The King of Love

I’m not sure where I stand regarding this Feast of Christ the King. Yes, this trait of mine can sometimes be a nuisance, but I need to dig into statements or phrases which, through repetition,  may have lost the full strength of their meaning. I need to test their truth, to be dazzled by the newness of their authenticity.

So what’s challenging about the concept of Christ as king? After all, in the gospel for this Feast, Christ actually refers to himself as a king who separates the sheep from the goats, the charitable from the uncaring.

What causes me to ponder this theme are other contradicting parts of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble origins (the carpenter’s son!), performs some astounding miracle that so impresses the crowd that they  rush at him to make him king – just like that! No polling or voting on their side, no armed forces on his. For Jesus, king-making has nothing to do with spectacular deeds. Furthermore, he frequently emphasizes the importance of rejecting honors and choosing the last place.

The simple, unaffected man from Galilee has a totally different style. Instead of taking people by force, he issues gentle invitations to a life of inner peace and ease.

Come to me, all you who labor, and I will refresh you. My perfect love for you will lift from you the burden of seeing yourself as unloved. If you come to me, if you come to know me, you’ll realize how lovable you really are by loving me and loving others in me. My way is not to dominate you, to be a fearful tyrant, but to be a comfort to your false sense of worthlessness. And even that invitation will not be forced on you.

Jesus did not want to be associated with empty worldly ambitions, and expressed that early on by resisting Satan while in his desert of preparation. For Jesus, the throne of power came from the God of Love, and the favors to be dispensed were those of Love given, accepted and shared. People were not invited to the feast because of battles won, nor for any splendid inventions or even artistic creations; not for nations founded nor for roads built to connect one conquered people to another; not for taxes imposed, collected by force and used to pay for the luxuries of  higher-ups.

The crown that ultimately was placed on Jesus’ head was one of mockery, meant to shame him. But Jesus couldn’t be shamed because he had already totally surrendered Himself to whatever his Father found necessary. Having already taken the lowest place, he could go no lower. I think he must have even rejoiced to be given that Crown of Thorns. He knew only too well the consequences of ambition and greed: nations at war over which would have the highest place, the most power over people, ownership of immeasurable wealth, buildings and clothing that reflected power and greed.

Christ’s idea of royalty was reserved for the kind, the brave and the caring, even if their lowliness separated them from the haughty and made them the  subject of sneers and mockery.

The kingship of Christ was the last word of greatness: the victory of Love over cruelty and injustice. The hymn expresses it beautifully: The King of Love my shepherd is.

 

How to tell them?

One of the hymns at Mass today was, Rejoice and be glad: yours is the Kingdom of God.

I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus and visualized him as he delivered this astounding message to the poor about, of all things, a kingdom!

I picture him as an idealistic, enthusiastic and brilliant young man, full of compassion. He has recently experienced a baptism by another holy man and has heard the unmistakable message of approval from the heavenly Father. He’s about to select a handful of men who will help him spread his teachings of the Kingdom to many others.

He is ready. Even while working full-time as a craftsman, he has studied sacred Scripture, prayed over it, and has been given to understand its deepest secrets. These “secrets,” however, are not to be withheld from the poor and uneducated. They only need his tender talents to explain, in down-to-earth terms, the noblest mysteries of the Divinity.

Along with Jesus’ teaching abilities are his God-given powers to heal the sick in body and mind. Such power gives credence to his astounding lessons on how to enter the Kingdom of peace and love. For while the lessons are not difficult to understand, they’re mostly the very opposite of what people have been taught.

Jesus must think to himself: how can I present these teachings in such a way that unscholarly people can understand?

Then, after more prayer, he realizes that the poor and the simple have much in common with one another, and that focusing on what they have in common will be the way to teach them.  He therefore devises skillful parables where the situations and characters illustrate (sometimes negatively) the kind of behaviors that prepare them to enter the kingdom: stories of masters forgiving slaves, of slaves not forgiving co-workers. Of men working throughout the day, only to see others getting the same payment after just a few hours of labor. About buying a field where hidden treasures were found by accident. About a woman relentlessly pleading with a judge for justice.

Jesus has lived and worked with people for years and knows that many of them really have a sincere desire to do what God wills. But they’ve been given so many rules that they can hardly remember all 600-plus of them. They already have so much on their minds just to provide the basics for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, religious leaders have taught them that failure to obey the Law would lead to their expulsion from the temple, their only hope for salvation.

