"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The wisdom that soothes is the wisdom that hurts

The Bible readings from today's (Roman) Catholic Mass got me onto one of those meditative jags that I make bold to ascribe to the Holy Spirit. I name him as the source because the core thought typifies God's ironic, paradoxical sense of humor: the wisdom that soothes is the wisdom that hurts. One cannot but see the Cross in that.

Take the first reading: Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20. Whatever the human author's conscious intent may have been, the Spirit is clearly speaking through this text of Jesus Christ and the motives of those who brought him to his earthly end—as does the "responsorial" psalm that follows. That is important for today because it describes what Jesus underwent to save us even today. And the way the passage expresses the thinking of the "wicked" reminds us of something equally important for today: why Muslims reject the proposition that Jesus really died on the Cross at all, never mind that he did so in order to save us from our sins. There is no Redemption in Islam because, like the wicked spoken of in today's selection from Wisdom, Muhammad and his followers assume that "if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes." Of course God did save Jesus from his foes by raising him from the dead, but that's not what "the wicked" of the reading and Muslims as a group have in mind. They assume that God would never let a "prophet" or any, similarly august "just one" suffer the extreme humiliation of the Cross. Even the Apostles shared that assumption until after the fact. What the "wicked," the Muslims, and the Apostles before the Resurrection have in mind is natural human thought: the same that some of the Crucifixion's spectators had in mind when, as recounted in Matthew's Passion, they taunted Jesus thus:

"You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, (and) come down from the cross!" Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him."

Of course Muslims are no more if no less "wicked" than any other group—including, unfortunately, Christians. But Islam's rejection of the Cross indicates a profound difference between Islam and Christianity, and what makes Islam different in this respect is the wisdom of the world, not of God.

By contrast, says a verse from today's second reading, "the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity" (James 3:17). Such wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. Since it is based only on love not fear, it does not exert power in self-defense, does not compel, and arises from no ulterior motive. It lets itself be nailed to crosses small and big. The person who receives and cultivates such wisdom is a sacrificial offering for others. He feels the weight of it but, for the most part, does not make us feel it too, as somebody with a martyr complex would. (We all know such people.) For the most part, such wisdom manifests itself as the quoted verse says. It is "first of all pure," by which is meant what Kierkegaard meant when he asserted that "purity of heart is to will one thing." The one thing the wise person wills is fellowship with and conformity to the primoridal Wisdom, the Logos, Jesus Christ.

As today's Gospel indicates, that comes at almost unimaginable cost. Being an offering for others sooner or later carries the ultimate price. The wisdom that soothes others is the wisdom that hurts us. Given what fallen humanity is like, that could hardly be otherwise. It's the truth behind the saying "No good deed goes unpunished." Whatever form it may take, the "punishment" is part of the deed—indeed the consummation of the deed: "It is finished." That happens in mostly small ways, and we will each die well to the extent we are faithful in those small ways. Indeed, as a total emptying of self for God and others, the punishment cannot remain punishment. It is redemptive, and thus a prelude to that glory of which Jesus' resurrection was the prime instance and cause. And that's why worries about status and power are so silly; why "[i]f anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all." That is only possible if we receive, identify with, and emulate the "little child" in ourselves and others, symbolized by the child whom Jesus took in his arms with the words: "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” The wisdom from above may not consist in such littleness, but it cannot only be received in such littleness. For only in such littleness can we escape the "wisdom" of the world and be filled by the Spirit with that of the Logos himself.

A way to orient ourselves that way in daily life is to ask ourselves: are we after control or the Cross? Fr. Martin Fox explains it well.
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