Sunday, April 20, 2008

Human Nature and the Divine Condition

(5th Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on 19 & 20 April, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See 1 Peter 2:4-9 and John 14:1-12)

Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?
—John 14:9

How must Christ have felt when He spoke those words to St. Philip? Was He disappointed? Frustrated? Perhaps He was even exasperated.

St. Philip—and the rest of the apostles—had been with Him from the beginning of His public ministry. They had watched Him heal the sick and raise the dead. They personally witnessed amazing and remarkable events, things that only God could do…and still they did not know completely who He was.

Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?

St. Augustine says, regarding that awkward exchange, that Jesus reproves Philip “for not recognizing his divine condition through his human nature” (De Trinitate, Book 7). The humanity of Christ got “in the way” for St. Philip. He was not able to see the “divine condition” because he was focused on Jesus’ humanity only. He could not imagine that someone who was human, like himself, could also be the eternal Son of God.

Could that sort of thing ever happen in our own time? Is it possible for us to be so focused on humanity that we lose sight of, or fail to recognize, the “divine condition” in the world? Absolutely, and it happens all the time.

It does not happen that people mistake the divinity of Christ on account of His human nature, like in the gospel this weekend. But it is something that happens all the time with His Bride, the Church.

The Church is also both human and divine. We truly believe and profess weekly that the Church is divinely established; it is founded by Christ. We are the only “organization” in the world that is founded by God. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church. The Church is a divine institution.

Yet the Church is also human. It is made up of human individuals who are like Christ in so many ways, yet unlike Him in our fallen human nature. He was without sin. We struggle with sin all the time, and that is why our faith teaches us that the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, #8).

That is the reality we experience in the Church, and it can also be one of the greatest obstacles for the world around us. To paraphrase St. Augustine, the world around us often fails to recognize the “divine condition” of the Church because it focuses solely on the human dimension.

One obvious example is the Apostolic Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He has come to our country to strengthen the faith and bring us a message of hope. He has come in the person of Christ to show us the works of God, and so many—in the media especially—have missed that completely.

Days before the arrival of our Holy Father, the Providence Journal announced his coming with this disappointing headline: “Pope’s U.S. Visit will find a faith in disarray”. Not exactly a “Welcome, Holy Father!” is it? If you read the article, you know it became much more negative than even that headline.

Then came Monday. The front page article for that day was one of the most discouraging reports I have read in the Journal (and that is saying a lot). Mind you, this was the very day before the Pope arrived. There was nothing positive in it. It talked only about empty pews, closing churches, and the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Now let’s be clear: these are real and painful issues that need to be addressed and should be talked about. The clergy sexual abuse crisis especially is something that demands a response.

And the Church has responded.

Pope Benedict XVI has responded nearly every day he has been in this country. He has tried to reach out in some way to those who are hurting and has continually prayed for reconciliation and healing.

Bishop Tobin, in Thursday’s article in the Providence Journal, said “the Catholic Church has done and continues to do as much as any institution in society to try to respond to the terrible events of sexual abuse.”

Yes, there is so much healing that still needs to take place and the Church continues to seek that reconciliation and purification that God has demanded from the beginning. But to make the clergy sexual abuse crisis the focus of the Pope’s visit or to publish article after article, day after day, of the same shameful facts and figures without even trying to communicate the rest of the purpose of Benedict XVI’s visit is to render a tremendous disservice to the mission of reconciliation and hope he has come here to establish.

Besides the media’s misrepresentation of our Church and our Pope, why should this concern us? I would say that all of us are susceptible to the same difficulty that St. Philip encountered in our gospel. With so much negativity, day after day, and a focus solely on the human faults and weaknesses of individual members of the Church and the vast array of challenges we face, are we not in danger of losing sight of the “divine condition,” and the work of the Holy Spirit among us?

This is no small concern, because the Church by her very nature is both human and divine. To see the Church as only a human institution is to live without hope. If the Church is only human, then there is no hope of healing, for anyone. If the Church is only human, then there is no hope of overcoming even the smallest of difficulties, no hope of changing our lives or the world around us. But the Church is not only human, and there is always hope.

That is the message Pope Benedict XVI has brought to our country this week. The theme of his apostolic visit is “Christ, Our Hope!” Speaking to the bishops in Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday, he spoke of the purpose of his visit: “To strengthen further the bonds of communion that unite us.”

How could one man ever expect to accomplish all that? To bring hope and strengthen the Church in the United States? The answer is at the heart of our faith as Catholics: he’s not just any man. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth and he has come to bring us the message and the hope of Christ Himself. He has done that by doing exactly the opposite of what many in the media have done. Instead of pointing only to the human dimension he has shown us, instead, the “divine condition.”

In his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday morning, the Holy Father spoke about the mystery of the Church, at the same time both human and divine. Following the example of many writers and theologians (he mentioned our own Nathaniel Hawthorne) he used the image of the stained glass windows to illustrate the mystery of the Church.

[The article in the Providence Journal on Sunday morning, the day after I first preached this homily, did cover this very point made by Pope Benedict, using the very same illustration of stained glass windows…Not a moment too soon, thanks be to God.]

Pope Benedict described how beautiful the stained glass windows are inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But, he noted, if you look at those windows from the outside, they are “dark, heavy, even dreary.” That is very often the way people view the Church: from the outside, seeing nothing comely or attractive.

“It is only from the inside,” said Pope Benedict, “from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.”

He was clear that even from the inside, the light from those windows can sometimes become darkened and dimmed through routine and the sins and weaknesses of the members of the Church. They can also be dimmed, he said, by the society we live in, so often forgetful of God and resentful of the demands of Christian morality.

But the main point the Pope made to the priests and religious gathered together there—and to every one of us, by extension—was that we are called to experience the majesty and beauty of that light, to be blessed and graced by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, and then to go out from that experience and reach out to the world around us.

We are not called to look at a world that has rejected the gospel, rejected the Church and rejected Jesus Christ, and simply shake our fist in anger. No, we are called, instead, to love. “We, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion,” said Pope Benedict, “are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.”

Pope Benedict closed his homily that day very beautifully, by directing us all beyond merely the human dimension of the Church and all the challenges we face, and to look more intently to the divine condition.

“So let us lift our gaze upward! And with great humility and confidence, let us ask the Spirit to enable us each day to grow in the holiness that will make us living stones in the temple which he is even now raising up in the midst of our world.”

God is doing something in the life of the Church and in the world we live in. He is continuing to build up His Church, even now, and is strengthening the mission of evangelization and hope that He has intended all along. We are called to be “living stones” says Pope Benedict, to be a part of that glorious work.

St. Peter, our first Pope, says the same thing in our second reading for this weekend:

Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
—1 Peter 2:4-5

That is why we gather together each week as people of faith: to offer spiritual sacrifices—to offer our very lives and the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist—not only for ourselves, but for the world around us. We are called to live fully the mystery of our faith here, and then to leave this Church and help those around us to see that, yes, the Church is human, but also that it has been touched and blessed at its very foundations with the powerful and everlasting divine condition.