It’s a curious thing to see the ultimate power rendered powerless; that which effects all things, brings them into being, ineffective. Yet this is what we read about: Christ unable to do any “deeds of power” among the people of Nazareth. He is, nonetheless, able to heal a few sick people, but that’s it.
I couldn’t help but see that as a metaphor for our situation today, as a Church, as a society in which the Church lives and does its ministry.
Indeed, the Church seems rather impotent, the trend of our society is away from what the Church has taught for millennia; and the media, and sadly too, our government, is complicit in portraying the Church in a highly distorted and dishonest way.
However, we can see from time-to-time instances of the Church being a medium of healing for individuals. And as I understand this passage, as I was taught about its interpretation: the power of God in human lives manifests itself where faith is present; where there is sincerity in one’s approach to Christ even if you do not understand entirely who he is. Cynically ask Christ, or the Church, to do its “magic” and nothing will come of it. And I must tell you, I do receive calls from time-to-time from people who want me to come to their homes and act as some kind of spiritual fumigation service. Some I’ve been able to help, for others, no “deed of power” such as they wanted could be done.
So, for society, the Church appears beside the point because it has no apparent utility. In its eyes, the Church is no longer a means by which one comes to discover God, but now serves as the scapegoat for the sins of our society both of the past and the present – and so, the Church remains truly Christ-like, but now we are Christ in the time of His passion.
I won’t get into the residential schools issue this week. Suffice to say, churches have been burned down, vandalized in retribution; our own parish has received what I would call “tokens of protest” that I find disturbing—anonymous messages that imply that people know we’re here, that this building is here, and that I can’t protect this church, or for that matter my home. As we see acts of vandalism across the country against public monuments, the historical value of this building as the oldest church in Dundas will not protect it from the forces at work today in this country. I am not optimistic about getting any support from the civil authorities; I am uncertain with regard to our neighbours. Not that there won’t be among them people who would think it a terrible shame if this church were to be damaged or destroyed; or that I as a priest were to be assaulted. It’s just, I don’t know if anyone would stick their neck out. That I have this doubt saddens me beyond expression.
We in the rectory try not to think about these things too much.
In my own ministry, I see our national community disintegrating, our Western civilization in decadent decay, the Church assigned blame and so attacked; and yet I have witnessed individual instances of restoration and revival in specific persons who’ve come to Christ, received the Gospel, been reconciled with God.
And so, are we downhearted? Am I discouraged? Are you despairing?
I wouldn’t blame any of us for having difficult days, but what the Gospel story tells us to do is follow the example of our Lord and Saviour; and what did he do in the face of rejection and a frustrated ministry?
He kept going. As the Gospel says following his pastoral defeat in Nazareth, “Then he went about the villages teaching.”
We can draw parallels between today’s decadent Western world and the spiritual state of Israel fractured into several jurisdictions, in part under direct Roman administration, as in Jerusalem, in part through the mini-kingdoms ruled by the sons of Herod the Great. While this led to a prevailing sense of discouragement among a great many; what you find in the historical record is that just as many, and I would reckon more, faced the challenge of remaining a faithful remnant and pursued different strategies to ensure survival for themselves, their families, and ultimately faith in the one true God; the same God we know through Christ.
Not every strategy, however, proved successful. Indeed, some resulted in disaster; but we can review what these were.
One, was the creation of the diaspora: that is, the dispersion of Jews around the world, the seeking of greener pastures beyond the shattered borders of what was historically Israel. And so, colonies arose in Egypt, in Persia, in the major cities around the Mediterranean. You might liken it to taking to the lifeboats, escaping a sinking ship, and in the minds of many first century Jews, that was likely their thinking. To make a future for their children, for their descendants, they abandoned direct involvement in the project of Israel as a political reality, and focussed on living the faith wherever they were.
These Jews tithed to the Temple, but many of them were born, lived and died without ever seeing Jerusalem.
Today most Catholics stay away from Mass—they come furtively on Sunday afternoons to have their babies baptized, there is a kind of faith there, but most I never see at Mass, or in any other parish activity, be it social or one of study. Like the ancient Jews who dispersed across the world, the majority will be absorbed into the secular world and lose their identity as people of faith; grandma’s rosary beads hung above the mantle won’t save them. A remnant will hang on, a kind of virtual ghetto that organizes itself around the local Catholic school, at least for as long we continue to have Catholic schools—not to give our enemies any ideas, but I think the recent outrage will fuel a renewed effort to shut them down and absorb them into public system.
Then there were those who chose to stay and fight, either literally or figuratively. Of the latter group one finds new religious movements focussed on living the faith with absolute purity—some of you may know about the Essenes, a sect that lived by the Dead Sea, not far from where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
The Essenes did not succeed; slaughtered by the Romans who would not differentiate them from any other Jew during the great revolt that came around the year 70 AD.
Those who are enthusiastic for the Latin Mass may see in it the potential for the needed spiritual renewal of the Church. I cannot say that I am unsympathetic; but if this return to tradition is grounded in nothing more than the mystical allure of a dead language, then nothing will come of it but a temporary escape into the past from a dark future. We don’t need Latin for a sincere faith; what we need is genuine faith.
And that revolt I spoke of? Well, that was the other tack taken: to rise up in armed rebellion and drive out the Romans and purge the Judean leadership both political and religious of all those who were collaborators in the corruption of the nation. This led to disaster; not the liberation of Jerusalem and cleansing of the Temple, but the destruction of the city and the flattening of the Temple.
I can’t say as I see that happening among today’s Catholics. And I would discourage it because the government would be only too quick to take that up as the greatest threat to the nation, and quash it with violent persecution, even as it leaves other groups to burn and vandalize in the name of more politically correct causes.
And then there was in ancient Judea, in the Galilee, a third way: the Gospel. And it was grounded in a strange kind of spirituality that neither Jews nor Romans could readily comprehend, and yet for many Jews and Romans, the Gospel held a strange fascination that drew them in and eventually made of them Christians.
They were persecuted for it, socially marginalized, dismissed, ridiculed. But by their dogged persistence in the faith, they remade the world; and I would argue, remade it for the better. But they certainly weren’t perfect; and like Christ in his ministry, Christians have been betrayed by those within their ranks; compromised by those who fell away from faith yet insisted upon the privilege of being called Christian and Catholic.
For us, the faithful, none of this matters, nothing matters but our faith, but our hope in Christ, but our love of God that expresses itself in universal charity. It’s a hard message, but a good one: the true deed of power is our ultimate salvation, to go to God cleansed of sin, reconciled in Christ, at peace with the world and its madness, knowing that all we see is just so much vanity, and it will pass away. His grace is sufficient, Saint Paul tells us; therefore, we are content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ. In our weakness lies an untapped potential; the spiritual power of God which is our true strength.