By Bishop Mark Hagemoen, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon
[Notes for a talk that presented by Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen to the local Catholic men’s group “Priest Prophet King” on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 2022 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon.]
Dear Brothers in Our Lord Jesus Christ:
I have been thinking and praying for a while about how I would present thoughts and reflections to you regarding this overly ambitious title: “Theological Reflections on the Crises and Opportunities of Our Time for Our Church.” Included in this challenge was how to introduce and frame these thoughts.
Recently as I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours at the end of the first week of Lent, the following Psalm prayer inspired me about how to begin:
“Abraham, Joseph and Moses prefigured your plan, Father, to redeem mankind from slavery and to lead them into the land of promise. Through the death and resurrection of your Son, your Church fulfills these promises. Grant us living water from the rock and bread from heaven, that we may survive our desert pilgrimage and thank you eternally for your kindness.”
What stood out to me were the familiar themes of Divine revelation on humanity’s history as recounted in the Sacred Scriptures: our slavery to sin; God’s relentless plan to save us from slavery and lead us to His great promise; Jesus Christ as the ultimate and only way from death to life; the “desert pilgrimage” as our current experience that is trying and challenging, (and this) is a way we can live today to an absolute future life, abundant life, because of God’s never-failing kindness, generosity, and faithfulness to us!
A central theme of the Book of Exodus is about our human condition in all of this: our reality without God, and our hope with God’s intervention and redemption. Let us remember the figure of Moses in the Exodus event. He is a model for us men. I will come back to him at the end of my presentation.
Subsequently, in the Liturgy of the Hours – the Office of Readings summarized passages from Gaudium et Spes (Nn. 9-10), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council. The theme is, “Man’s deeper questionings.” I will quote the Office of Readings at some length:
“The world of today reveals itself as at once powerful and weak, capable of achieving the best or the worst. There lies open before it the way to freedom or slavery, progress or regression, brotherhood or hatred. In addition, man is becoming aware that it is for himself to give the right direction to forces that he himself has awakened, forces that can be his master or his servant. He therefore puts questions to himself.
“The tensions disturbing the world of today are in fact related to a more fundamental tension rooted in the human heart. In man himself many elements are in conflict with each other. On one side, he has experience of his many limitations as a creature. On the other, he knows that there is no limit to his aspirations, and that he is called to a higher kind of life.
“Many things compete for his attention, but he is always compelled to make a choice among them, and to renounce some. What is more, in his weakness and sinfulness he often does what he does not want to do, and fails to do what he would like to do. In consequence, he suffers from a conflict within himself, and this in turn gives rise to so many great tensions in society.
“Very many people, infected as they are with a materialistic way of life, cannot see this dramatic state of affairs in all its clarity, or at least are prevented from giving thought to it because of the unhappiness that they themselves experience.
“Many think that they can find peace in the different philosophies that are proposed. Some look for complete and genuine liberation for man from man’s efforts alone. They are convinced that the coming kingdom of man on earth will satisfy all the desires of his heart. There are those who despair of finding any meaning in life: they commend the boldness of those who deny all significance to human existence in itself, and seek to impose a total meaning on it only from within themselves.
“But in the face of the way the world is developing today, there is an ever increasing number of people who are asking the most fundamental questions or are seeing them with a keener awareness: What is man? What is the meaning of pain, of evil, of death, which still persist in spite of such great progress? What is the use of those successes, achieved at such a cost? What can man contribute to society, what can he expect from society? What will come after this life on earth?
“The Church believes that Christ died and rose for all, and can give man light and strength through his Spirit to fulfill his highest calling; his is the only name under heaven in which men can be saved. So too the Church believes that the centre and goal of all human history is found in her Lord and Master.
The Church also affirms that underlying all changes there are many things that do not change; they have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever.”
Lots here to reflect on, eh brothers?!
The Antiphon that concludes this prayer is: “The Lord was true to His sacred promise; he led His people to freedom and joy.” Ah, the Lord is leading His people for freedom and joy!
