Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday of Ember Week in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:12, 13, 14-19 / Deuteronomy 11:22-25 / 2 Maccabees 1:23-26, 27 / Ecclesiasticus 36:1-10 / 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23 / Matthew 17:1-9

As always, we live in trying and unusual times for the Church. Especially in the West, in Europe, North America, and Australia, rapid changes in our society over the past two generations have tested the openness and hospitality of the Christian people. The end to institutionalized discrimination based on race has led, at least in principle if not always de facto, to the integration of our Sunday congregations, but most certainly to the color of our hierarchy. The increased and ever-expanding role of women in society at large has led to a different kind of prominence of women in ecclesial life. Even if all do not think that this latter transformation has been in every way for the best, and even if for some there is still much more inclusion to be done, what is undeniable is the marked change of the presence of women in the Church. In most recent years, the pressure has been to include and embrace not only homosexual persons in a warm and public way, but also to embrace their legal union as a civil good, even to advocate for their spiritual union to be a good for them and the Church on the order of sacramental marriage. Opposition to this has been, from some quarters, accused of being mere bigotry, something which later generations will at best puzzle at, more likely decry, as do latter generations the overt racial segregation supports by our forefathers in the faith.

Those who insist on increased inclusion see themselves, no doubt, supported by Paul's words to the Thessalonians. The Church, they insist, is called upon to support the weak. It is her moral and spiritual duty that none render evil for evil to any man: but ever follow that which is good towards each other and towards all men. In the sometimes bitter words of those who would not see the Church embrace homosexuality as a social or spiritual good, these advocates see a betrayal of Paul's exhortation that we always rejoice. Seeing homosexuality, or women's ordained ministry, or any number of other concerns as a gift from God, they assert the admonition of Paul: In all things give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all.

Yet, Paul's exhortation does not stop there. After what looks like a stance of radical and uncritical openness, Paul adds a sage bit of advice: But prove all things: hold fast to what is good. Paul does not imagine that everything which comes before the Church will be for her good, the good of her members, or the good of the world. Moreover, he notes that it may not be immediately clear whether what has been proposed to the people of God is a blessing or not. For this reason, we can never just receive something, especially something which looks either simply right, nor reject something which looks simply wrong, without proving it, which is to say, without putting it to the test. We may, to our surprise, come to conclude that what seemed objectionable need not be so. Of course, and here's what may be the more bitter pill to swallow, it may be that what seemed innocuous, or what our society at large has come to embrace, is nonetheless not for our good, nor the good of God's holy Church.

Indeed, it is in the face of the discover that something which we hold dear might need to be let go, might need to be abandoned, that Paul is concerned for the Thessalonians, as he is also concerned for us. Whether what we encounter is a change, the abandonment of a more ancient practice or discipline we hold dear, or what we encounter is a reaffirmation of what is old, a rejection of a proposal coming from the world at large — in either case, we are in all things to give thanks. This is the core of God's message to us through Paul. He is not telling us that we are to accept lightly and blindly anything that comes our way, as though the Gospel were a slave to fashion. Rather, he is reminding us that the Gospel will necessarily stretch and challenge us, demand we open doors we think ought always to remain barred and to bar doors that we might well think ought to be opened.

Even so, there is no need to be anxious. The difficulties that face our Christian life, as individuals and as a whole, are not meant to disturb our souls. We need not fear because, as Paul reminds us, the God of peace Himself will sanctify us in all things that we may be preserved blameless, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, it must always be with joyful and thankful hearts, not bitter and angry ones, that we entertain and test whatever challenges come before the Bride of Christ, and in constant prayer, hold fast to what is good.

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