Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jesus (Alone) Revives

February 3, 2015
Tuesday of week 4 in Ordinary Time
or Saint Ansgar (= Anskar = Oscar), Bishop
or Saint Blaise, Bishop, Martyr

St Ansgar

Jesus (Alone) Revives
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.

In the little town of S├Ątila in Sweden, we visited a church built in the twelfth century. We asked ourselves how the handful of Christians who lived there then could have built such a church in a town so small today there is not even a full-sized grocery store.

This raised the question, “What made the Swedes accept Christianity the first place? What makes anybody accept relationship with Jesus Christ?

Saint Anskar (feast is today) was the first to preach the Good News in Sweden in 829 A.D. But  Butlers Lives of the Saints says “it relapsed entirely into paganism after his death” in 865. Two hundred years later, Saint Sigfrid (c. 1045) evangelized the Swedes again. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lutheranism became the state religion and Catholicism almost ceased to exist. Today there is one Catholic diocese for the whole country.

According to Wikipedia, in a Eurobarometer Poll in 2010, just 18% of Swedish citizens responded that "they believe there is a god," although a further 45% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force." 34% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force." In a 2009 Gallup poll, 17% answered yes to the question "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" Less than 4% of the Church of Sweden membership attends public worship during an average week; about 2% are regular attendees. Some scholars consider the nation to be a place where religion is regarded with “benign indifference.”

The site sweden.se says Swedes “appear to see little connection between religiosity and happiness. According to The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism (2012), only 29 per cent of Swedes claim to be religious, compared with 59 per cent globally. These figures rank Sweden as one of the least religious countries in the world.”

This is important because Europe and America may be heading in the same direction. When we ask, “How could we interest the Swedes in Jesus Christ today,” we are asking how we can interest anyone, beginning with our own children.

The easy part is to first make clear what the wrong answer is.

We can’t do it by intellectual proofs and arguments. Catholics have always put a high value on these. It can be argued that Christianity is the most intellectual religion that has ever existed, because we take intellectual and scientific objections seriously, and feel obliged to work on them until we find an answer. And we always have. There is no philosophical reflection in history that leads to more rational certitude that the development of the “pagan” thought of Aristotle by the Jew Moses Maimonides (died 1204), the Muslim Ibn Rushd (died 1198), known in Latin as Averroes, and the Catholic monk Thomas Aquinas (died 1274). And there is no collection of writers, teachers and mystics that can surpass in numbers, depth and scholarship the Greek and Latin “Doctors of the Church”—for example, Saints Athanasius and Ambrose, Albert the Great, Augustine of Hippo, Basil the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, Robert Bellarmine, Catharine of Sienna and Cyril of Alexandria, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

But, valid as the intellectual infrastructure of Christianity is, it is not Christianity. If you know and accept intellectually everything Jesus taught, and everything that follows from it, but do not know Jesus Christ, you are not a Christian.

A second false way to interest people in religion is to make it attractive. It is perfectly true and justified to present Christianity as the way to fulfillment and personal happiness, social inclusivity and deep relationships with others, meaningful involvement in the challenge of being a human race and creating a viable planet. It is admirable when Christians celebrate truth and love together with joy. But these are not Christianity; they are just its by-products.

Christianity consists essentially in one thing: deep, personal, divine relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that, the conversion of whole nations to Christianity is pure window dressing. Appearance without fact. A substitute that blinds us to the real thing. Illusion doomed to produce eventual disillusionment.

Did Saint Ansgar really convert the Swedes? Under the rule of Constantine the Great (306–337) did Christianity really begin to become the “dominant religion of the Roman Empire?” Did Clovis’s conversion in 496, really “lead to a widespread conversion to Christianity among the Frankish peoples” (Wikipedia), or have the Italians, French, Germans and Europeans in general never been in fact either Christian or Catholic? How many Americans, north or south of the border, build their whole lives on interaction with Jesus Christ? If they don’t, what real difference does it make when they stop going to church?

And what is the point of getting them back into church if they don’t know how to find Jesus Christ when they get there?

The reading from Hebrews tells us clearly that “keeping the faith” means to “persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Christianity is to see Jesus, seek Jesus, serve Jesus, and let Jesus act with us, in us and through us as his own body in everything we do on earth.

To “convert” people to Christianity means to evangelize them, which means to set them on fire with the Good News of what Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and will do on earth until the end of time. Christianity is “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and today, and the same for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). Those who keep their eyes fixed on him “persevere in running the race” no matter how many changes there are in Church policies, Church ministry, or the ability of the Church membership to make visible the mystery Paul preached: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

This is why Pope Francis began The Joy of the Gospel saying, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”

Christians know that one day faith will prevail. We await the “blessed hope and the manifestation (epiphaneian) of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Then, we know:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
all the families of the nations shall bow down before him.

In the meantime, when we are dealing with anyone who appears not to have the divine light and life of Christ, we go to Jesus like the man in the Gospel and invite him: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.”

We may hear him saying, “The child is not dead but asleep,” and telling us that “she should be given something to eat.”

To those who love him, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Pray all day: “Jesus, do this with me, do this in me, do this through me.”

Practice: See how you can interact with Jesus Christ in everything you do all day.

Discuss: What is your basic experience of Christianity?

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