved in protests, activism and so on. And defending the downtrodden, the marginalised etc are certainly within the mandate given us by Christ. But, if that's all being a nun or a priest is ... if that's all being a Catholic is ... just protesting and getting socially aware ... then we don't need to be Catholic, or priests, or nuns to do that. Secular people are just as capable of doing these things. If all we are is a socially-aware group of activists and charity workers, we don't even really need religion for any purpose, right? And so many people realised that very thing that vocations are down (and not just for those reasons, obviously, but it is certainly a major factor). But we do need the Gospel. We cannot be saved but by the Gospel. If we focus on the Gospel while being socially active, that's the one road to living in Imitation of Christ. But that means making the saving of the souls you engage a greater priority than just making sure you march for them. I have seen it time and time again that when the church emphasises the things of the "Spirit" first, and makes things Christ-centered and Christ-focused we have increased Mass participation, an increase in vocations and so on.

Surely there are many problems besides this that the Church needs to address and all of them urgently (obviously the abuse scandal comes to mind). But, in my mind, the single greatest thing the Church can do is to listen to Christ in the Gospel pericope. If our dioceses, religious orders and so on make Christ the focus, and meet the needs of the "Spirit" before meeting the needs of the "flesh" then it seems to me cleaning up other problems will necessarily follow.

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