Allowing God to Act beyond Old Boundaries

National Catholic Reporter
March 5, 2004

Thomas Merton once wrote that the Christian answer to hatred is not the command to love, "but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment to believe."

In other words, we live under the mercy of a God whose love does not require our worthiness, a comforting thought, perhaps, in these days of unworthiness, of violence and endless wars, of clerical abuse and hierarchical cover-up, of degradation of the planet and the growing gap between the richest and the poorest. "The root of Christian love," says Merton, "is not the will to love but the faith that one is loved by God."

God still loves us, so loves us, the Lenten themes remind us.

This Lent, of course, the ancient story is recast -- "Two thumbs way up!" the blurb on the ad says -- and shoved at us from every angle in wide-screen gore and all the power of Dolby Digital. Good Friday now has a "keepsake" soundtrack and a Web site.

We should, perhaps, feel good that Jesus is everywhere this Lent. It appears the discussions of "The Passion of the Christ," in small groups and classrooms, among friends and strangers, will certainly occur more widely and at a deeper level than most years.

But what, given that worthiness is not a prerequisite, does it mean to be loved, and consequently, to believe, in these times? Does it mean one takes pride in a Mel Gibson extravaganza or does it mean, as the case has been made by some in recent months, that the United States holds a privileged place in the scheme of the Almighty, that our ambitions are somehow sanctified?

Or does it mean something entirely different? Could it be that living under the mercy, in this case, is not so much comforting as jarring? For if God has to move first, if what we are left to do is to believe, then something in our national and cultural assumptions is thrown off. We are not in control. God's love doesn't know national boundaries. Further, if Pope John Paul II's words and actions are any guide, then God's love is also not confined to a single world religion or faith group.

In his Word from Rome, John L. Allen Jr. speaks of a recent insight: That a new self-assertion lies behind both the attraction to Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and, for some, to the new guidelines for translations of Catholic worship materials.

"The visceral appeal of 'The Passion' for many Christians lies precisely in the fact that no potentially divisive elements have been smoothed over. It is not the Gospel 'lite.' "

Likewise, traditionalists are fond of the revisions of post-Vatican II language of the liturgy back to a more pre-Vatican II style because it resists the "argot of secular modernity" and re-establishes the boundaries between Catholic and, say, Protestant praying, lines that some think were blurred by the reform council of the 1960s and its rethinking of Catholic relationships toward other Christians and other faiths.

So some celebrate the new edginess, the re-establishment of old divisions, the new "muscular" Christianity.

What an unfortunate comparison. What a shame that identity for some depends on revitalizing old divisions that led to destructive hatreds.

It has been interesting -- and a source of pride among some Catholics -- to have witnessed a number of priests and Catholic scholars in recent television discussions of "The Passion." They brought a welcome theological sophistication to the discussion of history as well as scriptural texts and a much deeper understanding of Jewish life and history than many others who also weighed in on the film. Such understanding is the result of decades of work, beginning with Vatican II and the new understanding it brought to relationships between Catholics and non-Christian faiths, particularly with Jews.

Is something lost as the rough edges of old distinctions and differences are rubbed away with understanding, or is something greater gained?

In reviving old differences and language that resets the barriers do we rediscover identity or merely shrink back into the comfort of what we know, to a definition of a God that depends on us, on what we determine God to be, on the limits of our imaginations, and not God's imagination?

Joseph Cunneen, in his review of "The Passion," quotes Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser's understanding of the Passion not as a catalogue of physical suffering on the way to death but rather as "a certain submissive helplessness he had to undergo in counter-distinction to his power and activity a helplessness extremely fruitful for him and the rest of us." (See story)

Maybe it is not so much muscularity, but fear of such helplessness and uncertainty that pushes us to reinstate the old boundaries and to keep within comfortable definitions. For if we allow God to act without regard to borders around nations or faiths -- the first step in the fight against hatred -- then the work of believing becomes a bit more complex and demanding, but perhaps also more fruitful.


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