Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., as part of a sermon series on “divine questions” for Lent on February 20th at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Since you did so well last week with three divine questions, we’re going to double up this week! The holy season of Lent is a period of intense seeking and equally intense discovery. At the heart of it all is discovering the true identity of the One we often rather blithely call “Lord.” Further, in getting His identity right, we get our own right as well. So, let’s have a “go” at it.
At a certain point in Our Lord’s public ministry, He asks the Apostles, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). It’s an early version of the Gallup Poll. Let us restate what should be the obvious. The Church was not established as a democracy, nor is it that right now. Therefore, the community is not run by means of lining up our positions on the basis of the latest Gallup Poll. That said, it is important to know what others say and think. As discomforting as it is to learn that 80% of Catholic women of child-bearing age practice artificial contraception; as disturbing as it is to hear that fewer than 30% of American Catholics take seriously their Sunday Mass obligation; it is nonetheless important to know those facts – if we are not only to deal with the reality but also endeavor to change it. The problem is that some would-be churchmen take the sociological fact as a theological fait accompli. Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t operate in that manner. Although the Apostles are quite content to report the findings from a comfortable distance, Jesus gets embarrassingly specific and personal with a follow-up question:
“Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). We shall return to that point shortly.
On another occasion, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation between Our Lord and Philip, who asks for a simple thing: “Show us the Father.” Jesus says to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn 14:9). Can you sense the divine frustration in that response? What would He say now after two millennia of Christians “being” with Him?
Truth be told, we have no excuse for not knowing who Jesus is, nor of failing to understand the implications of the assertions we make about Him in the Creed every Sunday. In fact, we can conclude on the basis of yet another question raised by Christ that He might not be overly impressed by our “profession of faith” when we hear Him demand: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46). You see, it is not enough to mouth the right words; orthodoxy demands orthopraxy. That’s where a lot of Fundamentalist Christians get it so wrong by believing that simply having faith will win them salvation. Faith is a first and most necessary step, but there’s more: Knowledge and faith demand a response of obedience. I like to remind people that the Final Judgment, according to Jesus, is not an exam in dogmatic theology but in moral theology (cf. Mt 25). Or, as St. John of the Cross put it more poetically: “In the twilight of life, we shall be judged on love.”
Now, let’s go back to that opening conversation. While the mass of disciples are content to report the results of public opinion polls (Jesus is thought to be either John the Baptist redivivus, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet), only impetuous Simon has the courage to make a personal profession of faith. For which, the One he identified as Messiah returns the compliment by giving him a new name, “Peter.” When we get Christ straight, we get ourselves straight, too. And so, it is important for each of us to go out on a limb and make a similar affirmation of belief in Jesus. He does not really care what “they” believe; He is interested in what “you” believe because that will influence your response to Him, your following of Him.
Who is Jesus for you? A social reformer, a prophet, a lunatic, a dreamer, the Son of God? These are some of the answers presently abroad in our society. Have you ever asked yourself that question? Do you live in accord with your response?
If you have decided on being a follower of Jesus, how do you intend to do it? Better yet, how does Jesus expect you to do it? And here comes Jesus again with His total frankness; He doesn’t say, “If you follow me, I’ll give you a twelve-room house, with a built-in pool and ten wide-screen televisions.” Sorry, Joel Olsteen, you are preaching your own Gospel, not Christ’s. Following Jesus is not and never has been an easy matter. If it has come easily for you, you haven’t been following the real Jesus.
Some people deny that anyone can really take up his cross after the example of Jesus. Others have made the carrying of the cross into a pious platitude. But there are some real Christians who know its meaning: Doing apparently absurd things for the love of Jesus. Let’s take a look at some examples.
A woman carries a cross when she lives with an alcoholic husband because she still sees God in him. A seminarian carries a cross when he freely decides to forego the joys of Christian marriage for the sake of the Gospel. A father carries a cross when he takes a second job, not for a new car or an electronic toy, but to send his child to a Catholic school. An old woman carries a cross when she is ignored or rejected by her family but still loves them and, more remarkably, continues to believe in God’s love for her. A nun carries a cross when she accepts the decision of a petty or jealous superior because she knows that religious life is bigger and more important than that superior. A high school student carries a cross when he refuses to be mastered by the gods of peer pressure, drugs, sex and alcohol because he knows that Jesus’ way of life cannot be reconciled with this other way of life. Yes, thousands of believers are carrying the cross of Christ every day; they know that this following of Jesus is not a one-shot deal of self-denial but an on-going process of self-renunciation. It is significant that Luke’s version of the injunction to carry the cross adds the word “daily” – the sequela Christi calls for a daily act of self-renunciation. And suffering, properly accepted, leads to genuine growth and meaning in human life.
