Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37

Do you think that Pilate, the Roman governor,
breathed a sigh of relief
when Jesus said,
“My kingdom does not belong to this world”?
Did he perhaps think that Jesus
was taking himself out of the game
and saying that his kingdom had
no real-world relevance?
Was this why he would shortly go out
and tell Jesus’ accusers, “I find no guilt in him,”
because he now thought that Jesus was no threat,
that Jesus was the king, at best,
of some fantasy kingdom in the sky?

But of course Pilate misunderstood Jesus’s words.
As St. Augustine pointed out,
when Jesus said that his kingdom did not belong to this world,
“he did not say: ‘My kingdom is not in this world,’
but ‘is not of this world’” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 115.2).
Jesus’ kingdom is very much in this world,
because it is present in his life and words and deeds.

So what then does he mean when he says
that his kingdom does not belong to this world,
that although it is in this world
it is not of this world?
He is saying that that his kingdom does not grow from
the forces and motivations
that produce kingdoms and nations in our world.
It is a sad fact
that our nations and political allegiances are based
on a fundamental division of the world
into “us” and “them,”
and a desire to make sure that
by banding together
we can protect ourselves from the threat of “them.”
The kingdoms and nations that are of the world
are mechanism of control
marked by what St. Augustine called
the libido dominandi,
the lust for domination,
a desire that grows from the fear
that the lives we have made for ourselves—
our families and friends,
our possessions and pursuits,
our safety and security—
hang by a thread of fortune
and can be swept away in an instant.
This fear turns everyone who is not us
into a threat to be managed or eliminated.
We still hope that somehow,
if we can just accumulate enough economic clout,
if we can just strengthen our boarders with a higher wall,
if we can just kill enough of our enemies
fortune might be controlled,
fate might be fooled,
and we might finally have peace of mind.

So much of our political discourse is driven
by this fear and desire for control.
But Jesus says that his kingdom is not like this;
his kingdom, though it is present in this world,
does not spring from a lust to dominate,
his kingdom is not a regime of risk management
in which we trade liberty for security
and compassion for control.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world
because it operates outside of the tyranny of fear.
It is a kingdom that spreads forth from Christ’s empty tomb
and its promise that no enemy,
not even death,
can take from us
the one possession that ultimately matters:
the love of God that comes to us through Jesus.
For he is the one,
as our reading from the Book of Revelation says,
who is “the firstborn of the dead
and ruler of the kings of the earth…
who loves us and has freed us from our sins
by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom,
priests for his God and Father.”
In his kingdom we find true freedom,
true liberty,
because he has freed us from sin
and the fear of death;
and in doing this he has made us free
to love God and neighbor,
He has made us free to see as our neighbor
not simply those who look and live like us,
or those whom we can control and dominate,
or those whose threat we can neutralize,
but each and every person God has made,
particularly those who are most vulnerable
and in need of our love:
the poor, the defenseless, the stranger.

It is not that Christ’s kingdom
has no enemies or faces no threats.
How could we think that
when we hear in our Gospel today
of Jesus facing the man who would order his death?
But it is a kingdom that does not let itself be ruled
by fear of enemies
and calculation of risk,
but continues in the face of all this
to witness to the truth.
Christ our king is risen
and we have been set free
to live lives of generosity and mercy,
lives that befit the citizens of his kingdom:
“a kingdom of life and truth,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace”
(Preface for Christ the King).

Of course, because we are still journeying
toward the fullness of Christ’s kingdom,
we continue to live in this world
with its kingdoms, nations, and tribes.
We struggle to discern God’s will,
and might disagree among ourselves
regarding how best to live out concretely our call,
as citizen’s of Christ’s kingdom,
to live lives of generosity and mercy.
But the one thing we cannot do
is to let the Pontius Pilates of this world
breathe a sigh of relief
because we live our lives
as if Christ’s kingdom were irrelevant in this world,
as if it were merely an ideal
for some other world,
some other life.
Because if we do not live
as if the defeat of sin and death
in the resurrection of Jesus
makes a difference here and now
then we may need to ask ourselves
if it is really the resurrection of Jesus
that we believe in.
If we persist in living lives ruled by fear
and the desire for control
then perhaps we have misunderstood the one who is
“the Alpha and the Omega…
the one who is and who was
and who is to come,
the almighty.”
To celebrate Christ as king
is to say to the kingdoms of this world,
the kingdoms driven by fear and exclusion,
that they do not have the final word,
because Christ’s kingdom
is present now in our midst
beckoning us to enter.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Solemnity of All Saints

Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a

In the late 19th century
the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy
concluded his novel The Woman Who Was Poor
with the line,
“There is only one sadness…
not to be saints.”

