Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Catholics love to do stuff. We love activity. Dinners, parish meetings, service projects, prayer groups, pilgrimages, collections, anything and everything that might bring about some Good in the world. We are repeatedly urge on by our bishops and priests to engage the world with acts of charity so that the work of God might be a witness to His freely given mercy. During Lent, we're exhorted from the pulpit to find a little quiet time, settle down from all our busyness, and spend some time alone with the Lord. Such exhortations wouldn't be necessary if we were a lazy lot given to lounging about. Doing good stuff is encoded in our Catholic genes. And with good reason: for us to be perfected in Christ, we must be fully committed to God's work—intellect and will; body, mind, heart, soul; all of our strength, all of our energy. So, when the people chasing Jesus and the disciples around the countryside find them and ask, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?," Catholics sit up and pay attention. Jesus' answer, however, seems somewhat incomplete: "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." Our work is to believe?
In the early fourth century, an insidious tendency slipped into the Church's spirituality from our Greek philosophical ancestry. Crudely put, the dominant wisdom in Greek culture urged folks to set aside their physical needs and focus on pursuing higher, purely intellectual goals. The body's demands on our time and energy were seen as not only unfortunate distractions but potentially deadly traps as well. The truly enlightened will transcend the physical world and dwell wholly in the realm of Ideas. When this bit of Greek wisdom entered the Church, it was given the name “Quietism” and its defenders taught that only by passively surrendering the self to the divine could we be saved. Like most heresies, Quietism contains a grain of truth. Surrendering one's will to God in the pursuit of holiness is an excellent first step. But it is just the first step. When Jesus tells the crowd that believing in him is what they must do to accomplish the work of God, he's teaching them the first step to take in the life-long task of working with God's love to bring about both individual and communal holiness. Believing in the Christ goes hand-in-hand with accomplishing Christ's work.
Jesus always seems to bob and weave around straightforward questions and then answers the unasked yet more fundamental question. Today is no exception. The people in the crowd want to know what it is they must do in order to do God's work. They are wanting Jesus to say something like, “Feed the hungry, give alms, fast and pray, and go on pilgrimages.” But Jesus knows that if he gives them a Holy To-Do List, they will run off, do those jobs, and wait for holiness to find them. The more fundamental (and unasked) question he eventually answers is: who must I become in order to accomplish God's work? His answer: you must become a believer in the One sent by God to atone for your sins. In other words, before you begin the work of God, you must belong to God, otherwise your work will be in vain. So, yes, our first job is to believe in the Christ; then, once we have given ourselves wholly to the Father, our work in His Name will both nurture us in holiness and spread the Good News of His abundant mercy. Believing and sitting quietly is at best preparation for tackling God's To-Do List. But tackling that list without surrendering to God is work too easily frustrated by all-too-human vanity. To do God's work, we must first be God's people!
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