So, I have chosen three sub-themes:
- Firstly, CHOOSE YOUR KINGDOM – MAKE SURE IT’S THE KINGDOM!
- Secondly, CHOOSE WHO and WHAT IS GOD – MAKE SURE IT IS THE TRUE GOD.
- Thirdly – CHOOSE YOUR MODEL OF FATHERHOOD – AMD MAKE SURE THERE IS ROOM FOR THE MYSTIC!
1. CHOOSE YOUR KINGDOM – MAKE SURE IT’S THE KINGDOM!
So, men, how do we hold ourselves, in our lives – the sacred promise that the Lord was true to? Do we believe that He is still true to His promise? And is He still leading you and me …from slavery… to freedom and joy? More to the point: are you and I allowing Him to lead us to this freedom?
I strongly think that the circumstances of the last two years challenge us regarding what Kingdom are we living for, and by what and whose terms do we live today. We all know that it is one thing to say, “Lord, Lord”, and another thing to really mean and live the implications of this exhortation. I would summarize this distinction as living the THEO-drama or the EGO-drama. The THEO-drama can be simply summed up as: “It’s all about God,” whereas the EGO-drama is: “it’s all about me!”
The THEO-drama is the great meta-narrative of our faith. It is also the great meta-narrative for our world. This meta-narrative describes all elements of our human reality – our origin; our blessing; our fall and failure; the intervention of our relentless God who calls us back to His heart and turns our “hearts of stone into hearts of flesh,” the gift and failures of God’s prophets and kings who prepare the way for the Saviour – the Saviour who finally comes to us, and is more than we can imagine… because He is not only the best of what it means to be human – but He is also God: the God-Man!
This God-Man does something absolutely bizarre and unexpected, that has no precedent in human history: although He is God, He does not exploit His advantage, but rather becomes a servant, a slave, to those that He is immensely superior to – and furthermore gives Himself up for us, accepting agonizing and humiliating death …on a cross!! And having died, He descends into the horrible abyss of hell, only to break and touch THE ultimate and final barrier between us and God: death and life.
This kind of heroism, featuring radical humility and service – the Devil never saw coming. As the Devil exalted himself for having won, the Father raises the Son from death and hell to LIFE: everlasting LIFE. This the Devil never saw coming! And, having risen and ascended to the Father, the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit – the life of God in our world and in God’s people today – calling them from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from death to life.
What a meta-narrative! What a THEO-drama! So, I am going to prefer my own EGO-drama? … to this?? Oh my gosh, talk about a culture of narrowness ending only in my own isolation and death. No wonder there is such a crisis in our culture today. No wonder there is such a sense of loss – a loss of our humanity; a loss of community; a loss of meaning; a loss in a hopeful future. And, we all must be very careful about how sophisticated the alternate EGO-drama can seem to be – fed and reinforced according to our prejudices, predispositions, and ultimate sheer neediness! Indeed, ongoing conversion is way easier said than done, especially when dealing with crisis and neediness.
And there is a crisis!
I recently heard a conversation hosted by the Christian evangelical Russell Moore who directs Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project. Here is a summary of the conversation. The crisis can be summarized as a loss of community and loss of meaning. There is a great rise of mental-health problems; those who say that they have “no close friends” has risen 400 per cent in one generation; opiate addictions – and other substance abuse addictions – are sky-rocketing; the number of people who have committed suicide has risen by 33 per cent since the year 2000; there is a 57 per cent depression rate increase over the last few years. Political polarization, violence in cities is also increasing, as are traffic fatalities – significantly up over the last two years, even though people are driving far fewer miles given COVID; people are driving more recklessly; there are more fights in airplanes.
It is important to note that many of these trends started about 2013 -in other words, pre-COVID, although COVID has been a capstone.
Sociologically – “social capital” is down – people are less social in their practices. There is also a technological story – social media is clearly having a negative effect. The nature of social discourse – as evident in media readers’ comments and of course on social media – continues to reach new and consistent lows in terms of negativity, extreme criticism and disrespect.
