November 2004

 

Is this my King? ©

The Feast of Christ the King is intended to remind us of Christ’s second coming in glory.

There are two, almost contradictory images embraced in this feast. On the one hand, the Church celebrates the glorious power and kingship of Jesus. On the other, the final Gospel reading of the liturgical year recalls the day he died on a cross. The collision of these two images presents our sovereign, our defender against the armies of evil, as the pitiful appearance of a defeated monarch. His throne is not of gleaming gold; it is a gnarled and splintered instrument of torture. His crown is not bejewelled; it digs sharp thorns into his bleeding flesh. Is this how I am to remember my king?

The Apostle Paul tells us that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin.

But while our faith is rooted in the joy of the Resurrection and our hope is guided by the glory of Paradise, for the moment at least, the image of our king hanging from a cross calls out to us …and it challenges our faith. What challenges us as Christians is that despite the fact that God offers heaven and earth, that he offers the abundance of life, and that he offers freedom, we are so reticent to give what he asks.

Jesus is unequivocal in this regard: He says, Follow me. Follow me and become instruments of freedom and of hope. Follow me to the cross and follow me to the Resurrection. Then follow me to Paradise.

This has been for me a year of profound changes. This has been a year in which I have been challenged as a so-called follower of Christ. It is a year in which I have traveled to four countries in Africa and I have seen both joy and agony as I had never seen before.

It has also been a year in which the Gospel of Luke has confronted us all. I write, “confronted” because it is the most provocative Gospel, I think. It contains the most explicit account of what Jesus meant when he said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

Luke sets the stage at the outset. Early on, he tells the story of Jesus speaking from the Book of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

This conditions all the rest. This is the alpha and the omega of his work here on earth. Jesus came to free those imprisoned …physically, socially, spiritually, morally or emotionally. Jesus came to give sight to those who are blind literally and figuratively speaking. Jesus came to free those oppressed in their body, in their heart, in their mind and in their soul.

I am among those imprisoned by obsessions and fear. I am blinded by selfishness. I am oppressed by anxiety and doubt. I am captive to a world that knows neither God nor the purpose of his Son’s death.

If that was all that he intended, we could praise him from the comfort of our living room chair or church pew and leave it at that. But I am beginning to see myself as collaborating inadvertently and naively with the oppressor and I note that Luke is less gentle than Matthew in the Beatitudes. He adds, but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.

Then Luke relates one of the most disturbing stories of all. A rich official asks Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life. This man is presented as someone leading an exemplary life insofar as his moral and church life is concerned. But what Jesus asks of him makes him quite sad. Jesus says, sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

Even though I know that Jesus would have answered a bit differently had he been asked by you or I here and now, the essence of his answer would likely be unchanged: “Do you love me enough …do you trust me enough that my grace is sufficient? Do you want to follow me to the Resurrection even though the road that leads to it calls you out of the comfort to which you cling so desperately?”

Finally, at the Last Supper, Luke tells us, Jesus took bread, said a blessing, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given to you; do this in memory of me.” Yes, Jesus was introducing the sacrament of the Eucharist, but he was also doing much more. He was also saying, in memory of me, let your heart, which is mine since your baptism, let it be broken to feed those who hunger for love.

This month, we remembered those who made huge sacrifices to free us from the oppression of fascism. This war produced victims and heroes.

There is a war today that is producing even more victims and heroes. This is the war against AIDS. The enemy is around the world but most acutely felt in sub-Saharan Africa where the disease has propagated the longest. The number of victims is staggering.

During the time it takes you to read this reflection, 90 people die there of AIDS or AIDS-related infections. Almost 9,000 people die of the disease each and every day in Africa. That is almost three times the number of people who died in the twin towers in New York …people with names, faces, dreams and families. During the time we sit though a mass, 260 innocent children become orphans. Thirteen million young children are living on the street today. The World Health Organizations predicts that number will grow to 43 million by the end of the decade. In Kenya, there are 600 families whose head of household is just six years of age.

No church can stand idly by in the face of this. All Christians must say that even if I am not infected, I am deeply affected. Through this tragedy of historic proportions, God is calling us to show what we are made of as believers. He is inviting us to show that we have heard Luke’s gospel and the cry of the poor.

He challenges us to demonstrate that we really are people of faith. God is calling us in Luke’s Gospel to understand that love of God means nothing if it does not include love of neighbor, of justice and mercy.

God did not cause AIDS. Some people would cruelly stigmatize victims by saying that this is God’s judgment and condemnation. I defy them to tell that to an eight-year old girl who was born HIV positive; I challenge them to say that to a woman whose husband infected her, without knowledge of his seropositive status. But God is on the front lines of the battle against the evil that comes with it. He is calling us to mobilize all the resources at our disposal. He is calling us to affirm life in the face of death. He is calling us to be his tender extended hands.

Imagine the legacy that a powerful response can leave. Think about how Europe still remembers decades later how allied troops liberated them from tyranny, and imagine how Africa would remember the army of compassionate Christians who proclaimed liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, who let those oppressed by a vicious virus go free.

If the phrase “love our neighbor as ourselves” means anything, it means that not only can we imagine. I draw to your attention the words of Nelson Mandela, “I cannot rest until I’m certain that the global response is sufficient to turn the tide of the epidemic. The importance of tackling this issue should not be undermined by the many other problems that confront a global society today. In the course of human history there has never been a greater threat than the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Our attention to this issue cannot be distracted or diverted by problems that are apparently more pressing.” And he ended by saying that history will surely judge us harshly if we do not respond with all the energy and resources that we can bring to bear in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Recently, I heard a man recount the experience of asking rather naively a group of German people who were adults during the last war what they had done about the massacre of Jews. He said they looked down in silence until one person looked up and said, “At first, we did not know. And when we were told, we did not believe it. And when we believed it, it was too late.”

That story bothers me a lot. I have no grandchildren as yet. But I dread being asked 20 years from now, if I am still around, “Grandpa, what did you do about the massacre of Africans?” I fear having to answer, “At first, we did not know. And when we were told, we did not believe it. And when we believed it, it was too late.”

There is a war begin waged against a vicious virus. Though it is daunting, it is being fought on several fronts. Each day, committed individuals work against staggering odds to bring comfort and healing to those infected. Each day, hundreds, if not thousands, of compassionate people bring hope to those who are affected by the disease. Each story is a heart-warming story of hope; each person on the front lines is a hero.

Each of us can make a difference too …through service, through prayer, through support that is material or financial. Each person can remind our government that the developed world has not met its boldly proclaimed millennium goals.

Each person can and must make a difference. Remember the words of Mother Teresa, “We cannot all do great things but we can do small things with great love.”