Wednesday, February 23, 2011

St Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr/Wednesday of the 7th Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Sirach 4:11-19 / Mark 9:38-40

"Inclusivity" has become more than a buzzword or a cliché of political rhetoric. For many, it is regarded as the foundation of civic virtue, moral virtue, and, for some, even of Christian virtue. These latter find warrant for their view in Jesus' attitude towards the "uncommissioned" exorcist. Jesus seems to regard him as one of his own — Whoever is not against us is for us — and displays a fantastic disregard for his "irregular" status. He is doing good, and doing so in Jesus' name; that seems to be enough.

In the face of what some take to be this radically inclusive view of Jesus' ministry, it might be peculiar, even suspect, to celebrate St Polycarp, best known not for inclusivity, but for his radical exclusion of anything but the Christian Gospel. At first glance, it is the attitude of Roman pagansim, and not of the saintly bishop, that appears the more humane. So long as one would hold to his own culture and its traditions and rites, and so long as one would honor with admittedly quite unobtrusive observances the divinity which blesses the empire, one was free in the Roman world to embrace any and all, or even no, cult whatsoever. One was in fact encouraged to embrace variety, without needing to show any concern for whether one cult was right or wrong, better or worse, true or false.

However, it is precisely here that we see the wholesomeness of the Christian exclusion, witnessed by Polycarp's martyrdom by fire and sword. To submit to the cult of the emperor and the mandatory inclusivism of Rome that accompanied it, one must abandon any commitment to the truth and the pursuit of wisdom that rightly characterizes a human life well lived. Only an unwavering embrace of truth once found is truly inclusive, because only such an excluding embrace is the common goal of every human person, each of whom is fundamentally oriented to the truth, a truth made definitively known in the Incarnate Word, in Wisdom, our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the real meaning of Jesus' saying. In accepting the exorcist he was not disregarding questions of right or wrong, true or false. Rather, to say that whoever is not against Christ is for him is to exclude any vague and uncommitted middle ground, to insist that there is no third path to human flourishing, only a decision for the Lord or against him. It is only in our exclusive, faithful love of Wisdom that we can breathe deeply the life we are called to live, the life poured out upon us the Jesus Christ.

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