An almost endless workday prevents them from studying the scriptures and the law. Not to mention the other unending problems: illness in the family; their own illness; dealing with the many who want to cheat them; dealing with the many who simply hate them for a variety of reasons or for no reason at all.

Too many problems. Too many laws. Is there any way to get out of this maze, to find a clear path to peace?

  • What is God’s will? Which are the most important laws?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said [in reply], “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

  • How do I decide whether to obey a law or to give help where needed?

 Again he entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

  • How do I treat people who are just miserable to deal with?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

  • How can I ever atone for my sins?

People brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.

  • How can I find true peace?

 Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’”Living water

Rivers of living water . . .

Jesus, who wants all to be with him in the Kingdom, has eased the path for them and for us: I am the way, the truth and the life.

 

 

 

 

 

What They Forgot to Teach Us in Sunday School

Or, the world’s best-kept secret.

Actually, they didn’t forget to teach it, but must have trembled to repeat such an outrageous statement, even though it had been repeated by several Fathers of the Church for the first several centuries of Christianity. Here it is:

God became human so that humans might become gods. (Or variably, so that we might become God.)

This shocking statement appeared in the Gospel of John –

But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God. (1: 12)

Then Peter –

. . . he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature.  (2 Peter 1:4) –

Followed by other similar proclamations by Bishops Irenaeus, Athenasius, and Augustine – where I’ll stop in the interest of brevity.

But really I ought to have included the very first message of this truth as emphatically recorded in Genesis:

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. . . [And] God created mankind in his image . . . in the image of God he created them. (1:26,27)

Most convincing of all are the urgings of our Lord Jesus Christ who commands us to imitate our Father by being perfect in the way we treat others: with mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.

Somehow in the western church we got caught up in rules, just as our Jewish forebears had done. Ideally, the church’s rules might have been created to prop up and help us live out the teachings of Christ. Alas! All too frequently the props on the spiritual stage became a greater reality than what they were meant to be. So we imitated what had occurred with the Jewish laws, causing Isaiah to write and later Jesus to quote:

This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. ( Matthew 15: 8-9)

Jesus did indeed make some commandments more difficult than the original.

You have heard it said, he begins, that . . .

You shall not kill —

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,

You shall not commit adultery —

But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth —

But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy — 

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5)

Being  a real Christian requires that we rise above even the basic human standards of being a “good person.”

We are called to be so much more than that. We are called to take on the holiness of God’s own Self. Of course we’ve failed to do that, which is why the world repeats the same-old same-old practices of greed, selfishness, cruelty, etc., etc., etc.

We who wish (or claim) to be Christians must therefore look closely at the actions and words of Christ, especially those where he teaches us the “rules” regarding love of God and neighbor. Why are so many of us eager to see other people (who are judged to be “sinners”) kicked out of the church? We see someone breaking what we think is a rule and demand that they be removed, or denied Communion, or have some other privilege taken away.

It is not the healthy who need a physician, Jesus reminds the Pharisee, outraged to see “sinners” eat at the same table; or view the wanton, vile woman who shamelessly displays her tears and uncovers her hair to weep at the feet of Christ.

A new law I give you: Love one another as I have loved you.

How easy Christ makes it for us! Only one law to remember, only one law to obey. Love covers all the rest.

“Copy Cat”

I’m the youngest of six siblings. I vividly remember one of my brothers, five years my senior, being seriously annoyed that I was copying his every activity. He would be constructing a house of cards, for example, and I’d attempt to do likewise. He would sing a particular song, and I’d soon be humming it too. He’d disdainfully chant, “Copy cat, copy cat!” My mother tried to convince him that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but he’d have none of it.

I can also remember imitating my mother: how she walked with a dignified step; the hat and gloves she wore to go downtown; how she composed her features in a ladylike way.

Other family habits and traits also influenced me – some, indeed, that I needed to shed later on, but others stood me in good stead: how the older sibs would retreat to their rooms after supper to spend a couple of hours on their homework. They never had to be sent there either. No wonder they did so well at school!

Copying others is how all of us learn, right from infancy. Our babbling baby talk is our elementary effort that ultimately leads (we hope) to conversations of substance.

If we were blessed to have constant good example, it was natural and even easy to copy it. Of course, the same thing is true for those subjected daily to bad examples.

And so it is in our spiritual life.

We who were blessed with a parochial school upbringing, were routinely presented with the examples of saints of every personality and walk of life. I can remember being very excited hearing about their lives: such remarkable people! If the story told of a missionary, I wanted to become a missionary too. If it was about a founder of a teaching order, I wanted to join. Even learning about a cloistered contemplative like Thérèse moved me to desire that life, though I had no idea what “contemplative” meant.

