We don’t often get to witness the formation from scratch of a new social order, much less play a defining role in determining what shape they take or how they come into being. None of us were with the disciples in the upper room. None of us were at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787. And none of us were consulted when our great-grandparents established the family dynasties that spawned the likes of us. In fact, all the significant groups we claim a part in like church and nation and family have been around for ages, and our association with them is more likely the result of someone else’s decision and action. But we do still contribute in no small way to the collective experience we share with those who journey alongside us, whether we do so intentionally or not, which then adds a personal layer to the legacy we entrust to the unsuspecting souls who come after us. We occupy a designated place in the long line of guardians of fine treasures and enduring traditions, of wondrous mysteries and dark secrets greater than ourselves. Our responsibility above all is to pass on to the next generation what we have received at the least intact and functional, but better still—more resilient and better equipped for future challenges. We wouldn’t want our great legacy to gather dust in some attic or basement, or God forbid, be put out in a yard sale. So, whether we intend it or not, we add a part of ourselves to this enduring legacy, what is truly important to us as well as what we see as most unimportant, what we most admire and what we regard as total garbage, what makes us stand ever so proud and what makes us cringe in horror and shame.
If we pause to reflect on the essentials that ultimately define us as church, nation, and family, we might list a vast collection of values and qualities. Now some things we will hold in common. We will pull out familiar words like faith and honor and duty, mercy and freedom and loyalty. But do we even mean the same things? We might have difficulty articulating what we mean, and we might wonder whether the words exist to accurately describe what we mean. So when we point to the cross in our Christian lives, we include in that simple image a broad spectrum of ideas and sentiments ranging from the ineffable Paschal Mystery to the common practice of eating fish on Friday, from the massive image above the tabernacle in many churches to the modest pieces of jewelry around our necks, from the penances we take upon ourselves to curb our selfish inclinations to sister’s all-encompassing advice to just “offer it up.” They all point to the cross, that ancient Roman instrument of torture and our path to virtue and eternal life.
When the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses their leader received from God the tablets containing the ten commandments, it appeared a simple and concise embodiment of all that defined their relationship with God and with one another. But we must complicate things over time, introducing updates or amendments or clarifications, because no words can say everything that needs to be said. And we need precise words to accurately convey ideas that even we know fall short of the sublime realities that flit about in our heads. And just when we’re closing in on our target, we discover a need to add emphasis or urgency or gravitas. It’s an occupational hazard of being human.
Then with hopes of zeroing in on that most essential teaching to assure himself he was on the right path, a scribe came to Jesus and asked, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus’ reply was as expected. Every observant Jew is familiar with this confession of faith that is the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayers. “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” There were no objections; all who heard it were in agreement. And through the centuries scripture scholars and commentators would expound on this foundation of the faith. But then Jesus announces an update, an amendment, a clarification. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two he declares are closely intertwined and make up the greatest commandment. And if we like the scribe understand how and why that is, we might merit Jesus’ affirmation, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
In matters of the faith, in matters relating to God, what constitutes true worship and authentic discipleship, Jesus declares a clear and indisputable link between how we relate to God and how we relate to our neighbor. We can waste further time and energy figuring out who our neighbor is, which by the way Jesus already did in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but he announces clearly who the protagonists are in fulfilling this directive. “You shall love …” not “first they shall love you, then you shall love …”
More and more we witness the fracturing of human society as individuals are less and less able to live peacefully with those with whom they disagree. Once innocent preferences have morphed into rigid convictions that demand absolute compliance with increasingly dire and destructive consequences. This is happening in our families, our communities, and our churches as we determine who has a place among us, and who is accorded dignity, and what responsibility we share in caring for one another. How can anyone justify hatred and violence in the name of religion and patriotism? How can such demeaning treatment of our neighbor reflect our belief in the God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus, a God of justice, mercy, and peace beyond measure?
We have a unique opportunity at this junction in our history as a people to shake things up and reshape the church, our nation, and the world we live in. Just recently we moved into a new church building in a time of global pandemic and political turmoil. We have each been affected deeply in unimaginable ways, and many of us are angry, exhausted, disillusioned, untethered. But we cling to hope. We know we will eventually awake from this madness. And we are determined to emerge wiser, healthier, stronger. We can learn from our mistakes, and rise to new heights, and overcome the limitations that held others back before us. In his invitation to the Bishop’s Synod, Pope Francis invites us to journey together in faith and compassion. Our elected leaders continue to challenge us to set aside divisiveness and build on our common values. The pandemic forces us to recognize our interconnectedness and how we should care for one another and for the earth and our natural resources. And as we gather in this glorious new church, we reaffirm our deep abiding love for God that finds fulfillment in our deep abiding love for our neighbor, those sitting around us, and all people of goodwill. Come join the adventure. This time of renewal and promise will be our defining revolution.
Photo Credit: Eichner Studios 2021
Rolo B Castillo © 2021