Following a God Who Suffered

Today’s Gospel came at a good time for me, and for perhaps others in the Church too. I have attempted to write a post several times about various topics… my feelings during this latest crisis, my opinions about what we need going forward, my thoughts about the situation in general. But it has been too raw, too confusing, and too overwhelming.

Then I heard today’s Gospel. I was taken back immediately to Caesarea Phillipi, where I stood earlier this summer. Carved in the giant rock face at that place (there are many natural details of geography that make this a fitting and fascinating place for Christ to enter into this exchange with Simon) are the abandoned niches of shrines to pagan gods. One can visualize Jesus walking among the shrines before turning to his Apostles and asking that all-important question: Who do you say that I am?

The answer has become easy – perhaps too easy. You are the Christ. And you are not one among many gods – you are God.

But are we ready for what that really means? It’s one thing to say it. But do we really believe it? And are we ready to do what follows from it?

As I walked around the ruins at Caesarea Phillipi, I looked down at what remains of the Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats. I think I audibly thanked God that He came in the flesh and founded a Church. I really don’t want to worship Pan and Dancing Goats.

Temple of Pan

But do I want the Church on my terms?

Yes, I do. Just like Peter wanted the Christ on his terms.

Frankly, over the past few days I have struggled with why Jesus chose to do things the way He did. There’s so much … humanity in the Church. So much humanity.

I have struggled over the past few weeks with anger. Probably a healthy dose of righteous anger (the kind that Augustine supposedly said is the daughter of hope), but anger nonetheless. I have not had a crisis of faith, but I have had several frank conversations with God. Today’s Gospel reminded me that if I’m truly going to profess Jesus is God, and abandon the life of worshiping dancing goats, I’m going to have to accept the Church He founded.

I’m going to have to accept the Church He founded … on His terms. And that’s a Church made up of sinners. That’s a Church that often falls short. That’s a Church that will disappoint me at times. But it is also a Church that is made up of saints. It is also a Church that will forgive me. It is also a Church that will give me Jesus.

It is a Church that has what I need to be holy.

Thankfully, the Church doesn’t depend on us. But it is made up of us. And so it’s time to roll up our sleeves and work. It’s time to work towards healing and reformation. It’s time to support the priests who are struggling and laboring for us. It’s time to call our leaders to follow Christ. And it’s time to follow Christ ourselves.

Heck, maybe in some ways, life would have been easier if we were still worshiping dancing goats. But we aren’t called to an easy life. We are called, as He reminded his Apostles again and again, to follow Him.

And we follow a God who suffered greatly. Wrap your mind around that one.

St. Junípero Serra

St. Junípero Serra is the newest American saint on our calendar, just canonized by Pope Francis on his recent trip to the United States. Serra came to the Americas after his ordination to the priesthood with the Spanish Franciscans. After working many years in Mexico, he eventually traveled up the coast to present-day California, where he founded the first nine of the 21 California missions.

He worked tirelessly in California, teaching the natives not only the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also agriculture and economics. Most importantly, he defended the rights of the native people against the Spanish settlers. He poured his life out in ministry. He suffered greatly from physical ailments in his legs and feet, even to the point of not being able to walk or stand. But he was indefatigable in his work to spread the Gospel.

There was controversy around his canonization, since his legacy is mixed with the history of the injustice suffered by Native Americans in this country. Those who protested his canonization cited the decimation of the people from disease brought by the Europeans and the mistreatment of the native people by the settlers. Yet if one was to look at Serra’s life and writings, we find that many of the accusations laid at his feet are either flat-out fabricated or actually belong at the feet of the Spanish and Mexican governments, and even more so, later, the United States government.

Gregory Orfalea, a biographer of Serra, admits, “I spent 12 years researching Serra’s complex story. When I started, I assumed I would find an Indian tragedy that belonged on his doorstep. But I came to the conclusion that the missions were not places of unrelieved misery, and that in most things, Serra was exemplary. In letters, mission and other archival documents, memoirs and the record the Roman Catholic Church amassed in investigating Serra for sainthood, I discovered Serra defending the Indians against Spanish comandantes and governors, both in Mexico and in California.

“In Mexico, where he served 18 years before he came to California, someone poisoned his altar wine. The evidence indicates it wasn’t Indians who wanted him dead, but settler soldiers whom Serra had just rebuked for trying to wrest land from the natives, who were, in Serra’s phrase (he often used it, and it is telling) ’in their own country.’”

It is apparent from his writings and the way he cared for the native people that he was not in the New World to conquer and subjugate, nor did he disrespect the freedoms of the people he served. Archbishop José Gomez points out, “All his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways. It is sometimes said that Father Serra was ‘a man of his times.’ But to tell you the truth, he really wasn’t. He was far ahead of his times. It’s amazing that in all the stories we have from his missionary journeys, all the tens of thousands of words he wrote in letters and diaries – we find hardly a hint of racist thinking of feelings of cultural superiority.”

When Kumeyaay warriors burned the San Diego mission to the ground, killing inhabitants and martyring Father Jayme, a friend of Serra’s, he argued the that people responsible not be executed but released, so that their souls could be saved: “As to the killer,” Serra wrote, “let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”

No one claims that Serra is without sins or mistakes. To believe that’s what the Church said on September 23, 2015 is to fail to understand what canonization means. But despite what moral relativism may dictate, evangelizing the natives is not one of those sins. Father Serra believed that Jesus Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he wanted the indigenous people to share that truth.

Shortly before Serra’s canonization, Archbishop José Gomez gave an address about the soon-to-be saint and spoke about the priest in relation to our modern world. “In our secular, ‘post-Christian’ age, it is perhaps an inconvenient truth to remember that from the beginning America was a spiritual project.” Gomez reminds us, “Father Serra helps us to appreciate in a new way that the missionaries were America’s true ‘founders.’ In him we see that America’s origins were not about politics, conquest, or plunder. The deepest motives of Father Serra and the missionaries who founded America were religious, spiritual, and humanitarian.”