Sometimes I think that the best way to teach youngsters about our faith is not through the various dogmas and beliefs (head), but first through the passionate idealism of saints (heart). The rest could follow as necessary.

Jesus drew people to himself by teaching them about his Father’s attributes, especially his infinite love and forgiveness. Imitating these gives us happiness and entry into the Kingdom of God.

Look, this is what your Father does: when one of his children goes off course, leaves home, squanders his youth and fortune on prostitutes and drunken companions, the father simply watches for him every day, patiently waiting to welcome him home with a party and new clothes to replace his rags.

Look, this is what your Father does: if a stranger or even an enemy is injured, he picks him up, tends his wounds, and sees him through to a total recovery.

Look, this is what your Father does: he doesn’t hate those who hate and disrespect him, but loves them no matter what; he loves sinners into holiness.

“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”

Ultimately, Christ pointed to himself for us to imitate:

Love one another as I have loved you . . .

By copying Jesus, we grow into his very likeness and show ourselves to be true children of the Father, as he is.

“. . . I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good. So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5)

And twice blessed are we if we’re given a human face of goodness to see, study, love and imitate.

 

Forgiveness

It was a pleasant day in 1942. A young woman arrived home to a strangely empty house. Her family, including a favorite 10-year-old little brother, were gone; she was never to see them again.

Not long after, they returned for her and sent her to the so-called “labor” camp known as Auschwitz where she spent the next three years until liberation in 1945. Several years ago this woman became my neighbor, friend and confidante.

One day I shared with her some troubling family issues involving one of my children and his uncles, my sibs. As a result of misunderstanding their nephew, the uncles blackballed an awards ceremony honoring him. I deeply resented this slight, and told my friend I would never have anything more to do with them.

“Your brothers?” she said in wonder.

I saw her look of astonishment. And in her face I also saw the young woman who, in one fell swoop, lost every member of her family. She looked at me intently but gently. Putting her hand on my arm, she simply uttered two words: “Forgive them.”

Instantaneously, I was given to understand the depth of her message. What would I feel, how would I feel, if after this falling-out, those brothers were to disappear as hers had? The suddenness of this realization totally destroyed my sense of outrage and resentment. And even more amazing is the fact that, since that experience, the act of forgiveness has never again been difficult for me, much less impossible.

This is grace at work for sure, and I attribute it to the influence of this dear friend who had for three years endured real shame and torture. My sense of insult was indeed trivial by comparison.

Our recent Mass readings have dealt with forgiveness. St. Peter questions Jesus about how many times one must forgive another: Is seven times enough? [We are so mercenary we need to know the exact number. Heaven forbid I should forgive anyone more than required!]

So Jesus responds: Not seven times, but seventy times seven!! In short, there are no limits, just as God places no limits on forgiving us.

This past week also saw two relevant feasts back-to-back: the Exaltation of the Cross, and Mary, Mother of Sorrows.

In his first statement from the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Obviously, he had already forgiven his executioners, but as always he subjected himself to his Father’s will and desire, and prayed for that. And Mary, a mother watching her son not simply being insulted, but tortured and maligned: how could she forgive these barbarians? Unfortunately, the Gospels have no record of her remarks or thoughts on that occasion. But we can fill in the blanks, knowing that she had been aware all through her son’s life that his faithfulness to God’s will would mean horrors for both him and herself. She had accepted all of that years ago and couldn’t break the habit.

One thing I know about the refusal to forgive: it hurts me more than the one who has “hurt” me. Some wise person remarked that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Oh, that awful burden of anger! The heaviness of carrying those grudges! Is there anything worse?

Nothing is more liberating than the act of forgiving another. Counter-intuitive as it seems at first, it gradually becomes easier, and we find ourselves looking for words like Christ’s from the cross. My prayer must not be for myself, and not for the punishment of others, but rather that they will know the happiness of conversion and the forgiveness of God through me.

Here is one of the foundational teachings of Christ, so often repeated as the prelude to a physical healing. “Only God can forgive sins,” said his critics. Not so, according to our divine teacher. We have been made in the image of God and are called to grow more authentically into that holy image. We’ve therefore been given the power – and indeed the obligation – to forgive, to feel and show mercy. As we practice this divine habit, our teacher smooths our way, making it easier and easier to turn away from our life-destroying thoughts and desires.

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV