EARNING ONE’S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
November 14, 2010
Last week, we were actually reintroduced to a topic which Christian tradition has always considered integral to faith – our belief in the end times, or what systematic theology of yore, has referred to as the study of the so-called “last things,” (ta eschata) or eschatology. Our reflection last week led us to reflect on how, as Christian followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are, in a very real sense, citizens of two worlds – earth and heaven, and that whilst Jesus’ “kingdom of God” has not fully come to fulfillment, we Christians believe that the Kingdom of God has irrupted into human history, and that we are already immersed in the “already” and the “not yet” dimensions of what Malachi and other prophets were speaking about. We are basically living in a frontier world; with eyes set solidly on heaven, but with feet fully grounded on terra firma.
It is important for us, however, not to fall naively to a too literal interpretation of the “signs” that both Malachi and the Gospel passage from Luke speak about. To err on the side of literalism is to overemphasize the “already” to the exclusion of the “not yet.” To err on the side of spiritualism is to miss the power of the meaning and the message behind the same signs, and to miss the worth and meaning of what is in the here and now. It means to invalidate the world. It means to render our human nature as embodied spirits, and life itself in this world as worthless, futile, and ultimately meaningless. At the end, it means to invalidate everything human, everything earthly, everything created by a God who “saw that [everything] was good.”
Paul should know. Paul, who preached tirelessly about the need to “set [our] sights not on things below, but on things above,” nevertheless shows us not to be so taken up with the thought as not to be engaged anymore in doing earthly things, and helping build a society along the spirit of God’s reign. Paul gives in to righteous boasting as he declares: “You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.” Paul was not busy with ministry alone. He was also busy earning his keep, so as not to be dependent on anyone.
I would consider today’s readings, among many others, as a big lesson on a Christian sense of balance in today’s complex world. A proper Christian sense of balance is the ability to keep the healthy dynamic tension between the drive for the “not yet” and the complacency over the “already.” A healthy balance would mean a proper valuation of the created world and its goods, on the one hand, and the hopeful imagination of one who knows that “the world and its pleasures are fast drifting away,” on the other. To be so engrossed in this world and what it offers is to identify the world with God’s Kingdom. To be so focused solely on God’s reign to the total exclusion of worldly realities is to act like disembodied spirits, who have nothing at all to do with life in the world. Such would mean we all have no responsibility in and for the word, in the false – if literal – belief that the end times are already here. In that view, the Kingdom of God is totally other-worldly, and has no connection with life in this world.
Christian theology does not support such a bipolar view.
Donald Messer, in his book A Conspiracy of Goodness (1992), narrates a real-life story of a man more than six feet tall, who, in a moment of a sudden boat tragedy, offered to make himself a human bridge to connect the chasm that was too wide for elderly and weak people to jump across. He literally became a bridge which spelled salvation for all those people, who otherwise, could not have saved themselves. Twenty people walked over his outstretched body. Andrew Parker by name, he single-handedly, and by means of a heroic act, changed the meaning of bridge-maker forever. He became very literally a pontifex, a pontem factor, a bridge-maker. He straddled two realms separated by a deadly, churning chasm of chaos over the waters. Messer suggests that such an image could very well represent what we as baptized Christians, ought to be – a community of bridge-makers.
As bridge-makers, we see life as just one single continuum, one reality. There ought to be no extreme polarization between earthly life in the present and the end times that Malachi and Luke’s gospel refer to. If life is just one, then we cannot say that earthly life is intrinsically evil and the other totally holy. The world, where we are all born, is the arena of our salvation. If that is so, then salvation not only begins, but also takes place also in this life, by way of life in this world. In that sense, there is potential holiness and salvation in the work we do, in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the mundane concerns that occupy us during the day. Holiness is to be sought for in the context of earthly life. Holiness is not to be divided into two types: the inferior kind which is the way of ordinary people in the world, and the superior type, which is done by people who take themselves away from the world to be “far from the madding crowd,” and perhaps spend long and sleepless hours in front the Blessed Sacrament. No, there is only one Christian holiness, and that holiness bridges the gap between the here and now, and the coming, and awaited glorious coming of Christ.
St. Therese of Lisieux, who considered herself the “little flower” for the child Jesus, is a shining example of holiness in the every day, ordinary reality. She did no outstanding deeds by worldly standards. She did not even leave her monastery at Lisieux. She did not spend long hours of adoration and prayer. She did not even look for painful self-inflicted suffering or mortification. But she found union with God in simple things, in little things, and insignificant deeds, but all done with extraordinary love. Whilst she did not seek voluntary suffering, she willingly accepted it when it came, and saw in it a channel, a bridge, through which she could express her love for her savior, represented by the child Jesus.
St. Therese was a thoroughly modern and absolutely relevant saint whose sanctity fits the demands of our modern times. Dead at 24 years old, little did she realize that, in her short life, she had acted exactly like Andrew Parker, and bridged the gnawing gap created by a mistaken notion of holiness as only about doing heroic and extraordinary things.
The world and life in this complex world is so ordinary. Everybody joins the rat race for more, for bigger and bigger homes, for more and more luxury and comfort. The name of the game is competition and unbridled thirst for power and wealth. Everybody thinks it is normal and routine now to sacrifice values for the coveted more. But it is precisely in this ordinary world populated by ordinary people that sanctity is born. It is precisely in this rat race world, that people like Andrew Parker come to the fore. It is in these prosaic times that the poetry and passion of heroism surfaces, when prophets and bridge-makers like Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, in a sense, even Gorbachev and Reagan, and the thousands of selfless and dedicated missionaries all over the world “stand erect and raise [their] heads, because [their] redemption is at hand” (Alleluia verse). Like Paul, like Christ, like the holy women and men known and unknown, they toil and work – even suffer tribulations. Living in this world of ordinariness, they earn their keep in the meantime. But ultimately, they all work for keeps, for eternity, in the conviction that for those “who fear [the Lord’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”