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Monday, June 30, 2014

Ordinary Time and the Color of Hope

If you do a Google search on the question, “what is the color of hope?” you will get more answers than you’ll know what to do with, even when you leave out all the ads for L’Oreal lipstick. Blue is the color of hope, with no explanation other than a Patti Griffin song and a picture of a Montana sky. An amazon.com blurb about a book about women in a Russian prison announces that “gray is the color of hope.” Beta-carotene is the color of hope, says a medical article. What is that, yellow-orange? There’s no picture. Other sites proclaim that green is the color hope, purple, yellow. I didn’t find any red, but of course red would appear in the rainbow, another “color of hope.”

The church vacillates on it. The liturgical color for Ordinary Time, the season of the year that covers all the Sundays not in the incarnational or paschal seasons, is green, the "color of hope," the color of vegetation and the earth. One could believe that on a day like this, certainly; we’ve had so much rain that the ground is lush and the trees are bursting with verdure. But then we have Advent, the season of hope, where almost every prayer makes some reference to hope or expectation, and the liturgical color for Advent is violet, perhaps a poetic nod to the darkness before dawn? I don’t know.

All of this was going through my head as I was reading the Letter to the Romans, used for the second reading on these Sundays of Ordinary Time Year A, after ingesting Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth , and wanting to read some of Paul (again) on the subject of faith and James (again) on the subject of works. Determined to prove, while looking straight into the eyes of Torah, that no human works or adherence to the Mosaic law can bring about the justification of a person, but only the saving act of God in Christ, St. Paul invokes the memory of Abraham, a childless centenarian with a barren wife, who is justified by his faith in God to keep his impossible-sounding promises.
Abraham believed, hoping against hope, 
that he would become “the father of many nations, ”
according to what was said, “Thus shall your descendants be.”
 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body 
as already dead - for he was almost a hundred years old—
and the dead womb of Sarah.
 He did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief;
 rather, he was strengthened by faith and gave glory to God
 and was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do.

The phrase “hoping against hope” catches my ear, because Paul goes on to describe, in apposition to the impossibility of Abraham’s becoming “the father of many nations” in his old age, faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Paul says that nothing we can do in obedience to any law can justify us in the sight of God. Only God can justify, and the way that God has chosen to do that is through his Son. But what does that mean?

In a later passage, we hear what seemed to me to be a further development of his insight.
Christ, while we were still helpless,
 yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
 though perhaps for a good person 
one might even find courage to die.
 But God proves his love for us
 in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 
How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood,
 will we be saved through him from the wrath.
 Indeed, if, while we were enemies,
 we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,
 how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life?
I hear in these words St. Paul describing the very nature of God, that is, unrequited and unconditional self-gift. Perhaps unable to use the words that John uses in the catholic letters that appear in the New Testament, nevertheless Paul describes the human condition: we’re commercial beings. Things have value to us, and we are more conditioned to trade, particularly at a profit, than to altruism. But God isn’t like that. The one thing we have that is irreplaceable and can’t be pawned is our life. There are times when we might be called to give it up for another person. We might do it, say, in time of war, when our love for the people or even the ideas for which might give our life is strong enough to overcome our need for self-preservation. But, says Paul, God isn’t like that. While we couldn’t do anything to help ourselves, when we were still sinners, “enemies” (of God), Paul says, far from God and unable to do anything about it, God did something. God did the one thing that God always does. God poured self out, became human in Jesus, lived a specific life and died a specific death for us, and was raised from death to show the truth of his life.

It’s not just that God became human. It’s that God became this man, who lived this life, and spoke these words, did these things, gave everything away until even his life was spent, and in the resurrection God poured life abundantly back into this same person because that is the way the cosmos is, because it is God’s cosmos. Later, in another letter, Paul or some disciple of his will call Christ Jesus the image of the invisible God, and even later, in the fourth gospel, John will see the parallels between the Logos becoming flesh in the world and the pouring out of the Spirit of God in the world when the Logos returns to the Father.

The thing is, the story doesn’t end there. The gospel describes the sending of the twelve to take Jesus’s work of healing, exorcism, and preaching to the towns and villages of Galilee. It’s the beginning of a story that is still going on, that got its great impetus at the foot of the cross, in the upper room, and at Pentecost, when the Spirit of Christ filled the disciples with the messianic breath of Jesus that the body of Christ might go on living and washing the feet of the world in every time and place.

Which brings us back to hoping against hope in a world with too much war, too much rain or too much drought, too much hate, not enough food, earthquakes, floods, IEDs, a hole in the ozone layer, melting icecaps, and ballooning energy costs. Maybe we think hundred-year-old Abraham has nothing on us. But God’s impossible promise is always the same, because God is always the same, can only be and do the same, pour self out completely, and show us how to do the same in Christ; how to not expect compensation, how to give ourselves even when the other is “sinful” or still our enemy. The church as “rainbow coalition” or “rainbow connection” is the color of hope to those who are without it insofar and always as we can live the life of God, live the life of Christ, giving life, giving ourselves away so that others may live, without counting the cost because there is no lack of life in the divine economy. The color of hope is the color of you, of me, of the hand that reaches across the well with a cup of water, or into the ditch to assist a battered enemy.

I guess these thoughts weren’t as clear as I imagined they’d be! But that’s what “ordinary time” is for — it’s the gospel measured out over real time so that we can slowly absorb the ineffable mystery of the gift of God, and choose, maybe, day by day, Sunday by Sunday, to surrender a little more to its fascinating invitation. Knowing my selfish heart, is it hoping against hope to think that I might, someday, plunge into that rainbow of hope trusting that what God promises God is able to do? It may be, but then again, I’m not yet (quite) a hundred years old.