This Holy Week, let us end the complacency of our do-it-yourself Christianity. (Yes, ours.)
The great thing about Revelation is that it takes the guesswork out of religion. The great thing about a Revelation which includes the establishment of an infallible authority is that it takes the guesswork out of Revelation. And the great thing about eliminating the guesswork, is that it reduces the scope of human pride. That’s important, because Original Sin has given us all a secret desire to make our religion up for ourselves, so that it more perfectly reflects our own passions and prejudices.
Over the years I have written widely on how important the authority principle is in identifying the source and ground of an authentic spiritual life, so that we can commit ourselves to that life with a minimum of error and self-will. And yet after all these centuries of Christian experience, the tendency to roll our own version of the Faith is stronger than ever.
This once manifested itself in sectarian splintering. One new organization after another was created to satisfy each doctrinal difference. Astonishingly, all of these conflicting cults were fostered by leaders who claimed to be motivated by the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But now this same spirit manifests itself in a kind of sentimental anti-truth, even within the Catholic Church. Apparently the goal is to be inspired by Christ to believe that our own favorite ideas are motivated by love, regardless of which set of values we choose to embrace. In most cases, of course, this means embracing whatever ideas are dominant in the culture at the moment.
Thus we are faced with the spectacle of people with wildly different beliefs and values all claiming to be Christian or, even worse, all claiming to be Catholic. But if we take Christ at His word, we should realize that He came for truth: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37). As He said to the Jews: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
Our Lord also promised:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [Jn 16:13-14]
And then, recognizing all the factors that can confuse us in our apprehension of this proffered truth, He stipulated to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31-32).
Making It All Up
So why do we still insist on making up our own mini-versions of the Christian Faith? I repeat that every one of us has this tendency, although those who understand what I am writing about here will at least try to keep it in check. Unfortunately, even those of us who tend to be dogmatic have a corresponding tendency to invest with dogmatic authority both our own misunderstandings and whatever we decide is best in optional matters. This accounts for all kinds of factionalism within the Church, not to mention a tendency to be judgmental, to regard those who disagree as less Catholic than we, and to regard our own preferences as marks of the Elect.
I believe Good Friday, with Our Lord hanging on the Cross out of sheer love for us (with each person’s name held in his heart, as our priest mentioned today at Mass), is an excellent time for us to reflect on our tendency to identify perfect adherence to the truth with our own spiritual preferences, that is, with our own judgment. But as bad as this is, there is something worse. It is one thing to insist on too much, or even perhaps to insist on too little, but it is quite another to insist on beliefs and values which actually contradict what God has revealed.
This means that all of us need to pray and meditate on our tendency to remake the truth of Christ in our own image, or perhaps in the distorted image provided by our dominant culture. On every side we see Christian individuals and groups who favor what Christ and the Church forbid, or who deny the importance of what Christ and the Church enjoin. Even the worst evils of our age are too often championed in the name of Christ. Too many choose their church based on whether it preaches agreeable values—agreeable not to Christ but to themselves.
Both spiritual conceit and, worse, advocacy of sin, on the part self-proclaimed Christians are deeply scandalous. I know this applies in many unfortunate ways to me. But let me be even more honest: I am unwilling to believe it does not apply in some way also to you.
Literally the Way Forward
For Holy Week, then, I propose meditation on the words of Jeremiah, speaking what God gave him to say roughly 600 years before Christ. Adapting these passages to Our Lord’s fuller Revelation in the New Covenant, let us understand the worship of false gods to include every attachment contrary to Christ, and let us further understand the second passage below as a reference to prayers of self-justification for our own faction.
Here, then, is Our Lord’s accusation against us:
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are delivered!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? [Jer 7:8-10]
Let us also include the following caution against pouring out vain, self-justifying prayers:
As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I do not hear you. Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. [Jer 7:16-18]
Finally, let us reflect on the following Divinely ironic comment:
Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh! For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. [Jer 7:21-26, emphasis added]
Leaving behind our facile identification of Christ with our own philosophy of life, let us resolve finally to go forward this Holy Week. Let each of us ask Our Lord to strip us of our selfish attachments—attachments of intellect, will and taste. Let us forget the sins of others for a moment, and beg Jesus Christ to lead us forward—you and me—out of the dreadful spiritual complacency in which we find ourselves today.
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