Gentle Light–Inviting, Transforming
I have been a student of human behavior for some time now. And these last few years, I have come across reports, surveys, and studies that challenge my experience and understanding of God and of my Catholic faith. The more significant surveys and studies date back some five years or more, so some of their conclusions may no longer be accurate … maybe. Several surveys have indicated a sharp decline in the number of people who self-identify as traditional church-goers. This usually means once a week; although a number who claim to be faithful church-goers sincerely believe once a month or twice a year still makes them regular. (I am more inclined to think something else, and it isn’t regular.) There are some who claim to be spiritual, but not religious, probably meaning they read the bible and pray as much as their peers, but choose not to affiliate with organized religion, preferring instead to take their business “directly to God.” And a group that continues to swell its ranks include those who used to, but no longer, go to church of any kind; and more significantly for my consideration, those who used to call themselves Catholic but no longer. So the easy consequence of this sort of introspection forces me to ask, “What are we doing wrong?” “How do we get our act together?”
Sometimes I come to the cop-out conclusion that this is a job for those at a higher pay grade than me. I’m really only responsible for this little patch of souls in the Shenandoah Valley. We are a parish of about 860 registered households, with a total parish population of about 1500 individuals. Since we have four weekend masses that potentially could serve 1200 persons, but our numbers indicate only about 900 come with some regularity, I’d say we’re doing better than the 33% in the surveys. But that still means we’re doing just about average, or slightly better. And should we be happy with that? Should I?
And then I stop to think that of those who actually come to church and stay awake to hear the scripture readings and the homily, of those who receive communion and other sacraments, those who send their children to Christian Formation, those involved in Adult Faith Formation, and those who participate in any way in the life of the parish community, is there any way of knowing whose lives have been radically transformed by their relationship with God, who have measurably moved from doubt and unbelief to faith and conviction, who used to be indifferent about how their choices impacted the lives of others, and now make decisions with the values of the gospel in mind, who live their Catholic Christian faith with greater awareness, who challenge their own friends and family members daily with a simple, sincere, joyful, and convincing witness of gratitude for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, or that we here at St. John, or I, even have anything to do with it?
Today we see in the gospel account how Mary and Joseph unquestioningly comply with society’s expectations of them, bringing their first-born son to the temple in Jerusalem and offering the sacrifice prescribed by law, as well as offering what the law prescribed for the purification of the child’s mother. The gospel writer indicates more than once that they were faithful in the practice of their Jewish faith. So there can be no doubt that the child Jesus was raised in the faith of his parents. He was not an outsider. He was familiar with Jewish tradition. And that particular detail would be important if he came first to call his own people to a renewal of faith. He might not have had any credibility if he challenged the religious establishment from the outside. Instead, he identified with his audience. He was no stranger to their world.
Then the two people who stepped forward to meet Mary and Joseph in the temple were not temple officials. One was an old man, the other an old woman. Both were familiar faces in the temple, spending much of their time in prayer and fasting, and recognized by others to be deeply spiritual. And from them came wonderful and mysterious words. Simeon acknowledged the child to be the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation for his people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel. We do not know what Anna told them. But Mary and Joseph were struck with awe. Then the old man spoke of a sword that would pierce her heart. And they would leave for home that day still wondering to themselves. They had no plans for anything out of the ordinary. They would be an ordinary family. And their child would grow up as any other child, surrounded by family, steeped in religious faith, to be strong and wise and God-fearing.
But God had plans. And Simeon opened a window into the child’s future mission and ministry. None of it would truly make sense but in hindsight. So despite even the child’s parents’ best intentions, nothing is really left to chance. God had plans, and God’s plan is always alive and active.
All this takes me back to the surveys, reports, and studies that I have come across in recent years. If it were entirely up to imperfect human agents—you and me—there is much we aren’t getting, much we aren’t doing right. But I am convinced God has plans, and God’s plan is always alive and active. And God invites us to lend him a hand, to carry that light we have received from his son Jesus into the dark corners of the world we live in. We are smart. We have ideas. We know our Catholic Christian faith. Hopefully we are still open to learning. We have insight into how people think, since we may have once been where some of our unchurched and unaffiliated fellow Christians and Catholics are now. We continue to welcome the challenge to grow in deeper understanding and faith. And we can shed some light on the spiritual journeys of those whose paths we cross. It is a gentle light that invites and transforms. When the light is harsh, people will shield their eyes and retreat into the shade.
So on this day, forty days after Christmas, forty days after God’s own light first appeared in our midst, we are reminded that we bear the light of Christ. We have been given power to dispel the darkness. Our lights are much smaller, less perfect, more fragile. But we need not be fearful because Christ has conquered the darkness, and God is alive and active in the world, inviting all with the gentle light of Christian witness and gospel living, to transform the hearts and renew the lives of all God’s people.
Rolo B Castillo © 2014