March 1, 2017
ASH WEDNESDAY (Years ABC)
Lent is a time to change together
Do you think things can be turned around in our society without a massive conversion? Do you believe it will really help the world situation significantly if you yourself begin living more authentically? What is the point of Lent?
The readings summon us as individuals to convert as a community. Joel 2: 12-18 is addressed to the whole People of Israel as a community; not just to individuals who see themselves acting independently of others. No one corrupted our society independently of others. And no one will reform it independently of others. Lent is a time to hear the word of God together and respond to it as a community.
It is not true to say that if we don’t act together, we should not act at all. But when we act as individuals in the Church (or in the human race!) we should do it in a way that will draw others to act with us. In spite of the fiction, the Lone Ranger is not nearly as effective as a posse. The word “posse” (Latin) means “to be able.” Anything we accomplish “alone and unaided” we recognize as exceptional.
Lent, then, is a celebrated season that calls for a communal response.
When Joel said: “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation.” he was talking to the whole People of Israel. To whom should we address this call today? To individuals? Parishes? Dioceses? Just the Catholic Church? All Christians? The whole world?
Matthew 6: 1-18 sounds like a contradiction of what we have just said about communal response. Jesus is saying the first thing we have to convert from is religion, and the first thing we have to convert to is spirituality. “Religion” as used here corresponds to what people mean when they speak disparagingly of “organized religion.” It is not really organization they oppose (even the most private, individual life must be organized to be effective), but a system of organized external observances without interior ordination to God. Since what is interior is, by definition, individual, personal and private, Jesus seems to be summoning us to convert to acting as individuals rather than as a community. That is not what he means.
The watchword for Christian authenticity is “both-and” as opposed to “either-or.” There are some “either-or’s” — the fundamental choice of the “blessing” or the “curse”: life or death; to live or not live by the law of God; to remain in the darkness or be led into the light. But the big errors in living out the religion of “God-made-human” come when we think we have be either divine or human; either physical or spiritual; either obedient or free; either surrendered to faith or guided by reason; either reliant on God or responsible for taking initiatives; either a Catholic or a Baptist! (Or Presbyterian or Methodist, etc. Is it possible to be both?) The correct answer to all the choices proposed above is “both-and.”
The last example was included for shock value. But think about it. The Baptists say they don’t know who is a Baptist. They accept anyone who is “saved.” They might not have fellowship with someone they disagree with, but they claim no authority to declare anyone wrong. “If you accept the Bible, then we can’t tell you how to interpret it.” So there is no contradiction in a Baptist who interprets everything in Scripture the way the Catholics do and joins the Church as both a “Baptist Catholic” and a “Catholic Baptist,” living by the best in both traditions. (For example, participating in Mass on Sunday but singing the hymns and putting twice as much in the collection!)
Catholics who accept the fullness of faith can claim or accept “double citizenship” through membership in any church that does not ask them to deny anything they believe, affirm anything they don’t believe, or stop doing anything the Church requires. (And few Protestant churches would demand any of the above). As long as membership is “both-and” it does not have to be “either-or.”
The choice we focus on during Lent is not either external observances or interior conversion of heart. It is both-and. But the question invites further exploration.
There is a new surge among Christians toward unity. Catholics and Protestants often find themselves participating in each other’s services. The question arises about Communion.
In practice we do what the bishop or pastor decides. But we need to ask what options there are in theory. Laws are always to be obeyed, but always according to the intention of the lawgiver. And we have to understand that intention in the light of our belief.
Catholics believe that “grace” is the favor of sharing in the divine life of God. The principal acts of grace — divine faith, hope and love — are in reality acts of sharing in God’s own activity. By faith, for example, we share in God’s own act of knowing.
Because we are both divine and human, our interior, divine act of sharing in God’s knowledge might “take flesh” in human concepts and words that do not perfectly agree with the truth we possess in faith. What we possess may differ from what we profess. Examples:
The Magi were “saved” by believing in whatever the star God sent was leading them to. “Where is he?” they said to Herod: “We have come,” not to “check him out,” but “to adore him.” They already adored Jesus Christ, and knew him as God, before they ever met him. This is classical “Baptism of desire.”
Scripture scholars tell us the disciples believed in Jesus long before, through the Resurrection and Pentecost, they were able to recognize him as God. But if they knew him by faith, then interiorly they already knew him as God, whether or not they could have said this in words.
Did Jesus know he was God? Of course he did. From his birth “he has to be the Son of God and he has to know it.... But it is not necessary — and it is hardly probable — that this fundamental experience should from the beginning have taken the form of an intellectual certitude, of a clear concept.” In other words, as human and divine he always knew he was God. But as divine and human he could not always have said that in human words.
Do saved Baptists, who by grace share in God’s own knowing act through faith, but who stoutly assert that the bread and wine of Communion are nothing more than a symbol of fellowship, really know and believe, without being conscious of it, that they are in fact the Body and Blood of Christ? If we are consistent with our theology of grace, we have to say they do.
Also, by our theology of “Baptism of desire,” if they believe unconditionally in the Bible and everything God does in fact intend to reveal through it, then they believe what the Bible really says about Eucharist — whether or not their limited human understanding, distorted by the controversies of the Reformation, allows them to affirm this particular doctrine.
So the Baptists may be Catholic after all! Interiorly, if not exteriorly. Where does this lead us?
2Corinthians 5:20 to 6:2: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God, as it were, appealing through us” — calling each other, calling the whole world to turn around together. Is it time we broadened our ministry to address everyone who will listen? Time to open our doors to everyone we recognize as having “become Christ” through Baptism? Is it time Catholics and Protestants applied to themselves what Paul applied to Jews and Gentiles:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.... In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us.
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body.... for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God....
Perhaps we could make this our principle focus as we recite the Responsorial (Psalm 51): “Be merciful O Lord, for we have sinned.”
Do I see Lent now as a “Catholic” season, or one to share with everyone?
InitiativeParticipate in both Catholic and Protestant Lenten observances — preferably with the same people.