As I prayed for the Church during the Amazon Synod, I found myself returning to meditation on a particular event in the life or Our Lady—an event toward which I’ve been drawn more and more these last several years, and an event which when I first converted to the Faith initially had little impact on me: the loss of the Child Jesus in the temple.
When, as a newly-minted Catholic several decades ago, I first stumbled upon the list of our Blessed Mother’s Seven Sorrows, it was this Third Sorrow that drew my attention the least. It seemed somewhat out of place when juxtaposed against, say, the tumult and angst occasioned by the Flight to Egypt, or the excruciating pain Mary must have experienced in each of the last four Sorrows associated with Our Lord’s Passion. Indeed, I’m sorry to say, it occasionally made me smile as I imagined myself finding him in the temple and saying, “If you ever do that, again, I’ll….” What, I would ask myself, is the appropriate punishment to mete out to the Son of God in such circumstances?
It was St. Alphonsus de Liguori’s The Glories of Mary that brought me to a deeper understanding of this Sorrow of losing Jesus in the temple. Instead of seeing it as a lesser Sorrow, St. Alphonsus speculates it may have been the most painful. As he writes, “Some writers assert, and not without reason, that this dolor was not only one of the greatest, but that it was the greatest and most painful of all.”
His reasons for speculating such is two-fold. First, this is the only Sorrow in which Our Lord is not physically present with his mother to reassure and comfort her. Secondly, in this Sorrow the Blessed Mother had no clear indication as to what purpose Jesus’ absence played in God’s plan. As de Liguori states, “[I]n the other sorrows, Mary saw their purpose – the salvation of the world. But why this absence?” Indeed, you can hear the confusion and pain in her voice when, upon finding Jesus in the Temple, she asks, “How could you do this to your father and I?”(Lk. 2:48). Far from a rebuke, as some assert, she’s truly expressing her confusion and pain at not understanding.
It this second explanation—this confusion and pain of trying to understand God’s purpose—that has drawn me the last several years as I meditate on many recent events in the Church, happenings in which the true Person of Jesus seems to have gotten lost.
For example, as I read the Instrumentum Laboris for the recent Amazon Synod, I often found a language and an approach to evangelization seemingly at odds with the Jesus of Sacred Scripture, the Jesus who amazed the crowds with teaching that was authoritative and “not like that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mk. 1:22). Consider, for example, the IL’s ‘interpretation’ of Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well:
Jesus was a person of dialogue and encounter. So we see him “with the Samaritan woman, at the well where she sought to quench her thirst (cf. Jn 4: 7-26)” (EG 72); she “became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus,” and when she returned to her village, “many Samaritans came to believe in him ‘because of the woman’s testimony’ (Jn 4:39)” (EG 120).
“Dialogue” and “encounter?” Is such insipid language truly an accurate portrayal of the Samaritan woman’s experience with Our Lord? Is that all that went on at that dusty well in the heat of the day, a “dialogue” and “encounter”? Radical, life-changing confrontation would be a more accurate description.
Their meeting begins innocently enough, with Jesus asking the woman for a drink. She’s focused on water, he offers living waters, waters “welling up to eternal life” which, if she were to drink it, would leave her never thirsting, again. But the story, as the much as the IL’s authors might wish it to do so, doesn’t end there.
She asks for a drink of this water and Jesus turns directly to the stumbling block stopping her from receiving it when he tells the woman to go and bring back her husband. She dodges the question, saying she has no husband. Jesus bluntly asserts: “You speak true, for in fact you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.” Not a condemnation, certainly, but at the same time a blunt assertion of a central truth of her life—a truth that must be confronted and addressed before she can truly enter into friendship with God. Jesus recognized, as the old country western tune would have it, that the woman had “been looking for love in all the wrong places…”
She tries to dodge the issue again, raising the question of whether God is worshipped in Jerusalem, or on the mountain held sacred by the Samaritans. It’s almost an invitation to the type of modern relativism so familiar to us today. As if she were asking, “What difference does it make? We’re worshipping the same God.” Jesus will have none of it, offering the judgment—yes, judgment—that her people “worship what they do not know” while the Jews worship what they do know. Jesus refused the false equivalence the woman was offering. He continues by telling her that a time was coming when people will be “true worshipers” who shall “worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” She asserts that she has heard of a coming Messiah and Jesus concludes the discussion by revealing he, and he alone, is the coming Messiah people are expecting.
Does all of this really sound like just an “encounter” between two people peppered with bland pleasantries? A “dialogue” taking place over tea and scones? An example of some sterile “accompaniment?” Jesus meets a sinner. He doesn’t ignore the sin, he confronts it, and offers the sinner a way out, a way up—if she so chooses. He doesn’t dialogue about it; he doesn’t posit that perhaps her conscience dictates that she continue on as she has. He doesn’t leave her where she is, but calls her to conversion. He truly “meets her where she is”—as the modern churchmen would have it—but he refuses to leave her there.
He does the same with the rich, young man when he makes as a condition of his “accompaniment” that the young man sell all his possessions (Mk. 10: 17-27). Jesus loved the rich, young man, and could see that he wanted friendship with God. But Jesus wasn’t willing to let him settle for a spiritual life of mediocrity based on the false premise he could ‘serve both God and mammon.’ Jesus’ teaching was so bold that even the previously greedy and corrupt tax collector, Zacchaeus, was convicted to give up much, if not most, of his wealth (Lk. 19: 1-10); so blunt as to tell the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more”(Jn. 8:11).
Jesus knew the work of true friendship with him would be difficult. He knew the path would be ‘narrow’ and that few would choose it (Mt. 7:13-14) and be able to walk it. Specifically, he knew it would require the grace to be found in the sacraments he established—the grace he won for us through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. What Jesus sought for us, what he won for us, was not just some antiseptic ‘accompaniment’ based on ‘dialogue’ and ‘encounter.’ But, rather, a true and intimate relationship of continual conversion to he who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.
Jesus preached and taught, leaving us the deposit of faith. He died and rose, gifting us the deposit of grace, so that through “the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life…” (CCC 1988). This is the Jesus I see when reading the Gospels; it is the same Jesus who seems so lost these days as leaders in the Church apparently sow confusion on the basics of the deposit of faith, positing that most Catholics are incapable of the ‘heroic virtue’ the deposit of grace is meant to make possible. Unlike St. Paul, some in the hierarchy now shy away from ‘preaching Jesus, and him crucified,’ seemingly fearing such preaching would prove ‘a stumbling block’ to some and appear ‘foolish’ to others.
Worse, this comes at a time when the basic premises of the Western civilization created by the Church is crumbling all around us. It comes at a time when the bold proclamation of the Good News is most needed. We’ve regressed back even to the angry rejection of the most basic of premises: “Male and female He created them.” Yet, it seems it is precisely at this moment that the Church founded by Jesus has suddenly lost its voice and turned silent.
And so I take some solace in meditating on this Third of Mary’s Seven Sorrows when it appears that Jesus also seems lost. He is not, of course, actually lost. I still receive him in the Blessed Sacrament, and so can still find comfort in his Real Presence, something unavailable to the Blessed Mother during those anxious days of Jesus’ youth. And so I take solace from the fact that we have in the Blessed Mother a mother who can empathize with us as we experience the pain and confusion of trying to understand God’s plan at this particular moment in time; as we turn to God and ask, in words similar to those she used in the Temple, “Why are you doing this to us?”
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