Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Year C, Palm Sunday

Readings: Lk 19,28-40; Isa 50,4-7; Ps 22,8-9.19-20.23-34; Phil 2,6-11; Lk 23,1-49

In our Eucharistic celebration today we cover an entire week, a week in which our fickle and fallen human nature is revealed to us in its fullness. We began by reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and have just recited the account of his trial, conviction, and punishment that culminated in his being nailed to the Cross, which, according to the evangelists, occurred less than a week after the Hosannas were shouted in the vicinity of the Temple.

This story is recapitulated in each of our own lives and in our life together. How many times have we committed and recommitted to living as disciples of Jesus Christ, committed to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, to loving God with all our heart might, mind, and strength and to loving our neighbor as ourselves, accepting that all people are our neighbor, especially the poor and the marginalized? Then, how many times, when in a position to match our words with our actions have we acted in ways that are at odds with this commitment, thus, in the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, writing about apostates, "recrucifying the Son of God . . . and holding him up to contempt" (Heb 6,6)?

The good news is that grace builds on nature, even fallen, sinful nature. Sin does not erase the imago dei- the divine image- in which women and men together are created. In other words, despite our best, or, more accurately, our worst, efforts, something of the very goodness with which God creates us remains. Thus, our Catholic faith causes us to reject the notion, prevalent in some theologies, that humankind is totally depraved. As many of you know, in recent months we have entered what Pope John Paul II called "the first Areopagus of modern times," the world of mass communication, by starting a parish web log, or, in cyber-parlance blog. Today, reversing my usual order of preaching and then posting, I am sharing my post from this past Friday, the last Lenten Friday before our Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, in the hope that it is worth considering on this first day of Holy Week:

Too often we are sentimental about our faith, about what it really means at its deepest level and the implications it should have for our engagement with the world. The problem with being overly sentimental is that it leads to being shallow. For instance, it is often nice and comforting to believe that Jesus Christ, by his dying on the Cross, took away our sins and the sins of the whole world. How wonderful, we think, that God will forgive me for the last time I got angry and said some regrettable things to the person at whom I was angry, or forgive the impure thought I entertained, etc. Yet, in the very next instant we might encounter something on the television news, or in the newspaper, about yet another horrible thing one person did to another, or several people; a murder, a rape, a drug addict punching and robbing an old woman on her way to Church, an off-duty police officer mercilessly beating a woman in a drunken rage, or another act of genocide by a stronger group of people against a weaker group, etc., etc. In other words, the kind of things that happen in the world which caused Malcolm Muggeridge to accurately observe that original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world. After witnessing such depravities, we often give lie to our faith, by condemning, not the merely the actions, which are deserving of condemnation and opposition, but the people who perpetrate them. One significant proof of this, in the U.S. anyway, is that two-thirds of people still support the death penalty. How does it give lie to our profession? It gives lie because a person's dignity as a human being created in the divine image is not forfeited by sin, even heinous sin. For this we should all thank God everyday.

This week on the Westminster Cathedral blog Monsignor Mark Langham, Administrator of the Cathedral and its resident blogger, wrote a post entitled, Praying the Gill Stations. The Gill Stations were created by a famous artist named Eric Gill. In a shocking 1989 biography, written by Fiona McCarthey, it was learned for the first time that Gill, a much celebrated artistic genius and a devout believer all his life, an adult convert to the Catholic faith from the Church of England, was quite disturbingly depraved. Since the biography’s publication, Msgr. Langham continues, "we have had to come to terms with the fact that our greatest Cathedral artwork is the product of a man who was in many ways detestable. There were many calls for the Stations to be removed." Thankfully, "the redemptive quality of art" prevailed. Msgr. Langham sums the whole episode up beautifully: "As so often in the Church's history, works of great beauty and inspiration have come from those who seem less than worthy of their talents. God uses vessels of clay to perform his great works, and sometimes it is shocking to us how weak those vessels are - yet his grace shines through, and even mediated by sinful hands, allows others to experience his presence."

Given his faith, his depravity, and much of his art, certainly the Westminster Cathedral Stations, it seems that Eric Gill knew he was a man in need of redemption. A story related by Msgr. Langham indicates as much: "As [the Stations] were being installed in the Cathedral, a woman came up to Gill to say that she did not think they were very nice carvings, to which he snapped back that it was not a very nice subject!" Without romanticizing evil, or the deep harm it causes others, such stories help us overcome our tendency to domesticate and sentimentalize the deep love of that IS God, especially this Passion Sunday, during which we see God's love in the sacrificial suffering and emptying out of his Son for our sakes, for the very worst of our sins. May this lead us to a deeper compassion- a deeper suffering with- others, both those whose sufferings are caused and who, in turn, often cause suffering, perpetuating the cycle that brings about the need for a Savior in the first place, as well as for those who cause suffering in the first instance. These are the dysfunctions of Adam's race, explained in a somewhat disconcerting way in the great Easter exultet: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Are these sentimental words?- In light of the faults of the world and of each of us, hardly!

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