The Gospel of Jesus is meant to be a challenge. The televangelist Robert Schuller invited the venerable televangelist Fulton Sheen to take his pulpit one Sunday for his “Hour of Power.” When Sheen finished, Schuller very honestly declared, “This is the first time that the Cross of Christ has been preached from this pulpit.” If Christianity is losing numbers today, it is because we have tried to make the Gospel an easy thing. Just take a look at Judaism: The only branch that is growing is that of Orthodox Judaism, the most demanding and the most traditional; Reform Judaism and even Conservative Judaism are dying on the vine. Or, within the household of the faith, compare the empty churches of Germany with the packed, standing-room only churches of Poland. I don’t say this to suggest that we live in a certain way only to increase our numbers but because history teaches us that doing the right thing does indeed increase our numbers – which is what is supposed to happen.
St. Matthew recounts an episode that is worth pondering: “While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking to speak to him.” Our Lord responds to that information with another question: “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?” (Mt 12:46-48). And this time around, He answers His own question: “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (12:49-50). Now, some Fundamentalists go off interpreting this passage as a slight against Our Lady. No, this is not an exclusion of Mary; on the contrary, she is the pre-eminent disciple, as St. Luke informs us on several occasions. At the Annunciation, she responds immediately in faith and obedience: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). As she contemplates the birth of her divine Son after the adoring visit of the shepherds, we are told: “ But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). These verses led Blessed John Henry Newman, while yet a Protestant, to pen a sermon in which he proclaimed Mary as the Church’s first theologian. These same verses caused the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to rhapsodize on Our Lady in the economy of salvation in the eighth and final chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.
What we see in Our Lord’s declaration is not a marginalization of His Mother but the presentation of her as a model. By this declaration, Jesus extends His family; we are included, if we do the will of His heavenly Father with the same alacrity and joy as His holy Mother. So, saying “Lord, Lord” is not enough; that must be followed up with “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”
All this sounds awfully good, so why are there so few real believers? And more to the point, why are there so many outright unbelievers? One of the reasons put forth is an inability to answer the question posed by Rabbi Harold Kushner years ago: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The classical biblical treatment of that matter is found in the Book of Job. As Job gets pummeled from all quarters – divine and human alike, he begins to question God’s justice. It is then that the Almighty responds with a “Who do you think you are?” line, put more delicately in the Scriptures as: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). The mystery of human suffering, especially of the innocent, is unresolved in the Old Testament. It only becomes comprehensible in the definitive revelation which comes in and through Jesus Christ. His free and loving acceptance of the Cross at one and the same time reveals the depths of human depravity and the heights of divine love. Human depravity is not countered by divine wrath as much as it is by divine love. And our Savior invites us who would be His disciples to associate ourselves with His Cross, thereby giving meaning to every pain we must endure.
The challenge to Job by Almighty God is also directed today to that growing class of the so-called “new atheists.” Atheism is not a new phenomenon; there have always been atheists, but modernity has done something unparalleled in history by raising atheism to a social structure. We can snicker at the ancient Greeks and Romans with their pantheons, but at least they had some sort of transcendental horizon. With the coming of what its proponents arrogantly termed “the Enlightenment,” atheism was put forth not merely as a personal viable way of life but as a necessary direction for true human flourishing. Believers, for the most part, have been tongue-tied to respond. However, all one need do is look at the results of organized atheism.
Believers must be convinced – and then must convince everyone else – that the Fathers of Vatican II got it right when they declared in Gaudium et Spes: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36). History supports that assertion. Just look at the bloodshed of every godless movement of modernity from the French Revolution to the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War to the murderous campaigns of the Nazis and Communists. And who can be oblivious to what Communists still do to our brothers and sisters in the faith in China? Clearly, “without the Creator, the creature vanishes.”
Today, then, we thank Christ the Divine Teacher for leading us by His gentle questioning to discover who He is and thus who we are: His brothers and sisters who do the will of His heavenly Father and thereby experience the greatest measure of human fulfillment in this life as well as the inheritance of eternal life.