Sunday, October 3, 2021

Together in Him


We see it happening all over - a nostalgia “for a return to clear borders, settled truths,” a worldwide fear about what is not pure, what is other, different, or mixed.  One commentator has named this phenomenon Anti-pluralism. It takes many shapes – “nationalism, authoritarian populism, and religious separatism;” “reactions against diversity, fluidity, and the interdependent nature of modern life.” There is a deepening division between people - left/right, red/blue, white vs black and every other color in between and now even vaccinated vs anti-vaxxers; divisions over race, gender, belief. This constant need to keep what is “other” and different far, far away. The network of relationships, connectedness, and trust that everything else relies on is unraveling.1

So it is that in today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis we are reminded, "It is not good for the man to be alone.” It is not good for us to be separate, not healthy, not holy. God envisions us connected; this will be good for us. God has created us incomplete and meant for connection. If marital commitment is its icon, then all friendships, communities, all relationships are meant to echo this love and connectedness that God envisions for us - together we are meant to mirror the loving relationship that God is - Trinity of Persons joined in constant mutual self-gift.

Such is the good news of God’s kingdom - we are not in this alone. We’re not supposed to be. God in Christ has promised to be with us always; and he is relentlessly calling us to be like God, to forget our stubborn pride and independence and learn how to accompany one another in love, speak the truth and seek it together, with utter focus and compassion. Why? Because human relationality is the bedrock of who we are.2

In today’s Gospel Jesus reaffirms the beauty and intimacy of marriage as sacred – it is God who has joined together man and woman to become “one flesh.” Divorce was most often, though not exclusively, the husband’s prerogative.3 And so in denouncing this dismissal, Jesus seems to highlight a woman’s frequent predicament; she could be sent away at her husband’s whim, (even, some rabbis taught, if she were a terrible cook.) Women and children were among the most vulnerable in Jesus’ time, but for him, they are the little ones who are able to receive the kingdom as free gift from God. They can be part of the kingdom because they can make no claim to it on the basis of their status or power.4 They are nobodies. But Jesus takes them seriously. And so, as he embraces little children in today’s Gospel, he reveals what God is like. God loves smallness, embraces it.

It is God our Father who has, in the first place, placed a Child in our midst, his own beloved Son, Jesus. And our union with God and one another has been accomplished through his flesh.5 This reality breaks through in all Jesus’ signs and healings. Jesus abolishes divisions and separation. Isolated outsiders – lepers, the lame, blind and deaf are all healed, the dead are healed and given new life; and sent back to those they love, back to family and community. And it is finally in his death on a cross, that the ugliness of our stupid divisions and divisiveness will be revealed and put to death in his wounded body. He is our peace, and he has reconciled us to himself and to one another once and for all.

As we prepared to enter this abbey, each of us can probably recall at least one friend or relative asking, “Why do have to go there to pray? What’s so special about a monastery; you can pray anywhere.” But we sensed it; we knew in our hearts that we needed a community. We needed to be with these people who did this “thing” together. How precious, how necessary, how good it is for us to be here - together in this place. Even when, or more especially when, all seems craziness or burden, when we hurt and disappoint and irk one another, even then, perhaps most of all then, we are invited to muster the humility, vulnerability, and forgiveness that are demanded of us, and understand that it would not be good for us to be alone. That my way is not as good as our way, that we are always better together than apart. It is good for us to be here, remembering the “incredible care we have for each other at the core of our being.”6

It is in community that we discover our need and loneliness over and over again. And, if we’re honest, we discover to our dismay and salvation our total incapacity to do this life alone. We see the beauty of our incapacity, the beauty of our insufficiency. We see how little we are when left to ourselves. Then it is that we become most truly like Jesus, then we become his beautiful, wounded body. Then perhaps we can persevere in hope, even if sometimes only a thread of hope, perhaps like the Cistercian martyr of Tibhirine, Blessed Luc, who was often overheard murmuring in the quiet darkness after Compline, “OK, Lord, I will give you one more day. Just one more.”  

If we do not remember our essential goodness, our capacity to be more loving than we suspected, we are doomed. This is our only hope, our destiny. To be transformed, conformed to Christ, does not mean that we will immediately get better, holier, or nicer, but we will be opened to “the harrowing wonder and disequilibrium”7 of our desperate need for Christ Jesus and for one another.” Then at last we will be perfectly disposed to receive and to become Holy Communion. 

Gnadenstuhl, in the Blutenburg chapel in Munich from 1491, by Johannes Polonus. [1] See David Brooks in The New York Times, 2018 & 2020. [2] Paul Kalanithi. [3] Mark, M. Eugene Boring. [4] John Donohue & Daniel Harrington, Sacra Pagina: Mark. [5] Robert Barron. [6] David Brooks. [7] Miriam Pollard.