Hold Off on Psalm 2!
The succession of Gospel Readings for Mass from yesterday to today (Luke 18:9-14 The tax collector went home again at rights with God; the Pharisee did not. Luke 15:1-3. 11-32 Your brother here was dead and has come to life.) was a welcome one for me as I sought reference points to deal with troubling headlines which had been for some time a source of great sadness for a couple older Irish priest friends of mine and which now, as the “brushfire” spreads to Germany and Holland, have unsettled a lot of other people. From some of the things I have read, I must admit that younger people, even priests, can at times react in ways that are certainly not constructive and perhaps even inappropriate, hence my title “Hold Off on Psalm 2!”
The description “brushfire” comes to my mind to describe the media coverage of Catholic efforts to face constructively what might be labeled “domestic violence” if we were dealing with a dysfunctional family setting. The parallel to family (sacred trust betrayed) is helpful for approaching the tragic situation we are facing. The association with the visual image of a brushfire comes to me, because here in Trinidad, as elsewhere in the region, we are in the midst of one of the driest dry seasons on record. Lent and Easter Time are normally almost cloudless here, but the situation this year is exacerbated by the really cloudless nature of it all with exceptionally high daytime temperatures, following a rainy season which did not live up to its name. Simply stated, we are powder dry. I am fortunate enough to live on the flat in the city, but for folks in the hills brushfire is a real danger and the ultimate menace. Those lovely bamboo stands, for example, which keep rain soaked slopes from sliding, are now flaxen colored tinder boxes which could consume more than themselves in flames if a careless cigarette or spark were to come their way, as too often happens.
When it comes to facing the tragedy of abuse of the defenseless young and younger in the Church family by members of its clergy, I guess I have more understanding for that type of inner Catholic reaction comparable to the boast of the Pharisee in yesterday’s Gospel who justifies himself and despises everyone else (Saturday’s Gospel). He’s wrong in lauding himself but there is a basis for dealing with him. He may be right in his assessment of others’ failures, but is definitely wrong in justifying himself. I remember during my years in Germany the accusing fingers pointed toward the U.S. without an honest assessment of what was going on in their own backyard. Now it’s their turn to face the music.
The elder brother in the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C, angry at his father’s indulgence of the younger sibling and disgusted by his brother’s misbehavior, is even easier to confront in hopes of finding ways toward one another, oneness and respect in the house of a common father, who is unbounded in his love. Our purpose is not that sin might be covered over, but that life might be restored. We set boundaries; we punish; we seek forgiveness and reconciliation! We do not wish for or try to burn down the house. It is a matter of family.
As I say, the two men in the Gospel are of the family and there is every hope in the case of either of them (Pharisee or older brother) that we can find our way to each other again. What troubles me, rather, is how with such little discernment some Catholic folks within the fold (priests too!) go on the defensive against everyone, as if the critics and those who have been scandalized were all outside, and begin the Upper Room recitation of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’” They need to hold off and recognize who it is who is hurting or hurtful, like the father who goes out to the elder of his two sons.
I think the kind of defensiveness and panic which judges all critique and rage as an attack from the minions of the Evil One comes about less from a realistic appreciation of the assaults which Christ’s Church must face in this world than from a certain disappointment that despite Jesus’ teaching the world has not embraced us and His Gospel (at least as far as the press may be concerned). Neither, it would seem, has the basic human lesson that you can’t please everyone all of the time been learned, as if every hostility or refusal is an assault which must be met with a counterattack, nor is it clear when, like the tax collector, we would be better off to humbly bow our head and confess that we deserve no better. The Servant of God, Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness during the Jubilee of the Year 2000 for all sorts of things which history had placed at the doorstep of the Catholic Church. I can remember people begrudging him that act. I also remember him teaching about healing memories and how important that is for those who seek to bring Christ to a waiting world.
Basically, I am saying that there is indeed a place for tears of sorrow over violence done by those who claim to follow Him. They have acted wrongly despite Jesus’ woe statement about those who scandalize God’s little ones (better the millstone about their necks!). Nonetheless, just because the pressure exceeds my comfort level I cannot start by questioning the motives of those who criticize me when I know perhaps better than they will ever understand why I/we are in the wrong. Here too the parallels with the drama faced by a dysfunctional family, where somebody is terribly misbehaving, are worthy of consideration. “Leave me alone” is at best an inarticulate cry of exasperation.
The major chord which sounds today in the liturgy, “Today I have taken the shame of Egypt away from you”, is the joyful message of God the Father acting and saving. The gratuitous gift of reconciliation given out of love by God goes even further in the clothing of the younger and repentant son in a festal garment, with a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. St. Paul is no small help in understanding the significance of this investiture for our self-awareness and empowerment. Read the Second Reading again (2Cor.5:17-21):
“For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here. It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on his reconciliation. In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. So we are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God. For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”
Once the brushfire is burning, if you can afford to, it is almost better to let it burn itself out and make a firm resolve to plant something less volatile to keep your hillside from washing away. Prudence demands a radical brush cut before the fact to secure that there is no such or at least not as much fuel for the flames. The tax collector, who went away justified in God’s eyes, openly confessed that in such matters we have no one to blame but ourselves; there was nothing left on him to catch the flames.
Nothing is lost and everything can be gained by identifying with the tax collector. It’s not the fire-proofing which counts, but the stripping ourselves of pretense. In most cases we are in this together and have house-cleaning and penance to do. We need to save Psalm 2 for encouragement when we are really faced by those who are opposed to God’s Anointed!