Friday, November 1, 2019

With The Saints

"Who are these wearing white robes?” says an elder in heaven to the narrator in today’s First Reading from the Book of Revelation. The elder then answers his own question, “Why, these are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” Now anyone who has ever tried to remove even a small blood stain from a piece of clothing can understand that it must have been a near impossible task in first century Palestine, long before OxyClean or Shout. And we can only wonder at the perfectly ridiculous image of robes made radiantly white by washing them in lamb’s blood. But this is not just any lamb. And the offbeat beauty of these words reveals the truth of the dazzling, unprecedented victory of the Lamb of God. It is Jesus’ self-forgetful love that has created this radiance.

He is the radiant, blood-stained Lamb, who is seated on the throne at God’s right hand. We live now in the period of his sovereign rule over us. But it is a reign that is, nonetheless, far from complete. And ultimately the Beatitudes describe those who are helping to make the kingdom happen. And as all the saints would remind us, it’s all about Christ Jesus - losing ourselves for him, in him, and ultimately becoming transparent to him. Today is this great feast of transparency and transformation.

Jesus tells us, “How blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” he invites us to recognize ourselves among the lowly and insignificant - those who look to God for everything (see Dennis Justison.) He speaks as a wisdom teacher, faithful to his Jewishness (see Daniel Harrington). Indeed, the Beatitudes are replete with wisdom from Torah. For our Jewish forebears, Torah was the Way. But it is Jesus who affirms and completes Torah in all that he teaches, in all that he accomplishes, in all that he is. Jesus is Torah perfectly fulfilled and enfleshed, for he is the way, the truth and the life. The Beatitudes are ultimately then not his philosophy but a way to be kingdom, a way to live as if God were truly in charge, the way to live in him, who is our Beatitude, our way to true happiness.

My brothers and sisters, the way of the Beatitudes continues to be counter-cultural, counter-intuitive. It is the way of doing the opposite of my first inclination. And each time I hear these Beatitudes, I see too clearly how far away I am from all that Jesus calls blessed and happy. I am not dependent enough on him alone; I too readily seek consolations beyond him; I can too often be haughty, silly and unrecollected, self-absorbed and caught up in my own pettiness; too quick to judge and withhold compassion; and very often I don’t want to forgive or make peace, I just want to have things my way.

So, like the apostles, I want to say, “Then who can be saved?” Or better still like Peter, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Perhaps that’s the grace - to realize humbly, even joyfully, my inadequacy. The Beatitudes are not a checklist for the holy, but a call to imitate the wounded Christ and allow him to reform our hearts, so that they conform to his broken heart. This is the grace of Beatitude - a way to imitate him, who is all mercy, all peace, all mourning turned to joy, imitate him in whom we are becoming Beatitude. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ in our embrace of our own poverty and neediness and inadequacy. The saints are here to remind us, “Don’t be afraid. It’s not about you. It’s about him; let him transform you.”

Jesus invites us to step into the poverty and helplessness we need no longer fear and flee or deny - because we will find him and our brothers and sisters down there. What Jesus enumerates are attitudes and ways of being that come from relationship - with him and with one another - attitudes arrived at by the hard road of humility, vulnerability and doing the opposite of what my first snarky reaction might be. For when I finally recognize how poor and mercy hungry I am, maybe, just maybe I notice that I am not alone, that others are needy like me; hopefully my heart gets broken open.

In the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus this morning, a revolution is happening, with vulnerability at the center. Inadequacy, vulnerability are the keys to Beatitude, the source of all that gives us life and joy, love, belonging and connectedness. For when I am vulnerable, I realize that I desperately need God; I realize that I desperately need others. I come to understand that I am imperfect, inadequate and on the way along with my brothers and sisters, and so I am connected (see Jamie Arpin-Ricci on Brené Brown). It is this loving connectivity that is true Beatitude. To be poor, merciful, to mourn over all the tragedy that surrounds us, to allow ourselves to be rejected for doing the right thing - this was Jesus’ way; it is to be our way, as it was for all the saints. But bear in mind, when you love like this, you bleed like Jesus did and your robes get stained - but in the process absolutely radiant.

Our way is imitation, imitation of Christ, not dumb impersonation, but likeness that will lead to transformation. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I that live, but the wounded Christ living in me; the life I now live in the flesh I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me. This is what the saints wanted with all their hearts, what Jesus longs for, for each of us, this deep inter-subjectivity and connectivity. 
Detail of painting by Fra Angelico. Reflection by one of the monks.