Friday, November 14, 2014

Using the Time We Have

What is the purpose of the Christian life?

Or, we might ask even more simply: What’s the point?

As the Church Year comes to an end, this essential question is brought into sharp focus. The answer is as simple as it might be unpopular: because we’re waiting for the fulfillment of time and of hope-filled promises of an untold future. We are awaiting the return of Christ. I would go so far as to say that if we’re not watching and waiting in hopeful expectation, then something vital is missing from our individual faith.
The Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
depicts Christ the Judge surrounded by Mary and the Saints

Many Christians become immediately uncomfortable with talk of Heaven and hell, death and judgment. And, while the naïve concepts of heaven's “streets paved with gold” and hell’s "fire" shape the lives of some believers, these simplistic Sunday school images (could we say "threats"?) aren’t what we are about as Christians, and they certainly aren’t enough to build a way of life around. So, we have to be very careful that we don’t allow our end-of-time imagination to overshadow the truth of God’s Kingdom.  

The tension of “now, but not yet” is a reality for Christians. Our mandate from Jesus is to live in the here and now in such a way that we will be fully prepared for the future, which includes standing face to face with our merciful and just God. Altogether, this means living in constant expectation. Christians don’t get to take a day off from being Christian. As Saint Paul reminds us, “You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night… Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 6).  

The end of time. We find it permeating the Church’s prayer and Scripture readings during the final weeks of the liturgical year. And yet, for many of us, this might seem unnecessarily negative and even macabre. For Americans, late November is the time of Thanksgiving and the start of the pre-Christmas rush. And so, the prospect of a coming judgment and the notions of watching and being prepared aren't exactly welcome. Some might try to dismiss these ideas as being antiquated theology or even as a misreading of Scripture. Sadly, too many Christians have also had the threat of judgment used as a weapon against them, like a sort of divine stick always hovering just above their heads, always ready to strike. But to deny or ignore the prospect of judgment and of the promise of the fullness of God’s Kingdom is to deny that our faith has an end and a goal. It amounts to saying that what we experience in every moment of our life is ultimately irrelevant and that humanity and all the rest of creation is simply adrift and without purpose or destiny. But we do have a purpose and destiny: union with God and one another in the reign of Christ. As the Jesuit priest, philosopher, and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

This Sunday's reading of the "Parable of the Talents" (Matthew 25:14-30) offers us important insights into what our expectant waiting should be like. In the parable, a wealthy man gives talanton to his slaves, five, two, or one, “according to their ability.” One “talent” was worth 6,000 days’—or 16 years’—wages. The slaves with five and two talents succeeded in doubling their master’s money; the slave with the single talent buried it in the ground to avoid the risk of losing it. The master in the parable rewards the first and second slaves, but the third slave who buried the money out of fear was condemned as being “wicked and lazy” and thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”  

Detail from the Achim/Eliud Lunette,
one of the images of the ancestors of Christ
in the Sistine Chapel
While there might be some who would use this passage from the Gospel as an opportunity to reflect on economic inequality (after all, it is an absurd story about a corrupt system), we can’t ignore that the Church has chosen this text at the end of the year and paired it with a passage from Proverbs which praises the productive activity of the God-fearing woman. She stands in stark contrast to the timid servant of the Gospel who was so frightened of failure that he chose not to act at all. 

The point of these two texts is that we are supposed to use the time we have to do something.  We not only have to foster and develop the unique gifts that have been entrusted to each of us, we must also allow those gifts to enrich the world around us. Each day is itself a gift and, if we are truly living for the future, then we have an obligation to make the most of today. But these last days of the Church Year should also inspire us to act with urgency because, as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, the Lord will return “as a thief in the night.” We will hear the same theme repeated in Advent, as we watch and wait for the coming of Christ in the celebration of his birth in history, in his presence among us today in mystery, and in his final coming in majesty.  

There is lots of talk about the decline of Christianity and of a post-Christian society. I would argue that the reason many flavors of Christianity are in decline is because many of us Christians have lost our sense of purpose and our sense of now. We don’t have the luxury to live out our faith in idle speculation and passivity. That isn’t the Gospel that Jesus preached and it isn’t the faith that has been handed down to us. We also can’t take for granted that others will do the work that has been entrusted to us: feeding and clothing the poor, comforting those who mourn, protecting the innocent and the victimized, healing the sick and addicted, and raising up those who have fallen down. Acts of  selfless charity and hospitality are the most effective means of spreading the Gospel and of helping others come to know the Christ who loves in and through us.
The Gospel places demands upon us and requires us to be open to change and to a way of life that is far different from what we might choose for ourselves. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship" and what Søren Kierkegaard was thinking of when he wrote of admirers and followers of Christ: "A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires." Yes, these days of the Church Year provide the answer to our question of the "point" of all this—we fulfill our commitment to follow Christ, with all the graces and burdens that entails, because this is what it means to be a true follower of the One whom we believe will come again in mercy and judgment.
But, as we think about when we will meet God, whether at the time of our own passing or in the Final Judgment, we can also take comfort in the words of the Basil Hume, a Benedictine monk and Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, who is remembered as a wise, faithful, and compassionate pastor:
A priest started his homily at a funeral by saying, "I am going to preach about judgment." There was dismay in the congregation. But he went on: "Judgment is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell." It is a very great encouragement to think of being in the presence of God who is both merciful and full of compassion, because God knows me through and through and understands me far better than I could ever know and understand myself, or anyone else. Only he can truly make sense of my confused and rambling story...
The time will come for each of us to appear before our God to render an account of our lives. It will not be a frightening moment, unless to the bitter end we have turned away from him or consciously ignored him. Instead it will be a moment of deliverance and peace when we can whisper into his merciful and compassionate ear the story of all our years, and be forgiven and made whole.  

A prayer for the end of the Church Year +
God of righteousness,
you overcome those who abuse their power
and lift up those who suffer.
Even now, when evil seems to hold sway,
we know that you will have the last word.
Keep us faithful as we wait and watch for your coming realm,
when you will welcome all your children
into your kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Amen.
(from Feasting on the Word: Liturgies for Year A, volume 2)

1 comment:

  1. It's encouraging and inspiring to recognize in ancient writers the same struggles we wrestle with today! Thanks for your own comments and the quotes you wrote down for our benefit...