Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a priest of the Israelite religion who lived during one of the most cataclysmic times in the history of Israel. The once great and Kingdom of David was in its last days, with the armies of the mightiest empire of the time literally at the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem.
The defenses of the holy city would fail and Jerusalem would be destroyed. The city would be ransacked, its walls demolished. The temple would be desecrated and destroyed. The royal family would be executed and the Israelites would be evicted from lands upon which they had lived for generations. All would be lost.
The excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel concerns the mission that the Lord God gives to Ezekiel, which is to tell the Israelites the truth about their situation. There will be no more reprieves and no one, not even God will rescue them from the catastrophe that was coming. Their faith would be tested through the experience of losing everything that the valued most in the world. This experience would be a crucible through which their faith in God could be perfected. The gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors would be exposed as frauds and all their vanities would be stripped away. A religion that had been compromised by worldliness, that had become nothing more than an expression of custom and ethnicity, would be banished. The cultural elites who had ignored the cry of the poor would become poor themselves. Painful as this experience was going to be, it was necessary, and the Israelites that would emerge from this crucible would be purified and redeemed.
This was, of course, not something that the Israelites wanted to hear, especially in their hour of darkest need, but it was the truth, God’s truth, and Ezekiel’s mission was to speak God’s truth.
What does any of this have to do with us?
The mission of a prophet, the mission given to Ezekiel, endures to this day in the Church. In her mission to teach the truths of the Catholic Faith, the Church will inevitably tell us (and the world) things we don’t want to hear or to do. As the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews insists, God’s word cuts and divides like a razor sharp sword, and does so because we surround ourselves with a thick skin of resistance, preferring our comforting illusions to God’s truth. Ezekiel might have had an easier time if he presented as God’s truth only those things that the Israelites wanted to hear, if he had just left them in their illusions and used his office as priest and prophet as a means of maintaining the status quo.
Had Ezekiel had done this he would have been a false prophet. He might have been revered by the Israelites, but he would have been a purveyor of lies, rather than a witness to God’s truth. And those who present lies as truth are the servants of the devil, not God.
One of the great corruptions that Ezekiel and the Biblical prophets identified as besetting Israelite religion and culture was the idea that the purpose of their religion was simply to give sanction to the aspirations of the Israelite people. If they wanted wealth, pleasure, power and honors, their religion should sanction whatever means they were using to attain these things. In this construal, God served the people’s desires, the people did not serve God, and if they did, it was merely a pretense so as to get something they wanted.
The prophets excoriated the people for this tendency. The temptation to think of religion in the way I just described endures to this day.
The lesson for us: if the Church is telling us things that we don’t want to hear, it is likely that the Church is fulfilling her mission. We should listen, and especially, when the Church tells us something that we don’t like or don’t agree with. Not listening carries with it great risk- we might miss discovering the truths that can save us and set us free.
St. Paul testifies to his sufferings today in his Letter to the Corinthians. He considers his sufferings as a divine gift, through which God has acted to effect great and important goods for the Church.
St. Paul’s testimony highlights an important divergence between the cultural (or worldly) understanding of love and a distinctly Christian understanding.
The ascendant cultural understanding of love is that love is manifested in a sense of emotional fulfillment and self-satisfaction. St. Paul with his distinctly Christian understanding of love insists that love is manifested in personal sacrifice and self-gift. Love is not, in terms of a Christian understanding of its truth, simply an emotional reality, but is an act of the will, an action, though and by which you give to others what is good.
And you give this good even if it is undeserved, unappreciated, and despite the fact that there may not be any reciprocity in response to your efforts. That’s the sacrifice. It is precisely this kind of love that manifests to the world the love of God in Christ.
The mission of the Church is to present to the world a distinctive kind of love that does not necessarily conform to the cultural or worldly understandings of love. The Church’s distinctive kind of love is not just ideas or slogans, it is a way of life. One can only live this way of life publically. As the ascendant cultural understanding of love becomes ever more self interested and self regarding, the Church’s distinctive way of life will become ever more disturbing and strange.
The Church commits to presenting Christ’s distinctive kind of love even if it causes trouble or if faced with resistance, like St. Paul, the Church finds meaning and purpose in those sufferings, accepting them as an occasion to purify and perfect its unique way of life. When people resisted the love of God in Christ, he loved them all the more. Thus it is to be with the Church, those who resist, are to be met with even greater attempts at love. In this way the Christian grows in holiness and the Church fulfills her mission.
Today’s Gospel presents the sad fact that the refusal of Christ has consequences, negative consequences.
Amongst the very people who should have known him best, Christ encounters nothing but resistance, and that resistance prevents the gifts he wants to offer to his people from being received.
The lesson here is stark an uncompromising- we will get little or nothing from Christ unless we accept him on his terms. The sad folks in the today’s Gospel who claimed to know Christ better than he even knew himself, actually knew nothing about him but their own prejudices. They didn’t want the Lord Jesus for whom he revealed himself to be, they wanted the Lord Jesus to be merely a projection of who they desired him to be.
This terrifying spiritual predicament has not disappeared. Many in our culture and in the Church are beset with a fantasy Jesus of their own making rather than the Lord Jesus. Like the false prophecies that people tend to prefer, this fantasy Jesus delivers his message in comforting sound bites that affirm us as we are, rather than insisting that we repent and change. This fantasy Jesus gives sanction to worldly aspirations, political ideologies and cultural trends, rather than being, a sign of contradiction to such things and a way beyond them.
This kind of resistance to the Lord Jesus and preference for a fantasy Jesus is not without consequences. Its effect on the Church is particularly devastating, as when it gains traction, the fantasy Jesus makes the Church unproductive and indolent. The Church derives its vigor, its life, from the Lord Jesus, not from a fantasy Jesus or culturally induced simulations of Christ. Without the life of the Lord Jesus in the Church, his gifts will not reach us and the Church falters and fails.
There are not multiple Christs for us to choose. There is only one Lord Jesus and he resists all our attempts to make him into someone or something that he is not.