In terms of the moral and ethical story: for much of North American history, character was something you worked on – we were fundamentally sinful and broken people, thus, we needed to work on our sin and get a moral formation. And, if one did not recognize the moral category of sin in a religious faith or spirituality – one certainly recognized the impact of unchecked human failure and self-aggrandizement and their potentially-devastating effect on human flourishing. After all, the two World Wars were not that long ago, and we still have people alive today who were around for these – although their voices are few and hardly heard.
Today, people cannot stand moral anarchy, and have chosen “politics” – a system which can denigrate to a “us versus the other” view. In this view I/we are good; others are wrong/ evil – and we must “fight our foes.” We have gone from moral anarchy to moral war.
This part of the discussion concludes with citing Alan Bloom in The closing of the American Mind: the rise of emotivism means my morals are whatever feels good to me, and if they are different for you, then it’s okay, “it’s all good – no worries.” And, we have gone from a period of relativism where everyone wanted to eschew any “judgment,” to a period of extreme judgment – everybody is under judgment! We have left the age of the moral individual and are moving into the “Age of Tribe.” Social media features “Understanding nowhere; Judgment everywhere” – and this is a very punishing way to live!
Eric Fromm also cited: “Of all kinds of loneliness, moral loneliness is the most lonely.” People will flock towards some sort of basis for meaning.
The conclusion by these evangelical theologians reflecting on the American Evangelical Church context: “Not that Fox news was so exciting, but that the candle of Christian formation was so dim.” The Gospels give you a moral project! So grow more Christ-like and more gracious …and yet this was not what Christians were/are seeing, hearing. Politics comes along, and points to ‘the evil that is over there and away from me, versus “the sin that is within my heart.” The line between good and evil no longer runs through every individual but runs between groups. A simplistic view in part due to “the faithful” and faith groups absorbing too much of the culture … instead of being “salt and light.”
Since the time of this commentary an unexpected and until now unthinkable aggression by a major world power on a European country has occurred – Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. The unthinkable is that the ugliness and atrocities of both World Wars only less than a century ago is raising its head again. None of us really have any idea what it is like to be moved from the utter conviction that we must go forward and give of ourselves towards a conflict, a war where we sacrifice all our efforts – and our lives. Then, in the midst of something more terrible than we could ever have imagined – we see our fellows, our brothers literally having limbs or even their torsos – torn, ripped apart – and seeing such a steady barrage of blood, guts, and human carnage – which no video game or noblest battle version of “Gladiator” or “Lord of the Rings” could ever prepare anyone for. Soon young heroic men are moved from their bravura to being heard crying for their mothers – as all around them is death and carnage that makes no sense, and is probably one of the worst kinds of hell this side of the eternal one!
When the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989 – an event that marked the fall of communism as a major force in Eastern Europe – a journalist commentator asked a question of then Pope John Paul II as to whether he was glad that this event had happened. A surprisingly sombre Pope responded as follows: “I am glad that Godless communism has fallen. However, I am worried about what will replace it.” Later he was pressed about what he meant by that statement. His response – Godless capitalism and materialism is every bit as devastating as Godless communism.
Interesting now that we are witnessing this clash of ideologies again. However, perhaps it’s less a clash of ideologies, and more that of raw re-establishing hegemony and the desperate response to a perceived threat due to erosion of political power and influence, and straight-forward respect on the international scene. There is also the threat to Putin of a thriving developing democracy in Ukraine – with all its perceived benefits – and the contrast with the marginal state of social, political, and economic affairs in neighbouring Russia.
It is interesting to note that thus far moral persuasion by voices throughout the world have had little effect on Putin’s Russian invasion. What has had a much greater effect is the financial sanctions on Russian oligarchs seen as benefiting from the Putin regime. As these few great Russian influencers are increasingly squeezed, this worries Putin much more. Indeed, the children of darkness seem to be much more effective in this situation then the children of light (see I Thessalonians 5: 5). Or maybe this is more about the need for the cunning of the serpent versus the innocence of the dove (see Matthew 10:16). Whatever bible verse you apply – all of this state of affairs is clearly not of the Kingdom.
