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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cleaning up our mess (Christ the King, Year A)

We buried our friend Tom O'Hern this week. Tom was a former Vincentian priest who had been serving in the seminary in Nairobi. When he reached a certain point in his life, let's call it his conversion, he left the priesthood, but stayed in Kenya. Eventually, he stayed among the half a million people who live in the five-square-mile slum called Korogocho. Unable to cleanse his consciousness of the hopelessness of their situation in a land whose government is thoroughly corrupt and whose poverty is endemic, he left his old life behind, and entered into their world. He saw his job as trying to impart to them some sense of their own value, some glimmer of the truth of their humanity as children of God, by starting soccer teams and support groups, eventually building a charity called "Family Hope Charity" that worked in recovery, halfway houses, medical care, and shelter for abandoned children. He survived thefts and assaults, and with the kind of irony generally associated with fiction, finally lost his life while on an annual visit to the USA and checking in with his family, friends, and the charity's board and benefactors. He poured himself out, and his body could not keep up with his spirit.

Tom did what God does: poured himself out. Entered the lives of the poor, and gave everything. A Kenyan priest, speaking words of remembrance, gave Tom credit for his vocation, and said, "I am—we are (referring to his colleagues)—the seeds Tom planted." People in Korogocho know that God-is-with-us because they know that Tom-is-with-us. Tom lives still because God remembers Tom. Others, inspired by the gospel that inspired Tom, will take up his work. Cleaning up the mess that is the poverty, corruption, and violence of life is a long, patient process of participation in God's project. That's what the feast of Christ the King is about. So let me start with that, and finish up this Year A with some thoughts on the scriptures and music for this week.

At the end of the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus leaves his apostles with the command to "Go and preach the gospel to all nations," and reassuring them with his promise, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."(Mt. 28:20) It seems reasonable to imagine, given the chaos in the Roman empire by the end of the first century, that early Christians wondered whether that was actually the case, and if it was, how exactly was it true? How is Jesus with us in the devastation that was Jerusalem and the violent vortex of "civilization," Rome under Nero and his successors?

The chaos wasn't new, but the gospel of "Emmanuel," that is, God-with-us (Mt. 1:23) is proposing an answer to the question about Christ's presence in the chaos in a number of ways, certainly in the "church discourse" in chapter 18, where the gospel points to harmony in the community and unity in prayer as signs of the indwelling presence of Christ. Joseph's dream in chapter one and the parting words of Jesus are an inclusio, sort of literary bookends to the gospel, and the reader is thus alerted to look between them for the meaning of "being-with" in the life of the believer.

One interpretation of the life of the "historical Jesus" is that he was an eschatological prophet, unique in his message, but similar to others who arose in Israel between the time of the Maccabees and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Prophets from Moses to Elijah to Ezekiel (who speaks in today's first reading) to John the Baptizer arose at critical times in Israel's history to help Israel navigate the times when the power of pharaohs, kings, and emperors seemed to be at odds with the power of God, and not just at odds, but winning the battle, at least the exit polls. Prophets are sent to tell the truth to power, usually at mortal risk, and their truth is witnessed by the rest of us, who are, finally, allowed to choose between the truth of God's covenant and the truth of the emperor. In this, at least, Jesus is in the prophetic tradition.

Around the time of the the Maccabees, apocalyptic literature began to appear in Israel, which I understand to be a sort of "underground newspaper", the herald of a different empire, a way of letting people know to "keep the faith" in coded language of allegory and metaphor. The Book of Daniel is an example of this that survives in scripture, with its message of a "son of man" who will arise to clean up the horrors associated with the malevolence of Antiochus Epiphanes and his blasphemous desecration of the temple. Around this time as well, other "wisdom" literature begins to suggest that a just God must have a resurrection of the dead in mind as a reward for those who gave their lives in defense of the faith. Ezekiel's promise in the first reading today, in which God promises, against the shepherds who have misled Israel, that "I myself will shepherd them," is an early parallel of this kind of apocalyptic promise. It is God's intention, scripture promises, that what has been messed up on this planet will be remade, even if God has to do it personally.

The "son of man" who appears in the apocalyptic parable in the gospel this Sunday is first found in the book of Daniel as the agent of God's "clean up" of the situation in the world. (That image is not mine, but John Dominic Crossan's, and can be found, for instance, in his book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now as well as in numerous other books and articles on the subject). "Son of man" is an aramaism that simply means "a human being," so the one called upon by God to do the cleaning up just appears to be a human being, although given divine authority and power to do the job given to him. It is the "son of man" who appears in the parable at the end of time, and while tradition has come to the conclusion that the "son of man" is Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus thought so when and if he spoke the words, or that it was meant to be prophetic in the secular sense of "seeing into the future." The gospel is describing something about the present situation in a world that needs to be cleaned up. It is answering the question, "If Christ is God-with-us, and present with us now, then where is he?" It's a question about the current situation of the world, and what God is doing about it. And it's answered by the parable. "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

Of course, there is all the (important, of course) academic and theological discussion about who "the least of these" refers to, and what the condemnation of the goats to "eternal punishment" means. But in any case we need to be careful not to turn the parable into an allegory. The core of it, it seems to me, is that Christ is present in the needs of people here and now, and to serve them is to serve Christ. The "second coming" of Christ, like the first one, has already happened, is happening now. We might miss it if we're looking for the wrong kind of emperor, and the wrong kind of God. This God, this emperor, this "king of the universe," has poured himself out into history, and taken the side of the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the sick, and the poor.

Which brings us back to the feast day today, the feast of "Jesus Christ, King of the Universe." We can put all the red cloth, gold, trumpets, and festival anthems out there that we want to, but the word of God cannot be contravened, and every year it comes back convicting us by its truth and pushing back against our dreams of glory, conquest, and the violent defeat of our enemies. "The Lord is my shepherd," we hear, not "The Lord is my stealth bomber." God's justice is not retributive, paying back evil with vengeance, but distributive, giving to each what each needs. And it is participatory, which is to say, we are invited into the action, to be part of God's great clean-up of the earth, because "whatever you do to one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you do unto me." Whatever the reason the Church had through the years for instituting and revising the feast of Christ the King, it cannot dispense with the gospel, which can only present the true Christ. That Christ is servant, healer, first of many brothers and sisters, whose irrevocable identification and alliance with the poor and strategy of participatory distributive justice is the gospel, is God-with-us, "until the end of the age."

My friend Tom O'Hern knew that, and participated in God's project with his "whole mind, soul, heart, and strength." If our faith is true, then he has heard the words we all ache to hear, and which continue to needle our complacency and call us to be imitators, like Tom, of Christ:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. 
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink? 
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you? 
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

You can donate to Family Hope Charity here, if you like, in memory of Tom and his work.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week (updated for 2017):
Entrance: Psalm 122 The Road to Jerusalem (Cooney, OCP)
Mass of St. Ann-with-no-E Gloria (Bolduc)
Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd (Daigle, GIA)
Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow (Coone, GIA)
Communion: Whatsoever You Do (Jabusch)
Sending Forth: Find Us Ready (Booth)

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