Monday, November 16, 2009

I have to admit it’s getting better…or worse…or both.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Grace and peace to you in God our Father who sent our Lord, Jesus Christ, to rescue us from the power of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of light in the power of the Holy Spirit. We rely on this grace and peace all the days of our lives, but especially in times of trial and distress. Speaking of trial and distress, do you think the world is generally getting better or worse? Think about it for a second. Overall, do you think things are better today than they were fifty years ago? I imagine some of you would say yes because you didn’t even exist fifty years ago. Others might note the growth in technology and knowledge that seems to make life easier. Today we have X-ray machines and MRI’s and doctors that can interpret the results with such accuracy that they can find problems at the origin when there’s still time to deal with it. Plus, we have machines that make back breaking, repetitive work a thing of the past. However, some of you may say that things are actually getting worse. As a country, our economy is in the dumps and our national debt seems out of control. Some of you have felt this personally when you lost your job or couldn’t find a job and started wondering where your next meal was going to come from. And, even though we claim to be such an advanced society, in many ways we have simply hidden our atrocities against human life. We no longer send rows upon rows of young men to die in battle, now we send armored vehicles in to do the killing. And we no longer have the public spectacle of hanging for the death penalty. Instead, we strap prisoners to a gurney in a prison basement and inject them with poison to civilize our brutal behavior.

In these times of tribulation, we turn to the Wisdom of theology to find some meaning, something to help sort out where God is in it all. And, when we do, we are confronted with a picture that challenges both optimist and pessimist alike. The reading from the gospel of Mark is often used by our fundamentalist evangelical friends as a predictor of future events. Televangelists like Jack and Rexella Van Impe see in this passage a pessimistic viewpoint of the future. If you’ve never seen these two on TV, the wife, Rexalla, reads the news of the day and husband, Jack, then applies scripture to the particular news item. So, he might say that the mention in the first reading of those in everlasting horror and disgrace is clearly an allusion to certain politicians who have cheated on a wife, which clearly points to the fact that we are in the tribulation now and that Jesus will come soon. This viewpoint often leads them to a rather pessimistic viewpoint of human activity in relation to the kingdom of God. You never hear Jack say that the fact that Iowans are willing to go to Honduras in order to put in a well points to the prediction that the thirsty will be given water. It’s always about how death, destruction, and tyranny will lead to the overthrow of all goodness. To my knowledge, this theology has not made any inroads in the Catholic Church because of how pessimistically it views the coming of the kingdom and how incorrectly it interprets scripture.

A related movement that has had an effect in the Catholic Church began in the late 19th Century, largely in Germany. Partly in reaction to World War I and partly because of a sense of the need for greater unity within mainline Protestant denominations, there erupted what was called a liberal protestant movement. It began with the idea that the world is slowly getting better, slowly growing to become the kingdom of God. In fact, some liberal theologians think that the change was happening so subtly that, one day, we would wake up and see that the Kingdom had been here for quite some time and that we simply hadn’t paid well enough attention to notice. Some Catholic thinkers including Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, and Leonardo Boff came to embrace this optimistic ethic.

If we take a critical look at scripture, we can see that it’s not always as easy as ideologies make it out to be. Jesus, indeed, warns that there will be tribulation and that there will be darkness before the brightness of the Son of God, an image he borrowed from the first reading from the book of Daniel. But, he cautions that no one knows how or when it’s going to take place. Even the images that he uses are not entirely clear as to what they mean. “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t saying that we’ll grow branches instead of arms know that he is coming when our branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves. Instead, I think Jesus is telling us that most universal of all end times messages: Be in a state of constant preparedness.

But, how do we do this? How can we be prepared? We do this by coming together in this gathering as members of the body of Christ so that we can share in the foretaste of the coming Kingdom by sharing in the Eucharist. We do this by suffering personal trials and tribulations in our daily lives knowing that, by doing so, we are sharing in the suffering of the larger body of Christ. We do so by utilizing the church’s sacrament of reconciliation in order to be free from what holds us back from the happiness of the kingdom. And, we do so by cultivating a rich personal prayer life that allows us to connect one-on-one with the Christ who is coming to lead us to eternal life.

Perhaps the best image for us to reflect on comes from the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. In it, he says, that, unlike all other priests who must stand and continually offer sacrifices to God, Jesus can sit and rest by his heavenly father because his sacrifice is once and for all. Heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of the Lord will last forever. While, in many ways, this world isn’t getting better or worse, we know that the suffering of this world will end. Let us live our lives so that, one day, we will finally be able to sit next to Christ in heaven and be at rest.