Getting back to our more local and diocesan context, I certainly have experienced how many clergy, religious, and laity have been stretched and challenged regarding what is God’s will for my life, and what does Jesus say to us about living in a world with so much tension and polarization.
I remember sharing with many of you at my first presentation to Priest, Prophet, and King a very important teaching from a great Dominican theological and Thomistic scholar, Antoninus Wall, OP – who died last year at the age of 96. I quote the late Fr. Wall as follows:
“The genius of Christianity is its central place between transcendence and immanence, and this precise central place is the INCARNATION – Jesus Christ – the Word made Flesh – The Word and Life of the eternal God of the universe, who inserts Himself into our human history and reality – in order to bless us and save us. This is why we proclaim, “O come, O come Emmanuel – God IS with us, God dwells among us!!” (Rev. Antoninus Wall, OP, in his presentation at the Archdiocese of Vancouver Priests’ Retreat at Westminster Abbey, May 20, 2003.)
Fr. Wall goes on to point out: “Any ‘heresy’– whether historical or current – comes from being on either extreme of this central place.” As you probably know, Heresy is defined as any belief or opinion contrary to orthodox Catholic doctrine.
May I say that I have seen and heard much heresy or potential heresy over the last while – albeit mainly from people under a high degree of stress and anxiety. It is beyond the scope and time permitted for me to outline in this presentation. But suffice to say, the nature of heresy is that it always works against the marks of the Church – the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. The COVID-19 pandemic – because of its features and effects – has been an unfortunate experience of all of this.
At one end of the spectrum are voices that privilege themselves to having a particular insight and awareness of clearly what must be done to mitigate the pandemic, and this strategy is in some instances above all scrutiny and subordination to critical and ethical and moral decision-making. It has led to great hardship beyond the effects of the pandemic itself – which has featured people who in their exercise of personal conscience, have in many cases lost employment, faced critical public scrutiny, and have even had to relocate their families.
On the other end of the spectrum is another manifestation of a type of heresy – one that features that one’s own interpretation and exercise of personal conscience is absolute, and has little or no place for the principle of other moral principles, including the “common good” – and especially when consideration of the lives of the elderly, vulnerable, or otherwise health-compromised are even passed off with the attitude – “they will die anyway!”
I realize that there are many more subtle nuances when outlining the many tensions that we have experienced around the pandemic, and again, it is beyond our time and scope to examine these. However, few experiences have so laid bare the need to apply ALL that our Catholic faith teaches when dealing with a crisis that has resulted in polarizations that have not only affected nations and cultures, but parishes and families! Again, this is not merely due to the COVID pandemic, but the pandemic has further manifested concerning and difficult larger trends.
I was taught many years ago in a dogmatic theology class – on the topic of the problem of faulty images of God – that we always need to hold up all that Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about God. If we bias and isolate one reference over all others – we heighten the chance that our image of God will be partial and, given the problem of human interpretation left to its own devices – even faulty.
So brothers, I ask you, how are we doing with living in this time of tension? What is our guide and path to living through such tension? Because this will tell you what Kingdom you are choosing. Our Catholic teaching is that the Kingdom of God is fully manifest in Jesus Christ. And, although His Kingdom will be fully manifest in the next life – His Kingdom is present in Him in the here and now! Let us remember that Jesus Himself lived in a time of many tensions – social, political, economic, and religious. How does His life guide us through all of this – ALL of His life and teachings.
So, that was a long first point. To summarize – the first point was: what Kingdom are we living for, and by what and whose terms do we live today?
2. CHOOSE WHO AND WHAT IS GOD – MAKE SURE IT IS THE TRUE GOD!
Secondly, I believe we are in a time when our Christology – the study and theological interpretation of Jesus Christ – will be very important to not only who we believe in, but how we live.
