In these weeks I am a student spending much of each day in a classroom, or in my room at the desk with texts to read and papers to write. It is a challenge and a privilege for me to have this opportunity. I am into the second session of studies with two new classes (Music and Worship & Reconciliation, Anointing & Death) after last session’s classes (Liturgical Traditions East & West, & RItual Symbol & Worship).
Certainly much of my learning happens in classes and through the reading. But its the conversations with many of the other students about the class content, and my own reflection and prayer time that also yields significant insights developed from the study.
If I were to summarize my most significant learning of these weeks, it would be my rediscovery of the radical nature of the Christian life. The word radical is often used in religious circles to suggest a disconnect with Tradition and traditions. Instead the word really means relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something, and growing from the “root” (ref. Latin radicalis = having roots).
Most Christians know a little about the early Christian centuries. People also like the idea of their twenty-first century parish communities returning to the roots of the Christian faith to encounter Jesus and the first disciples as they worshipped God and spread the good news. This focus is an essential part of the life of twenty-first century Christians.
However we tend to embark on this re-connection in a very selective manner. It is a bit like dining at a smorgasboard: I’ll have some of that, none of this and plenty of that. While we like the “small community” idea of the first followers of Jesus, there is really little else of their lifestyle that we are eager to have in our faith diet.
Consider St Paul’s boast in today’s second reading:
“Brothers and sisters: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Galatians 6:14
When I mention the first Christians, a romantic idea of small house churches might come to your mind. It is easy to forget that for the first three centuries of Christian faith, the followers of Jesus lived and worshipped under persecution. To gather for the Eucharist was a risky business. An immense multitude of these first Christians were put to death because they were believed to be Christian. At times they were discovered at Mass in a secret location, and their entire congregation was executed.
In the midst of this persecution they continued to gather to worship God and “had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
So what was it that enabled these Christians to live so radically? Fortunately we do know the answer to this question.
St. Paul, throughout his writings is consistent and clear. The Christian life is a new creation. The old order has passed away. Christians are those who seek Jesus Christ above all else. Christians are those who accept that the purpose of all human existence is life with Christ now and forever. Nothing is more important than this.
Because Christ is the only adequate answer to all human desires, the disciple is the one who stays with Jesus always, even to death. With Paul the Christian prays: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
This language is foreign to the twenty-first century, secular, capitalist mentality. We live as if our projects, possessions and human relationships will deliver us the happiness that we seek. We boast (if not in words then in lifestyle) about many things: our successes at work, the achievements of our families, our social standing and our possessions. It is the wise person who realises that even the best bits of this world, can never satisfy the appetites of our human hungers.
However it is also evident that many people today do have a capacity to stay with those they love, even to death. We see in our own families and among our friends and neighbours examples of a depth of love that leads one to put aside material wealth and careers in the ultimate cause of love.
It is a different matter though when we come to our life together in Christ. Even as a parish community we can begin to think that it is our parish assets and investments that give us security as a parish. When we fall victim to this delusion, our mindset becomes one of maintenance rather than mission. It is as if we have forgotten the life of the early Christians who sought out martyrdom as a way to “die to this world” and to follow Christ with utter dependancy.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus acknowledges how difficult this challenge is. The one who seeks to speak and live the Christian life fully will not be welcomed, even by other Christians: “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Luke 10
As I have this opportunity to study two thousand years of Christian history I see a pattern of ups and downs, of growth and decline. It is clear that when a Christian community begins to adapt itself to a secular society in an attempt to be more “inviting” and “inclusive,” such a community might experience a momentary mirage of success, but then quickly falls into decline and extinction.
There are also powerful examples throughout two thousand years of Christian history, of Christian communities seeking to be truly radical in their living of the life of Jesus, with no compromise of essential doctrine or teaching, and whole-hearted commitment of members. Initially these communities lose members as people struggle with the radical nature of new life in Christ. But very soon new growth emerges that is clearly much beyond a simple consequence of the commitment and zeal of the members. In such an environment the Holy Spirit is at work.
This growth is currently noticable in many Catholic parishes, schools and institutions around the world: where the full experience and practice of Catholic life has been radically rediscovered, the Church is growing, and young people especially are among the most active members.
Let our communities of faith, parishes, schools, chaplaincies and other church institutions remember that our own efforts to build the Church achieve little unless we are deeply rooted in friendship with Christ, with whom we (like the martyrs before us) journey through suffering and death, to the glory of the resurrection.