Twenty Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time (B)
Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
Jesus and his disciples set out
for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply,
“John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others one of the prophets.”
And he asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said to him in reply,
“You are the Christ.”
Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.
He spoke this openly.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic novelist, lived a short yet vibrant life, dying of lupus at the age of 39 in 1964. She describes how she found herself one evening in the presence of whom she rather ironically called “Big Intellectuals.”
“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life). She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
Careful—Flannery O’Connor was not simply using profane language when she used the word “hell.” She was using it in a very technical theological manner. And, here in church, we can certainly speak of hell in its religious meaning. For, what is “hell?” As Jesus makes it very clear in his own teachings, “hell” means the absence of God, a renunciation of all that is Good. Essentially O’Connor was saying, that if we’re all here doing what we’re doing and the Eucharist is merely a symbol, a reminder for me of God’s presence, that the gathering is empty of its divine presence—for we don’t need a reminder of God—we need God! She renounces, that is condemns, a false and empty gesture when what we need is a true and full experience of the presence of God. If we’re gathering weekly and the Eucharist isn’t the real presence of Christ, but rather a helpful reminder, it is idolatry, which can’t save, and we renounce and condemn it—to hell with it!
Beginning this week, and continuing for the next three weekends, I intend to speak about the pastoral plan for our parish that was formulated in the Spring of 2011 for our Nativity Parish. Therein, the pastoral council and our former pastor Fr. Thoman have set a tremendous course for our the five years, beginning with an expression of our parish mission, which has been printed on the cover of our bulletin for the last year: “We, the people of Nativity Parish, commit to proclaiming Jesus’ Kingdom by learning and teaching His Word, adoring His Presence, and serving the needs of all people.”
They next identified four ideals that must guide our parish if we are indeed to fulfill this mission. I will speak of all four ideals this coming month. Today I being with what must be the essential first goal: FIDELITY: “Fidelity to the gospel of Christ and to the teachings of the Church.” In a nutshell, this ideal insists that all that we do, the very reason for which we exist, is to be faithful to Christ, his gospel, and his teachings that have been handed on and given to us by the Church. Or, to express this same ideal as Flannery O’Connor might have, “if all that we do is not about Christ, to hell with it.” If all that we do is not about Christ, we might as well close the doors and be done with it. And unless it is all about Christ and his gospel, we reject and renounce it—to hell with it. In other words, as the psalmist said it well, “unless the Lord build the house, in vain do we labor!”
The same issue is at work in today’s Gospel, when Jesus is asking Peter to speak for the disciples about who He is. He is asking about Peter’s faith. Who do Peter and the disciple believe Jesus to be? As a model for our fidelity, Peter replies to Jesus’ question: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is not just a good man, a wise man, or a kind man: he is God. And Peter’s faith can insist on nothing less, for unless Jesus is the very power and presence of God, he cannot save. But next, when Peter misunderstands who Christ is to be, how he will save us by the laying down of his life on the cross, and rebukes Jesus, Jesus’ response is swift: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” “Get behind me, Satan!” And you know where Satan dwells! Not easy words, essentially: to what you are saying, to hell with it! It is not of God, but darkness! FIDELITY calls us to the belief that it is only when Christ acts in our midst and saves us can our parish have any value.
The value of FIDELITY, faithfulness to gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church, is our only hope. So, to put it bluntly: If each Mass is not all about Christ, to hell with it. If each parish gathering and meeting is not about Christ, forget it. If our religious education programs do not teach the gospel of Christ, they serve no purpose. If our Catholic schools do not teach the gospel of Christ in all they do, they must change. If our parish organizations do not further the gospel of Christ, they should be discontinued. If we are serving with our lives something else besides the face of Christ in the least among us, we are missing the point. If our lives do not reflect the gospel of Christ, we condemn ourselves. Our focus at Nativity must become laser-like: we are all about Christ and his gospel, or else our parish is an illusion, a diabolical, hellish illusion that presents itself as godly but is a mirage that can not save. This call to fidelity is an awesome challenge to place Christ and His gospel at the center of everything we do at the Church of the Nativity. So, if you’re looking for someone else besides Christ, you might as well go elsewhere.
For Jesus Christ and his cross is our spes unica, our only hope, we poor children of Eve. And since Jesus Christ is our only hope, we intend FIDELITY to Jesus and his gospel. The stakes are enormous—nothing less than life in its fullness now and in eternity. So, let it be renounced, let us condemn, to hell with anything in which we place our ultimate hope except Jesus Christ and his Gospel.