Back to Fr. Wall’s comments about the central place of the Incarnation between transcendence and immanence. A key theme for Christology has concerned the self-awareness and self-identity of the Lord, and how this relates to how the Lord Jesus interacted and engaged with the affairs of the world – all the while living His deepening intimacy with His Father in heaven. In Christ both these immanent and transcendent features are represented and real. Christ also represents the fullness of all Christian virtue – all those most noble and inherent qualities of what it means to be fully human.
On the theme of Christian virtue, Pope Benedict XVI provides an important illustration in his observation about how the life and figure of Jesus Christ is the virtue of charity’s most radical illustration. The point here is not what Jesus merely teaches or represents, but how He actually puts flesh and makes concrete the living of all virtues – especially charity. As Pope Benedict XVI states:
“The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ Himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts – and an unprecedented realism. In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God’s unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God Himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep’, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which He gives Himself in order to raise man up and save him.” (Pope Benedict XVI, The Virtues, p. 61)
Pope Benedict XVI reflects on our Saviour who is eminently engaged in our human, albeit fallen – human affairs. As Pope Francis said to a gathering of priests in Rome during the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy: “Mercy gets its hands dirty.” Jesus is Mercy.
Indeed, the issue of virtue goes further than that of “what we value.” While values are also important, they do not express the fullness of the Catholic viewpoint. Virtue comes from Divine revelation. As stated by the Catholic Catechism:
“…A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of oneself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all one’s sensory and spiritual powers; he/she pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1803)
The Catechism also features a paragraph quoting Gregory of Nyssa: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” A tall and seemingly absurd statement – and we are only assured by the words of the Saviour, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (see Luke 18:27)
This wisdom is being discovered and talked about in more places than just our Catholic Christian circles. For example, recently Jordan Peterson, reflecting on the Bible as the Book that changed his life, said the following upon reflecting on the story of Abraham:
“I also do believe and this is the unspoken question …you don’t have any idea how rich and fulfilling your life could be despite its tragedy and limitation if you stop doing the things you know to be wrong … it’s really a grand experiment … one of the things that God tells Abraham constantly as the story progresses … is walk with me and be perfect… So the injunction is … aim high, establish this relationship with the highest thing that you can conceive of … and why would you do that … Well, what are you going to do – establish a relationship with the most mediocre thing you can conceive of? Or are you going to establish relationship with the lowest thing you can conceive of? People do that, and I wouldn’t recommend it – it’s a really bad thing, and there’s a lot of pain associated with that … and there’s pain that can expand into a world destroying force – down that route and there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Is there something superstitious and foolish about attempting to establish a contractual relationship with the source of all being? I mean, I just don’t see that as an erroneous conception.” (Jordan Peterson, “The Book That changed My Life” YouTube presentation, Feb. 2, 2022)
Peterson goes on to the theme of the locus of the divine resides in the individual and not the state, and this makes the state subservient to the individual. So, working with Peterson’s statement, if we are going to act like God, then we need to live the high standard that God establishes regarding the individual AND the human community. And, this One God is manifest in the Son of God – Jesus Christ – the blueprint for what it means to be fully human, fully alive! We remember that He is the Good Shepherd of all the sheep – the 99 he dwells with, and the one that is lost that He seeks and finds to bring back and join the 99.
The individual and the human community are served by the state – Peterson is quite right to point out that the focus the divine presence is not a social or political reality – whether it is called the state or some other socio-political construct. The human community and reality that is part of the Body of Christ is made up of many members – young and old, rich and poor, many races and cultures, ordained and lay. All share in the life, mission, and ministry of Jesus Christ – some by virtue of the Sacraments of Initiation, and others by ordination to fulfill the ministerial priesthood at the service of the common priesthood of the laity.
3. CHOOSE YOUR MODEL OF FATHERHOOD – AMD MAKE SURE THERE IS ROOM FOR THE MYSTIC!
So, of all the sections this is one you may have not saw coming – at least the mystic part. To give you a heads up – think Moses… and think St. Joseph. In Moses’s case – he met the Lord on the mountain side in the brilliant burning bush that was not consumed by the fire, but rather was made more luminous. In the case of St. Joseph – he was the foster father and protector of Mary and Jesus, who received God’s plan and instruction through dreams, and then had the clarity of mind and heart to act on this unusual and intimate encounter with God.
