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

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Counting all as rubbish

Today's readings from Cycle C for the Fifth Sunday of Lent have me meditating even beyond the solid homily I heard at a vigil Mass last night. Given by an Italian-Argentinian Oratorian, the homily's theme was the significance of baptism because it preceded the baptism of a (particularly beautiful and alert) baby. And today's first reading, whose theme is water in the desert, is certainly apt for the purpose, as well as for the baptism of catechumens that will occur, in most parishes, at the Easter Vigil. What struck me more, however, was the question what the "woman caught in adultery," the forlorn figure in today's Gospel, resolved to do after she left Jesus in what must have been a flood of relief and gratitude.

Clearly she is a figure for us all, not just for that ample number of women and men who have committed literal adultery. In the Old Testament, adultery is the primary metaphor used for Israel's unfaithfulness to her covenant with God; he, the ever-faithful husband, remains soliticious for his unfaithful bride. In turn, the unfaithfulness of Israel is a real, outward metaphor for every person's sinfulness before God. We are sinful not so much because of particular acts, though there is that of course. We are sinful because even when we are redeemed by Christ's blood and justified by incorporation into him through faith and baptism, the effects of original sin remain and incline us to commit sin. The first human couple, whom God had created in "original justice"—i.e., in the closest fellowship with himself possible for them—chose to be "like God, knowing good and evil" by disobeying God, and thus lost their share in God's very life. The effects of that first sin were mortality, blindness, and weakness of will. Even after baptism, which restores us to God in Christ, they remain as effects and signs of that alienation from God which we each have inherited just by being children of Adam and Eve. They make some-or-other actual sins inevitable, though our free will is preserved inasmuch as no particular actual sin is inevitable. Such is the tragedy of the human condition: no matter how much goodness, beauty, and truth we may discover, enjoy, and exhibit in life, without a deep and voluntary adherence to Christ our lives are destined to nothing but ruin, both spiritually and physically.

But like the woman caught in adultery, we can always turn to Christ for mercy even when it seems we cannot escape judgment. Such mercy is not mere indulgence and not merely a forensic pronouncement. It is transformative. It is what empowers us to "go and sin no more." But to be thus empowered, we must live our lives as ones in which it is Christ, and only Christ, who lives in us. That means leaving behind much that seems good. And that's a Lenten message we can barely hear. Usually, it is forced upon us.

In today's second reading, St. Paul says: "For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things
and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ,
the righteousness from God..." In his case, the loss of all things consisted most obviously in the loss of that security and comfort which most people long and work for. Once he accepted Christ and his mission from Christ, he would have no permanent home and no financial security. He would not marry or have children. He would suffer persecution from Jews and pagans alike, and much misunderstanding even from believers themselves. In the end, he was killed for Christ. And he went through it all gladly. Why? Because, in comparison with the self-immolating Christ who lived in him, all other good things might as well be rubbish. To be conformed to the self-immolating Christ is to be willing to give up all other goods for his sake, as he emptied himself for us. One must be willing to count all besides Christ as rubbish.

Few of us are prepared to do that. Indeed our materialistic, pansexualist society makes its necessity almost inconceivable to us. In the developed world, many Christians are willing to go to church and do good things for the less fortunate; but it does not even occur to most of us to abandon the houses, the cars, and all the accoutrements of middle-class life for the sake of Christ. Even many clergy and religious have a very comfortable lifestyle they have no intention of giving up: generous vacations; paid-for conferences and retreats; humane and secure living arrangements. I would probably do the same if I could.

But fortunately for me, I have been gradually forced to accept "the loss of all things." I have experienced depression so severe as to require hospitalization, which resulted in further severe losses: of family, home, work, and even at times of my self-respect. I have been forced to learn detachment from all things in this world so that I may attach myself to God alone. What has kept me going is accepting all such losses as part of my walk with the Lord, who sustains me even he purifies me, so that I may learn anew to love amidst the ruins. My prayer this Lent is that I, and each of us in our own way, may continue to do so without bitterness, so that it is not we who live but Christ who can live in us.
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