Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thy true religion in our hearts increase (B22O)

The internet was abuzz a few months ago about the funeral of Vice President Biden's son Beau. There were lots of critics of the funeral liturgy celebrated because, aside from the celebrity of the deceased, his family, and the invitation-only attendees, it was as liturgically flawed and mawkishly homely as most of the hundreds of funerals I’ve attended over the years. We Catholics have a really, really good funeral liturgy. We just tend to be loath to impose it upon people in toto in their moment of grief. I’m not sure why, since we impose other laws and rites on them, but this just doesn’t seem the time. Or maybe we aren’t really sure about the resurrection, and this is just the time our lack of faith reveals itself. At any rate, let’s just say that the funeral may not have been our finest moment in really public worship. But it was not, by my estimate anyway, in any way worse than what most parishes do all the time. Focused on the accomplishments or personality of the deceased, we very often miss the opportunity to focus on the One who gives life to both the deceased and to us from the beginning of time to the end. It’s just the way we are. A memory of the beloved in hand is worth two anamneses in the theological bush.

But this Sunday's liturgy speaks, perhaps in an oblique way, to this issue. The equation set up in the gospel between true worship and just living brought this controversy to mind. I have encounter in my parish over the years a false dichotomy set up between the law (in contemporary usage, meaning the liturgical law guiding ritual and church law in general) and "real" Christianity, which is somehow loving everybody and doing whatever we want with ritual so that our freedom as Christians isn’t unnecessarily constricted by the pettiness of rubrics. Some see liturgical law as parallel to the pharisaic dietary restrictions being challenged in the gospel story yesterday, as though following the rite of the Church or insisting that participation in the Eucharist is for the baptized were a “mere human precept” that can be swept aside by anyone who wants to for the purpose of not being “exclusionary.” 

It’s certainly true that, built into the very fabric of Christianity, there is a tension between belonging (to an “in” group of those who have accepted the gospel) and mission (to serve and evangelize those not within the group.) The sense of baptismal belonging can easily degenerate into a mentality of “in” and “out”, a ghetto or parochial tunnel vision which segregates the Church from the world. The gospel has us keep reevaluating our vision, though, and helps us to see, when we have the courage to reflect upon it, that membership in the Church is a sacrament of the rest of life. As sacrament, it is a sign, a symbol with the weight of reality, of what our lives outside of the church milieu represent, and even more than that, of what God is doing in the world. God’s work is not restricted by the work of the Church, though to some extent the participation or non-participation of the Church in the enterprise of agape on God’s behalf can either promote or hinder the emergence of the empire of God.

Sunday’s gospel was set up by a passage from the Torah that assured us that observance of the law is wise and intelligent, a sign of our awareness of God’s nearness to us, and we are admonished that we in our careful observance we are not to “add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Then, the responsorial psalm has us proclaim together the core of the law: “They who do justice will live in the presence of God.” The beginning of the letter of St. James, with characteristic practicality and directness, then said the following:

Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.

 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
 to care for orphans and widows in their affliction 
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This great letter, written by the leader of the Jerusalem church and possibly the "brother of the Lord" who knew Jesus and his message personally, proclaims that religion and action are inseparable; that the truth of faith, that is, of God’s saving presence in the heart of the believer, is not simply confessional, internal, or a matter of “belonging,” but is a matter of action, a matter of being like God, and risking one’s own livelihood for the sake of the powerless and afflicted. The gospel, then, goes on to admonish us about the way we want to condemn people who don’t follow our rules, like hungry people who eat without washing their hands:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
 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. 
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Jesus is always concerned that conversion precede discipline, that our desire to be “in” be informed by our commitment to God and the work of justice in the world. He does not, it seems to me, subscribe to the false dichotomy between law and love. He rather sees obedience to law as an outward expression of an interior reality, and that reality is the conviction, acted on in every aspect of life, that every other person is a beloved child of God to the very same extent that I am, and that my service of the other is my connection to the life of God. Agape is one. God is agape. As human beings, we keep order and pass on our beliefs about this very God through our rites and laws. But our adherence to them, and our way of passing on the laws, really must be informed by our conviction that others also already live in the all-encompassing sphere of divine favor, and that doing justice to others is underpinning truth of the Torah. And by justice, Torah means “the way God treats people,” or “the way things would be if the world were completely transformed into the reign of God.”

Getting back, then, to the Biden funeral: what does it say about some of us “Catholics” that we cannot do any better than criticize the music or the prayers at the funeral in a family whose public life has been devoted to the plight of widows and orphans and immigrants, whose passion is universal health care, education, and equality? As with the Kennedys, why does our conversation turn to the public “sins” of the man, the weakness, the apparent bad judgment or bad choices, rather than to the extraordinary way in which they used their prodigious talent and influence to do the very things the gospel of Christ urges us to do? Where is the mercy, the non-judgment, the appreciation of gospel life?

Inaction brings its own judgment upon itself, as we know from Matthew 25. Those who think that their religion and its rites alone will count them among the blessed are in for a rude awakening, if we are to believe that apocalyptic parable (Mt. 25: 31-46). Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. There is no dichotomy between belonging and mission, between law and love, for those with ears to hear the gospel. Love precedes and informs law; belonging is for mission, which expands the circle of belonging. True religion is living in agape, the love-life of God, which only God makes possible. Those who live in love live in God, even sinners. Even Democrats.

Here’s what we're singing in the parish:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia)
Psalm 15: Those Who Do Justice (Haas)

Preparation Rite: Change Our Hearts
Communion: Lord, When You Came (Pescador de Hombres)
Recessional: Let Justice Roll Like a River (Haugen)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:

to care for orphans and widows in their affliction... (Jas. 1:27)