The papal household preacher, now Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Capuchin, a number of years ago reflected on the late Fr. Karl Rahner’s statement about the mystic, as follows: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’, one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he will cease to be anything at all.” Then Fr. Cantalamessa reflected as follows: “In order to keep faith alive in the future, we will need the witness of those who have had a profound experience of God, rather than people who can demonstrate its rational plausibility.”
I begin these comments by saying that the devout man of God needs to experience the fatherhood of God. And since all of us – no matter what vocation – are called to participate in the fatherhood of God – which means we represent His fatherhood to our families, our parishes, and larger communities – then we better have a profound and regular experience of the fatherhood of God – because merely describing and demonstrating it is not enough!
Many of you know that we have begun an undergraduate formation house for men considering priesthood or religious life, called Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. The Verbum Dei Sisters – along with several of our own priests with related training and experience – oversee a human and spiritual formation program for the candidates, that is now required by the Vatican for all men preparing for the priesthood. One of the key sections is entitled – ‘family of origin’ in which the candidates reflect on various experience of roles of fatherhood. As they work through the book by David Stoop titled, “Making Peace with your Father”, they reflect on various topics about the qualities of fatherhood, and more difficult topics regarding ways and times when our father let us down or eluded us:
- The workaholic father
- The silent father
- The emotionless father
- The alcoholic father
- The tyrannical father
- The abusive father
- The seductive father
- The competitive father
- The idealizer father
- The good-enough father
The author summarizes DANGEROUS FATHERS:
- The physically abusive father
- The molesting father
- The terrorizing father
- The weak father
And, the author outlines The HEALING PROCESS:
- Identify the symptoms
- The process of forgiveness
- God our Healing Father
As I reviewed this list, I not only thought of my own experience of my father and fatherhood generally which came also from my grandfathers and uncles – I also began to think of what example of fatherhood I have revealed over the years as a priest. I would have to say that I had a lot to learn, and that I made many mistakes – some of which are represented in the list I just went through – in my own experience of providing leadership and fatherhood.
That’s why the point about making room for the mystic! Why the mystic? I would describe the mystic as follows: “A person who has a regular and direct experience of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This encounter features a deepening intimacy with the Lord and goes beyond merely studying about God and the things of God. It also involves experiencing the mind and heart of God, which also features largely in what the Church calls ‘ongoing conversion of life and heart’ as we become the image of the Sacred Heart Himself.”
Thus, the mystic! The life of the mystic helps us to encounter God so that as we deal with all sorts of challenges and difficult issues, and of course the opportunities and privileges of fatherhood – we will not be consumed but rather become more and more the brilliant, beautiful healthy men of God that we are called and destined to be.
This is a lesson of last Sunday’s first reading from Exodus – when Moses meets God in the burning bush that is not consumed by the fire, but rather is made more lively and luminescent because of the presence of God. Or, a lesson we behold in the life of St. Joseph, who could have been utterly devastated and overwhelmed by fear at the threat to his family, but is able to receive and respond to God’s message brought to him in dreams – which represent his own mystical union with God in his life and vocation of fatherhood.
Speaking about Moses – I share with you the following quote by Pope Francis several years ago, who reflected on the life of Moses. As I share this, hear the qualities not only of the leader of Israel bravely showing the enslaved Israelites the pathway to freedom – despite their constant resistance, fear, and rebellion – but also hear the important and distinguishing features of fatherhood:
“The great leaders of the people of God were men that left room for doubt. Going back to Moses, he is the most humble character that there was on Earth. Before God, no one else remained more humble, and he that wants to be a leader of the people of God has to give God His space; therefore to shrink, to recede into oneself with doubt, with the interior experiences of darkness, of not knowing what to do, all that ultimately is very purifying. The bad leader is the one who is self-assured and stubborn. One of the characteristics of a bad leader is to be excessively normative because of his self-assurance.” (Pope Francis – “On Heaven and Earth,” a dialogue between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, 2013).
