The key, for the person of faith, is to not only to choose for the Kingdom in a particular circumstance but to also develop the ingrained habit/discipline of choosing for the Kingdom. I think that our choices are at the heart of the images that our Lord gives us regarding our relation to the kingdom of heaven in this Sunday’s gospel (Mt. 13:44-52).
|Jean Valjean and the Bishop (scene from Les Miserables)|
There is a scene found in the beginning of the story Les Miserables (currently playing at theaters as an award-winning movie) that is quite striking. Jean Valjean has been freed from his twenty year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread yet he is still ostracized by society due to the identification papers he must carry on himself. The papers testify that he is a former convict and therefore no one wants anything to do with him. Embittered by this, not able to find work and left starving, Jean Valjean finds himself taken in one night by a Catholic bishop. He is given a warm meal and a place to sleep. Yet, in the middle of the night in an act of desperation and anger, Jean Valjean makes off with the bishop’s silverware. He is caught by the local authorities and brought back, yet the bishop (at this point) does a truly remarkable thing. Knowing full well what Jean Valjean has done, the bishop tells the officers that he freely gave him the silverware and he even tops this by giving him his last two candlesticks. Jean Valjean is freed and by this act of charity is given a new life.
In light of this Sunday’s gospel (Jn. 2:1-11) I would say that this bishop through his action of forgiveness and mercy not only gave Jean Valjean a new life but invited him into the wedding banquet.
The turning of water into wine is the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry. As Christians we rightly see this miracle and the context in which it occurs (the wedding banquet) as a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of God which Christ comes to inaugurate. The wedding banquet is a celebration of great joy and union. The Kingdom of God is the fulfillment of all humanity’s hope and yearning where heaven and earth are once more united. At the wedding banquet water is turned into wine; in the Kingdom of God the daily and mundane is transformed into moments of rich encounter with the divine.
The wedding banquet and its miracle is rich in typology and in symbols for Christians yet I would like to continue to hold this miracle story in dialogue with the action of the bishop from Victor Hugo’s book in order to bring out another dimension found within the gospel story. As Christians, not only are we to rejoice in the banquet ourselves we are also meant to invite others within. In truth, we cannot fully celebrate the banquet ourselves unless we see to the needs of others; unless we also invite others within through acts of mercy and love.
Mary, as always, is the model in this for us. Mary is a woman fully immersed in the culture of her time and she knows the importance of the wedding banquet. She is concerned for the good of this young couple and she knows how poorly it might reflect on them if the wine runs out. Possibly they were from poorer families who could not afford a lavish celebration. It is Mary’s awareness of the need of this young couple and her concern for them that leads her to her son just as it is the bishop’s awareness of Jean Valjean’s need that leads him to mercy. Confident in the mercy and love of her son, Mary does not even question or argue after making her request known rather she turns to the servers and simply says, Do whatever he tells you.
The logic of the banquet (which is the logic of the Kingdom of God) is that mercy and love must be extended. It is not enough to celebrate the banquet for ourselves; in fact that is a truly impoverished celebration. To truly celebrate the banquet we must be willing to let go of ourselves – our needs and wants – and we must be willing to extend love and mercy to one another – to family, to friends and to strangers. It is that simple. This is the logic of the banquet and it is the logic of the Kingdom of God which overcomes all the false philosophies and sad divisions of our world. As Christians, we are called to live the logic of the wedding banquet.
At the end of the story when Jean Valjean is being led to eternal rest – a true father who gave of his life for his adopted daughter Cossette – he shares this wisdom, “To love another person is to see the very face of God.”
To live a life in the logic of the banquet – helping to extend God’s love and mercy to all people – is to know God and to share already in joy of his Kingdom.
|Christian Mystics by Florian|
Rahner’s observation then raises the question, “How might we learn to be mystics? How might we truly grasp and live the christian faith in our particular day and time?” I would suggest that both our faith tradition and this Sunday’s readings give us three points of consideration.
The first point in Christian Mysticism 101 is to learn how to ponder in the Scriptural and Hebraic sense of the term. In our western pragmatic mindset we tend to equate pondering with figuring out and solving. The Scriptural understanding is more nuanced though. In Hebrew thought to ponder does not mean to figure out but to be able to hold the tensions of life together and to remain within that tension in hope and in obedience. The primary witness of this ability to ponder on the mysteries of life and faith is Mary. Mary pondered at the words of the archangel Gabriel. When Mary, Joseph and the twelve year old Jesus were returning from their visit to Jerusalem we are told that Mary held all that had occurred and been spoken in her heart. Mary remained at the foot of the cross in the midst of pain and hurt. She held that tension in her heart.
In today’s gospel (Mk. 4:26-34) we hear our Lord say to the crowd, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
There is a mystery to life and to faith that is beyond our reckoning and our ability. This is not a lazy excuse on our part. We certainly have a part to play but the primary role is God’s. The mystic learns to watch in awe at God’s unfolding work. God is building his kingdom and despite any sign to the contrary it will be achieved. Holding the tensions of life opens our eyes to glimpse this and it also makes of us better people.
The second lesson in christian mysticism is found in the image of the mustard seed. Again, in today’s gospel we hear our Lord say, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
In his second volume on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict uses the image of the mustard seed to epitomize the resurrection. This might seem counter-intuitive to us but the Holy Father is making a wise observation. The resurrection of Christ is the smallest mustard seed of history precisely because it is the most improbable of occurrences in history. Who rises from the dead? Throughout history who has ever heard of such a thing or thought such a thing even possible? Yet all creation and all time is being sanctified through this most improbable of occurrences, this smallest of mustard seeds. “But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches…”
Once again, the christian mystic learns to trust that God is at work even in the smallest of moments, occurrences and encounters. The mystic learns that there really is no such thing as coincidence. Rather all is providence.
The third lesson is to trust and believe in a personal God. This might seem commonsense when we consider Christianity but it may not be as common nor as sensible in many peoples eyes (ourselves included) as we often suppose. Why? Because a personal God will make personal demands upon me. Even as we might profess Christianity we are quite inventive about keeping the Christian faith a bit removed as just a moral code or social justice doctrine or good principles to aspire to. We are also quite adept at keeping Jesus locked in as just another teacher or guru from the past. The mystic is far from comfortable with this comfortable approach to faith and discipleship. Because of this he or she will often feel alone and out of step with the world and even others who may profess Christianity. The mystic knows of what is written in today’s second reading (2 Cor. 5:6-10) because he or she is seeking by God’s grace to live it.
“Brothers and sisters: We are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or ill.”
The depth and challenge of this aspiration to please God can only come about and be achieved through a relationship with a personal God. God as a nice theory or life philosophy does not cut it. God encounters us (and often in the most surprising of places and situations). The mystic comes to recognize this.
It is no longer enough to just coast in the Christian faith. One might try but when the bitter winds of pain, remorse, sin and even evil are encountered such a one will be lost. The stopgaps are gone. Again, for better or for woe, there are no longer the social structures to blunt the wind.
Today, to be a christian means to be a mystic and to ground ourselves within a community of mystics.