Sunday, March 20, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 / Matthew 17:1-9

It has become something of a tired cliché to assert that, in the political and cultural divides which plague the Christian West, there are those who assert the primacy of the social teaching of the Church at the expense of or while winking at the Church's teaching on personal, and especially sexual morality (generally called the "Left" or liberals or progressives), and there are those who assert the primacy of personal morality, including a special concern for sexual morality, at the expense of or while winking at the Church's social teaching (generally called the "Right" or conservatives or traditionalists). The schema is largely unhelpful, of course, and misleading since, for the most part, all parties to the conversation will tend to agree, more or less, with the teaching of the Church, namely, what those teachings are. While there are those who might contest this or that teaching, by and large none wants to reject either concern. Personal integrity expressed in chastity and love of neighbor expressed in economic justice are generally agreed upon to be foundational for upright, Christian lives.

It may surprise some to discover that there has been, from the earliest days of the Church, the need to call the faithful to both personal and social morality, and especially to specify those calls in relation to sexuality and economics. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St Paul had to call them, on the one hand, to sexual purity — you should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor, not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles that know not God. It is clear here, clear beyond any doubt, that sins of the flesh, particularly sexual sins, are no minor matter, and that rightly ordered sexuality is a key part of the holiness to which we are called. On the other hand, St Paul moves from this claim immediately, as though the two are obviously related without need of clarification, to the question of social justice — and that no man overreach nor circumvent his brother in business. He reminds the Thessalonians that failing in either way, in how we relate to other persons with our bodies in sexual union and how we relate to other persons in our economic activity, is a central part of the life of holiness, of sanctification, and that the failure in either one leads to uncleanness and to divine vengeance.

However, St Paul is not interested here in producing a debate about speculative moral theology. Indeed, he is not even concerned about presenting a teaching as though it were not well known. Rather, he reminds the Thessalonians, and through them he reminds us, that we have already received the teaching we need to know how we ought to walk and to please God — For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus. What Paul gives instead of a catechesis is an exhortation, that even as we already know from him what we ought to do, so we need to go ahead and do it, that we may abound the more.

We see something of the same practical orientation even in the sublime even of Christ's Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Jesus, his face shining as the sun and his clothes having become white as snow, conversing with Moses and Elijah, two great prophets of old both known, the first by tradition the second by Scriptural testimony, to have been raised up into heaven, is not transfigured primary to give new knowledge, at least not in the sense of a new set of teachings. If the apostles Peter, James, and John, can certainly be said to have been elevated by the vision, to know and see in a way that had not known or seen before, the voice from the cloud is oriented not to a new teaching, but a putting into action of what they already in some way knew — This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him.

We can, when faced with difficult times and difficult choices, retreat into inaction and protest that the questions are too hard to figure out. We can worry ourselves into paralysis, or even decline into what we know to be, at best, suboptimal ways of living, cloaking ourselves in a pretense that the Christian response to life is far from clear. However, in so doing, we deceive ourselves. Without denying for a moment that there are situations hard to understand or negotiate, the fact remains that, for most of us and most of the time, our problem is not a lack of knowledge or insight, but a lack of courage to do what we know must be done. And to this problem, we have a solution. While we may not be granted to glorious vision of Mount Tabor, we can, like the apostles, hear Jesus' own words — Arise, and fear not. Like them we will be able to arise, we will be able to banish our fear and embrace the life-giving path of sanctification both of our bedrooms and our boardrooms, our daytime labor and our nighttime pleasure, not by looking around for new answers, but rather by lifting up our eyes to gaze at no one, but only Jesus.

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