Who we are and what role we play Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

This is the first in a two-part series on the five “acts” in the drama of salvation history.

This fall, I am giving presentations to all of the high school teachers, staff, and administrators in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. These talks take place on an annual basis, and they are dedicated to a regular cycle of topics. This year, the theme is morality. Lucky me!

My guess is that disquisitions on doctrine or Church history or pastoral practice wouldn't raise too many hackles, but ethics is practically guaranteed to rile people up, especially now when issues of same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and assisted suicide are so present to the public consciousness.

Who we are as Christians

I am not sure whether I'm delighting or disappointing my audiences, but I am not ordering my talks to address these hot-button questions. Indeed, it is my conviction that a good deal of mischief and confusion is caused precisely by characterizing Catholic morality primarily as a matrix for adjudicating such matters.

A purely rational or deductive approach to controversial ethical choices is largely an exercise in missing the point. For to know how to behave as a Christian is a function of knowing, first, who we are as Christians.

Understanding how to act is, if I can pun a little, a function of understanding what play we are in. The great Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, has said that most of us are like actors who are dressed up for Hamlet, who have memorized all of the right lines from Hamlet, and who thoroughly grasp the thematics of Hamlet. The only problem is that we are in Romeo and Juliet.

The play that we are in

Therefore, what I am sharing with the good teachers of the L.A. Archdiocese is largely Christian anthropology, a fancy way of saying the articulation of what play we're in and what role we've been given in that production.

Like the great Shakespeare plays, the drama of salvation history consists of five acts: Creation, the Fall, the Formation of Israel, the Coming of the Messiah, and the Church. Comprehending the dynamics of all five acts is indispensable to knowing how to behave. So let's take things one step at a time.

Act one

According to the still breathtaking poetic account in the first chapter of Genesis, all created things come forth in an orderly and harmonious manner from the hand of the Creator. Sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth itself, animals, even those things that crawl upon the earth, come into existence as a sort of stately liturgical procession.

What the author is showing, first, is that none of these things -- all of which at one time or another in the ancient world were the object of worship -- is divine. What he is demonstrating, secondly, is that all of them find their purpose in giving praise to the Creator.

It is of crucial significance that the final element in the parade -- like the last figure in a liturgical procession -- is the human being. We are meant to see our identity and our task: to give praise to God on behalf of all creation. Before the Fall, Adam was the first priest.

Act two

So what is the Fall? What takes place in act two is the loss of our priestly identity. Grasping at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we end up worshipping our own egos rather than God, and from this misdirected praise, chaos follows. Things fall apart, both inside and outside, that is to say, in our hearts and in the natural order -- and the Garden becomes a desert.

Throughout the Bible, the basic problem, though it manifests itself politically, culturally, psycho-dynamically, etc., is always bad praise. But God does not abandon his people; on the contrary, he sends a rescue operation.

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org