Scripture Readings for February 21, 2017
This week I was reading some material about G. K. Chesterton and his fascination with the role of paradox and contradiction in Christianity. He points out that in the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of faith lie the very key to Christianity and its embrace of all of life. The “both,” “and” of Catholic theology is an extension of this sense that all of life is sacred and trying to formulate a good vs. bad system or ideology is folly in the face of life’s endless variety and uncontained vitality.
I mention this because it seems to me today’s readings give us good examples of fully Christian paradox. Let’s begin with the Gospel and key Christian beliefs. Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be killed but then three days later rise from the dead. This is so “out there” that the disciples don’t even know how to ask him to explain. Still they aren’t above trying to calculate who among them is doing the best job and may turn out to be the greatest of his followers. So Jesus gives them the criteria: be a servant of other people, take care of those like a child who are totally dependent and could never pay you back. This is the way of being “first” because it will bring you into personal contact with God. Literally God will be with you. Mark says it like this, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
So this is where Sirach and our Psalm may be able to help because they talk about what it is to have a relationship with God. Remember we’re illustrating apparent contradictions here with the thought that this is how Christianity exhibits an inclusivity that embraces all of life. Even perhaps what is beyond our grasp, like dying and rising from the dead three days later.
I think the Psalm response most clearly states the sense of today’s selection, “Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.” Sirach is making the same point, “he is a protector to all who seek him.” Yet Sirach begins with, “when you come to serve the LORD … prepare yourself for trials.” This is followed by a whole series of conditions that accompany being helped by God and receiving his compassion and mercy. These include: “Accept whatever befalls you … in crushing misfortune be patient” for “worthy people (are tested) in the crucible of humiliation.”
Finally Sirach claims, “Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken?” Here we have the crux of the paradoxical issue. Would you want to ask Jews how well they’ve faired historically at not being forsaken? How about endless martyrs and saints of the church? Within my lifetime, people like Oscar Romero, a great group of sisters in El Salvador or Martin Luther King and various freedom fighters in the South, none of whom would seem to have come out on top even though they were caring for those “children,” those disadvantaged that God favors. So I guess Sirach really means it when he says, “My son, when you come to serve the LORD, stand in justice and fear, prepare yourself for trials.”
I believe what’s going on here is truth about life. People die in service to what they believe in. Bad things happen to good people. Life has value in and of itself. We have the opportunity to contribute to a better life for others and ourselves. Especially if a better life means treating others with dignity, being honest in our relationships, accepting ourselves as imperfect but valuable individuals, enjoying the beauty and freedom of life itself and working toward those things that give support, love and joy to everyone’s life. God’s presence is part of doing good in this world. Yes, life and Christianity are full of paradoxes. Situations that are not just more than they seem but are contradictions of what we believe to be true. It is what faith is about, which is better explained as trust. Which is what Sirach is trying to tell us:
Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not;
thus will you be wise in all your ways.
Accept whatever befalls you,
when sorrowful, be steadfast,
and in crushing misfortune be patient
I believe we can trust God and “hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy” even when the worst things are happening, paradox or not.