At some fundamental level, being a Christian means being able to acknowledge our weaknesses, our shortcomings, and our hopelessness without God, His grace, and His Church. So I trust I will not cause scandal when I say that I often find myself having some difficulty reconciling one teaching of the faith with another; one scripture reading with another; one homily with another.
I also trust I will not cause scandal by assuming that many of you struggle similarly.
It’s not necessarily that we doubt the veracity of the teaching, or the scripture, or the homily, but rather that we had a hard time understanding how the two things which we believe to be true can be true at the same time. Often times, it’s not the individual truths that we strain to comprehend, but the combination of them that can often be so puzzling.
It does not require great mental gymnastics to image Christ as divine. Nor does it require any pain to imagine him as human. But both, fully and completely? That requires a lot of thinking and heavy doses of divine revelation and faith.
That’s all part and parcel of what makes the Catholic faith so beautiful, so fascinating, so challenging.
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet at one moment, a wise ethicist in the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still – a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.
I’ve taught CCD for many years and I try to remind my students as often as I can that their perceptions of Christianity are usually wrong. They see Christianity as a safe, quaint, old-fashioned comfortable way of easy living, practiced by their grandparents. The students’ chosen paths are more rebellious, they think. They are the daring-risk takers. They don’t do what’s accepted or predictable. They dream big. Risk big. Act big.
But, I tell them, I struggle to think of anything more truly radical, more countercultural, more earth-shattering than Christianity faithfully practiced and lived. Not that I would know personally. I am so far from perfect, I can’t claim to have experiential knowledge, but it seems to me that imitating Christ – in all his beautiful paradoxes – is so much more rebellious than being a trendsetter with latest and greatest app on your smart phones or being an early adopter of the latest fashion fad that 100 million others will buy into.
Many of my students’ grandparents and all their co-religionists are living their lives to the fullest, in the most profound and real sense of the phrase. The students, I suspect, are trying desperately to stave off boredom and find meaning.
~ Matt St. John