Even the men we call our founding fathers had an understanding that this new country would be religious. The United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation per se, but it was founded by Christians who believed God had to remain at the center of the endeavor. It is not enough to have a Constitution that unites us; the unity comes from something much deeper. John Adams argued, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In a time when our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are all under attack, we should remember the words of Thomas Jefferson. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are … the gift of God?” Jefferson was no devout Christian. But he recognized that this American experiment was only going to succeed in a nation who recognized a power higher than themselves.

In his homily at the canonization Mass of Junípero Serra, Pope Francis gave us a commission. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”

Today is the 240th anniversary of the day the Second Continental Congress met in a hot room in Philadelphia. The next day, 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor of independence. The American experiment had begun. There are days when it seems the experiment has failed. But we continue to move forward. We continue to pray for our country. And we continue to hold on to the spiritual foundation of this one nation, under God.

St. John the Baptist

“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:3

Today we celebrate the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, the precursor to the Messiah.  John heralded the coming of the Bridegroom even before he was born (Luke 1:41) and dedicated his life to this good news.   Hand-in-hand with his proclamation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah-Bridegroom was his testimony to the truth.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”  (John 1:6-8)

It was for this unwavering fidelity to the truth that John was imprisoned by Herod the tetrarch and eventually beheaded.  John was preaching against Herod’s adulterous union to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (who was still living), and both Herod and Herodias were growing tired of their consciences being pricked.

The Gospel of Mark mentions an interesting detail about Herod and John, however.  Noting that Herod arrested John for the sake of Herodias, Mark notes that Herod liked to listen to John, even though he was perplexed by him (Mk 6:20).

You can almost see Herod sneaking down to John’s cell, without Herodias seeing him, and listening to this strange man speak of a new way of life, a kingdom and a Bridegroom, and repentance.  This charismatic preacher intrigued him.  This voice crying out proclaimed a message unlike Herod had ever heard.

That voice was a voice that could not be ignored.  It required a response.

Herod could listen to the voice.  Or he could silence it.  Listening to the voice would require sacrifice and courage.  In his case, it would require sending Herodias away and ending the sinful, adulterous union.  To listen to the voice demanded change. So Herod chose to silence the voice.

We too are faced with the same option.  We can listen to the Gospel message or we can silence it.   Once we hear it, it requires a response, and an affirmative response will demand that we live our lives differently than before.   Are we willing to let the Gospel change us?  Are we willing to embrace the sacrifices and the responsibilities the message will require?

The story of John the Baptist reminds us that the message does not remain a voice crying out into the wilderness.  It does not remain a Gospel preached from a pulpit or taught in a classroom.  The voice, the message, the Gospel must be responded to and must be lived.

But a culture that promotes secularism wants the voice silenced.  It does not want our lives to be changed by the voice.  It is uncomfortable about the demands the Gospel makes, and so it chooses to attack the voice rather than be transformed.

During this Fortnight of Freedom, we pray to have the courage of John the Baptist.  We pray for the passion to preach the truth and to join our voices to that voice crying out.  But we also pray for the courage to respond to the demands of the voice.  What am I called to do today, in my workplace or in my home?  What in my life needs to change?   Am I really willing to follow the Gospel?

Division and hatred


Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that seems to contradict the picture of Jesus we might have painted in our minds.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

Wait a minute? What happened to the Prince of Peace?  The Jesus we hear from today doesn’t seem to fit the “be nice to everyone” Jesus we all know and love.

From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law

Hm. Makes you want to squirm, right?

Well, maybe that’s his intent.  Maybe he wanted to correct a misunderstanding. The passage is within a great section where Jesus is speaking about the urgency of living the Gospel.  If you know the Master’s will, you’d better do it, and do it now. No delaying, no waiting.  If you read the end of the twelfth chapter of Luke, you can almost hear Him getting worked up as he talks to his apostles, finally culminating in:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!
I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division;

So is he still the Prince of Peace?  Yes, but not perhaps the peace the way we want to define it.  I am reminded of the classic scene from The Princess Bride:

Often when we think of peace, we think of something more like appeasement. Don’t create waves, don’t hurt anyone, don’t judge anyone, just keep the peace.

But similar to the modern misunderstanding of mercy (which I wrote about here), I don’t believe this modern understanding jives with the biblical understanding.  Neville Chamberlain might have announced that he had secured “peace for our time,” but we all know that peace was a mere appearance that had no lasting impact.  It was comfortable for him, it was non-confrontational, but it wasn’t real.

To be Christian means to make waves. Why? Because to follow Christ means embracing a life that’s counter-cultural and has been since the very beginning. After all, the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love also told us:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

He wouldn’t win many points as a motivational speaker, would he? Wow.  “Hey, guys, if you listen to me, everyone’s going to hate you!”  Honestly, what a way to win followers. If he wasn’t the Son of God, who would follow this guy?

Christ’s message IS one of peace, love, mercy, goodness, but not necessarily by the world’s definition of those things.  This means that we have our work cut out for us.  It’s not enough to preach Jesus Christ, we also have to explain to our modern world what the Gospel means.  Some will accept it, even though truly understanding and obeying the Gospel is usually rather uncomfortable.  Others won’t accept it, because it’s too demanding, too counter-cultural, too odd.

But be consoled.  St. John apparently had difficulty, too.  No one wanted to listen to the truth of the Gospel then, either:

Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them.
We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us.

The Gospel causes division. Why? Because it’s not as much this:


As this:

Sorrowful Mother image 3