But, we might ask,
why should not being saints make us sad
and why would he say
that this is the only sadness?
After all,
isn’t there plenty of other sadness in life—
disappointments in our careers
and creative endeavors,
our love lives
and our friendships:
promotions and recognitions passed over,
failures and broken promises.
Moreover, we do not tend to think of saints
as people who had lots of fun.
Indeed, we tend to think of them
as having become saints
because they were willing to give up
fun things that make people happy,
like money or sex or careers
or, in the case of martyrs, even their lives.
Being a saint sounds to many of us
like a pretty dreary affair—
lots of church and Bible-reading and visiting the sick—
and Jesus in today’s Gospel doesn’t help matters much
when he says that those who are blessed
(which is another way of saying those who are saints)
are the poor in spirit,
the mourning,
those hungering and thirsting for justice,
those who are persecuted for justice’s sake.
This does not sound
like a particularly happy crowd.
We might even ask,
with all due respect to Monsieur Bloy:
given all the potential occasions
for sadness in life,
why increase our sadness
by the pursuit of joyless sainthood?

I probably do not need to tell you
that I think such a view
profoundly misunderstands
both happiness and sainthood.

So, what is happiness?
Our deepest experiences of joy
are when we are doing something and say
“This, this, is what I am meant to be doing.”
We experience joy when we are engaged in some activity
that is so in tune with who we are
that it flows forth from us
with a sense of rightness,
a sense of naturalness,
a sense that this is what we were made to do,
this is who we were meant to be.
It might be joy that we feel in a career,
in which our own particular set of skills and gifts
perfectly match the meaningful task we have to do.
It might be the joy we feel in athletic
or creative pursuits,
when hours spent on the practice field
or in the studio
or at the writer’s desk
yield that moment of victory,
of achievement,
of beauty.
It might be joy that we feel
in friendship or romance,
when the love that we offer
is returned in kind.

But nobody’s life is only their career
or their art
or even their loves.
Our life as human beings is in part distinctive
because we are many things at the same time:
we are doctors or business people or teachers,
while we are also artists and athletes ,
as well as parents and spouses and friends and siblings.
Because we are many things at once,
we find happiness in many areas of our lives.
But we also find sadness,
because the activities that fulfill us
in one area of our lives
might be in conflict with finding joy
in another area of our lives,
as when pursuit of a career
negatively affects our personal relationships,
or we give up our artistic dreams
in order to help provide for our families.
It seems that none of these things
makes us happy in all that we are;
each happiness is a partial happiness.

And even more, we human beings are aware
that each and every partial joy we experience in life
is fleeting,
and so fragile
that a small turn of fortune
could take it from us.
An economic downturn
makes me lose that perfect job;
my strength diminishes,
my hands shake,
my mind grows dim,
and I can no longer engage
in my beloved athletic or artistic pursuit;
death or betrayal takes from me
that precious friend or lover.
Part of what it means to be human
is to recognize all this,
and even in moments of intense happiness
to be haunted by the question,
is there something more?
Is there a happiness
that can embrace all that I am?
Is there a happiness
that neither fortune
nor time
nor even death
can sweep away?

There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because it is precisely in loving the creator of all,
the one who knows us better than we know ourselves,
that the saints are fulfilled in such a way
that joy can pervade every aspect of their life.
There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because the saints are those who have found a joy
that no passage of time or turn of fortune,
no human failure or inadequacy,
and not even death,
can take from them.

Perhaps the life of the saints
strikes us as a sad one
because our notion of “a saint”
is a narrow and moralistic one.
But the saints are not those
who have followed all the rules;
they are not the ones
who have sacrificed all pleasure;
they are not the ones
who have cut out of their lives
everything and everyone except God.
No, they are the ones
who have abandoned themselves
to the wild adventure of being a lover of Jesus,
and have let the joy of that adventure
flow from them
to pervade their every action,
have let that love
infuse all of their relationships.
They are the ones who have found an eternal happiness
that can console us now
in the face of misfortune and disappointment,
and will one day
wipe away every tear in God’s kingdom.

To miss that love,
to miss that joy,
to miss that adventure:
truly, this is the only sadness
that God’s joy cannot overcome.