19 November 2016

Hanging onto the Promise: A Divine Love that is Stronger than Death

  There is a single theme running through yesterday's readings. Whether it is the reading from Revelations or from the Gospel of Luke, or the powerful refrain of the responsorial psalm, the authors are clear that we are called to be people who "hold onto" God's promise; holding onto God's promise is the essence of all prophetic vocations and the essence of Jesus' messianic life and calling as well. In the presence of turmoil and chaos, in the shadow of the cross and the threat of sin and death to be persons of faith is to be persons who make their own in every situation and circumstance the promise that the God who IS Love-in-act, loves us with a love which is stronger than death. 

The picture in the Gospel is powerful. Ordinarily we focus on the fact that Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple and that is certainly appropriate. This action embodies the promise that God will act to transform not just the Jerusalem Temple but that in Christ he will make the entire world into a "house of prayer", that is, into the privileged place where God is present, active, and sovereign, where, in fact, he is truly worshipped and all reality is really as it is meant and made to be. In other words Jesus' enacted parable embodies the promise of a love that will do justice,  and an ultimate justice at that.

In the language of the first reading from Revelations, this "enacted parable" promises that the mystery of God will be brought to completion. It is striking that in the story of the cleansing of the Temple there are really two groups of people present. The first is the Pharisees  and other members of the Jewish leadership. They understand Jesus very well and are threatened by him; they have been seeking to find ways to put him to death but until now they have been thwarted. And here is the second very significant focus of the parable we should pay attention to in the same way we pay attention to Jesus throwing out the money changers; there is a second group of people, those persons who hold or "hang onto" Jesus' every word --- those persons who in some way have been touched directly by Jesus' ministry and the promise it embodies and mediates --- by the promise, the Word Jesus incarnates more and more fully throughout his life in every moment and mood of that life. And in light of the touch of this incarnate promise these fragile but divinely empowered people are those who, for the time being anyway, hold back the tide of darkness and violence the religious leadership are set to unleash on Jesus and (through the Romans) the world at large.

These are the people who have heard him teach and preach; they have had demons of all sorts cast out, been fed and nurtured by him. They have been listened to more profoundly than has ever happened to them until their encounter with Jesus and they have "been known", profoundly known and loved by him. They have been forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God and to themselves as well. They have found their shame transformed by an unconditional acceptance and esteem which heal at a person's core as Jesus called them by name and names (and thus effectively makes) them "friends" --- and friends of God. In every situation they encountered a man who effectively spoke truth to power (and to "powers and principalities") to unbind their hearts and free them for wholeness and abundant life. In every case Jesus is the One who confronts alienation, weakness, powerlessness and brokenness with the Incarnate Word or Promise of God: God loves them and all of creation with a love that is stronger than sin and death.

This is the promise, the Word of God Jesus himself stands in and from more and more fully --- even as he stands more and more clearly under the shadow of the cross; it is the promise in and through which he has been formed by prayer and struggle, by encounter after encounter of both love and rejection as his own sacred heart was enlarged and shaped into an image of the Living God. It is the promise which is the content of his own faith and the nature of the divine heart of the One he calls Abba. It is the living Promise he incarnates in our workl.

And so Jesus moves into the lion's den, so to speak; he casts out the money changers, takes up his place as teacher and in this way promises to make of this Temple and the whole of creation a house of prayer. His actions are provocative. They are a final instance of Jesus speaking truth to power, where the Divine promise encounters the world so in need of and hungry for that promise --- and also so implacably opposed to it. Jesus' action here will bring the entire establishment, both Jewish and Roman, down on his own head. And it will inaugurate the final showdown, the definitive encounter between godless death and the promise of a God who loves us with a love that is stronger than even godless death.

And the outcome of that showdown is well known to us. In Christ, the Love that is Stronger than death was subjected to death, even godless death; it was allowed to descend to the depths of that reality, and transformed it into the sacramental place where we may meet this Promise face to face. Cross and resurrection. The love of God encounters the very worst that human beings can do to one another, the very worst that human beings fear and build more and more securely into their world and relationships. And, in the face of death the Promise we call God is proven to be true: God loves us freely, gratuitously, prodigally, with a love that indeed is stronger than sin and sinful godless death.

The call we have each been given is the call to hang onto and be People of the Promise. This is the essence of faith. It is also the essence of prophecy, for to be People of the Promise is to speak and act with a power that changes reality. It is to speak and act in ways which accomplish the will of God in our world. But to be prophets in this way is not comfortable. As Revelations tells us the Promise is sweet like honey on our tongues. Our first contact with it as we take it into ourselves is wonderful in this way, but as we really digest it, take it into ourselves more deeply, it will also sour our stomachs. It will require that more and more deeply and extensively we speak truth to power in our own lives. It will mean that we confront the powers of sin and death still at work in our world with the Promise, the Living reality, of a Love that is stronger than death, a Love that does justice wherever it is truly spoken/enacted. As Christians --- priests, prophets, and rulers who are formed in and from this Promise this is always our vocation.

As we approach the end of our liturgical year and the Feast celebrating the sovereignty  (Kingship) of Christ, the urgency with which we are called to embrace this prophetic call today cannot be underestimated I think --- not because Jesus' own mission failed but because it did not. Thus too, through the crucified, risen and ascended Christ, it must continue in us. We must be People of the Promise, prophets and priests of a love that does justice and speaks and sings the future into existence. In this way God continues to create a new heaven and a new earth where (he) is truly all in all.