A feature about the biblical account of Moses that has struck me is what God did through Moses, and what God did not. What He did not do – was force the rebellious wills and hearts of the Israelites to submission. What He did do was do great things to reveal who He was, and His plan to save Israel. And He did this through Moses.
He used the obedience and leadership of Moses – often represented through his outreached arms with his staff – to be the means of great, terrifying, saving miracles. A few examples – Moses takes his wife and sons back to Egypt carrying the staff of God in his hand (Ex. 4:20); Moses’ staff is used to carry out God’s miraculous signs to Pharoah: the staff becomes a snake that eats and conquers the other snakes (Ex. 7: 10ff); staff touches the waters of Egypt which all become blood (Ex. 7: 20ff); the staff touches the waters and land and frogs and gnats come forth (Ex 8:5 and 8:16); the staff is raised toward heaven and thunder, hail, and fire comes down (Ex 9:23); the staff is raised over the land and locusts come forth (Ex. 10: 13). Of course, the great dramatic scene of the parting of the Red Sea for the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptian war party is accomplished by Moses raising his staff over the waters (Ex 14: 16ff). Later, the battle against Amalek at Massah and Meribah features Moses with his staff in hand. He raises his hands and staff. As long as these are raised Israel is successful in battle, but when these drop Israel begins to do poorly. Thus Aaron and Hur hold up his arms, and Israel is victorious (Ex. 17: 9ff). However, there is also the use of the staff that reveals Moses’s lack of trust in God’s promise to show His holiness to Israel. At the waters of Meribah Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff – which reveals a hesitation and doubt.
Why this emphasis on the rod or staff of Moses? The rod conveys the concept of authority, power, discipline and defense of God’s people. The staff represents all that is long-suffering and caring. It is said to also represent the cross that would have significant meaning in the New Testament: the cross of Jesus Christ links His life, passion, and giving Himself unto death – it links heaven and earth – God and all humanity.
Brothers – we are entrusted with a staff too. It is feature of our vocation. But while we hold it, it is not our own, but represents and signifies the One who entrusts us with His mission, and enables us give our lives and utilize our giftedness for something much higher than what we see in the here and now. Otherwise, the tensions, the challenges, and the obstacles may overwhelm us.
A few years ago I heard a presentation by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto who concluded comments on stewardship referring to the parable of the talents (see Matthew 25: 14-30). He stated that one of the gifts we are given in our human condition is that of time, and we are to discern and use our time, along with our talent and treasure – well, because the Master has indeed called us to His great work. Nothing is ours. Nothing we keep for our own. We are stewards, and one day, sooner or later, we will be called by the Master to give an accounting for our stewardship.
However, given our Western propensity to individualism and personal performance (something that I know I have my own biases towards), I offer you a concluding guiding scripture. It is the abiding passage in the Gospel of St. John, where Jesus points out in the metaphor of the vine and the branches, that it is our abiding unity and relatedness to the Vine-dresser, the Father, and the Vine, Jesus Christ, that we, the branches, not only function well, but are in a constant, vital intimate relationship which sustains and nourishes all aspects of our lives, let alone directs us in terms of specific purposes and actions:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master’s business; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another (John 15: 7-8; 11-17).”
What a call to “fatherhood,” and to an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that takes us from merely being “servants” to “intimate friends” who know and share in the Father’s plan for … well, saving the world! The tensions may always be with us, at least until the end of time anyway. But it will be the way of the Mystic that will sustain us in being connected and authentic in seeking the true Kingdom, and the true Lord of our lives and of the universe.
After the Lenten prayer service, eight year old Theresa said to the preacher: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to give you some money.’ ‘Well, thank you, ‘the preacher replied, ‘but why?’ ‘Because my father says that you’re one of the poorest preachers I’ve ever heard.’
Thank you very much for your patience with this poor preacher. Blessings to you all and have a great evening!