||This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.
In the Gospel readings of this past Sunday we encountered a moment of tremendous shock and even of scandal. So often when we hear the word “scandal” in the Church these days, our minds are drawn immediately to the horrific travesties carried out by some who had promised to serve the Church but instead abused some of the most innocent of their flock.
In addition to being a matter of tremendous shame and sorrow for the Church and a matter of tremendous pain for victims and family, the revelation of abuse by the Church’s ministers is a shocking reminder of the reality that this Church, founded by Jesus Christ, is entrusted to the care of human beings, and thus subject to the failings of human beings. We recall this and repent of the times we have failed, especially as we come upon the penitential season of Lent.
The pain of victims is thus experienced (not in the same way) by the whole Church and is shared — just as should be our shared response — in love. Out of this pain, however, come doubts which are easy to understand. How could it be that this Church is really founded by Jesus Christ and ensouled by the Holy Spirit if Her members are so sinful? How could it be?
The conclusion of some with regard to this scandal and with regard to other scandalous failings of members of the Church is that the Church cannot be what She says. She cannot be the living Body of Christ in the world, God’s People, the Church founded by Christ to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Whether people realize it or not, this is the conclusion that many — either explicitly or implicitly — come to.
Looking to Christ
And how do we answer? How is it that, with audacious confidence, the Church continues to proclaim that She is all of those things? How can we look at the pain caused by our members and even those entrusted with leadership, and still say we are the living Body of Christ, the People of God, Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? We can because we believe Jesus Christ to be who He said He was, and to have done what He said He’d do. The scandal began (in a different way) with Jesus in His own time.
“(The people) were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” we hear. “They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph? (Jn 4:22)’” In the Gospel of this past Sunday, we see that Jesus had just spoken with tremendous wisdom in the temple. It was the very beginning of His public ministry and the people were shocked, scandalized, that the boy whom they knew might be making the claims that he was. Other translations of this story go further with the exclamations of the people, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t Mary his Mother and don’t we know his family? Where does he get all of this — acting like God?” (Mk 6:3 Mt 13:55, Jn 6:42) There is a translation of Scriptures which states of Jesus, “He was altogether too much for them.” It was too much for the people of Jesus’ time and for people to this day that in a concrete, limited, physical, visible person there is God! Who is going to believe that?
Jesus spoke to the people in this passage of the mystery of God’s plan and gave them a taste of the reality of God’s incarnation in His person. He speaks of the many widows to which Elijah could have been sent, but that he was only sent to one. He speaks of the many lepers to which Elisha could have been sent, but that he was only sent to one. The people in the temple are saying to themselves, “surely Jesus cannot be saying that He has been sent by God to be here, right now — we know this guy, he’s “too human,” God can’t possibly be operating through such normal means.” Jesus replies that God has always chosen ways that do not make sense to our human intellects, that God has chosen to be limited in His saving actions before, and that He can choose to be now.
And what is the reaction of the people to this revelation? How do they react to Jesus’s telling them that, yes, God can choose to act in a way that is concrete, visible, physical, and limited, and is doing so in Jesus Himself? We see in the Gospel, “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. (But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.) (Lk 4:28-30)”
The people were so scandalized at the idea of God limiting Himself in a way they would not expect, in a form that seemed so tangible and physical, that not only could they not believe, but they were infuriated!
And yet, Jesus continued on His way, in His mission, to His cross and resurrection and to the commissioning of His disciples, His apostles, to the founding of His Church. And we profess and believe this — despite the fact that the Church is concrete, and limited, and physical, and visible; despite the fact that we are ordered and sometimes seem to be limited by books and laws, and governed by weak human beings; despite the fact that we are made up of fallen individuals who often fail to live up to their call. Despite all of this, we profess that Jesus is who He says He is, did what He said He’d do, and abides with His Church, in His Spirit, just as He said He would.
Continued source of shock and scandal
It is a tremendous mystery and it continues to be a source of shock and scandal for so much of the world.
We are saddened at our failings, and we ask forgiveness and seek repentance — especially with this coming Ash Wednesday — but we recall that at its very core, what we profess is, in and of itself, tremendously shocking as well, and a call to something far greater, far larger, far more beautiful than we could ever do on our own. Our call is to image, in the best and most beautiful way we can, something that transcends. We are called to image the Risen Lord as His Body here on earth and to cry out to the world that though what you may experience seems too concrete, too physical, too visible, too limited, God is here at work, and is calling all to know Him in His fullness, and to live with Him in eternity.
Thank you for reading this and for taking it into consideration. I would offer that it could be an excellent meditation as we be begin Lent, with the questions, “Do I believe Jesus to be who He says He was? Do I believe what He said of His Church? Can God act through such limited means?” Many blessings to you all! Praised be Jesus Christ!