27 January 2008

Fill the Cross with Repentance

3rd Sunday of OT: Isa 8.23-9.3; 1 Cor 1.10-13, 17; Matt 4.12-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

If you walk into your local franchised bookstore and head over toward the “religion” section, especially the sub-section labeled “Christianity,” you will begin to experience what the early fathers called a “spiritual wasteland.” Rows and rows and rows of brightly colored books line the shelves, each shiny with promise and polished with market research, perfectly molded to a demographic, knitted together out of wood pulp, plastic, thread, and the fulsome yet oh-so-mysterious absence of anything remotely intelligent or interesting or even Christian to say. As you approach the piles of hair-sprayed volumes, that swift rushing breeze in your ears is not the fire of the Holy Spirit leading you to wisdom and truth, but the sound of your genuine life in Christ being sucked out of you—chapter by chapter—by the vicious and vacuous soul-hungry platitudes that pollute the “religion” books of the NYT’s bestseller list. Mary Magdalene’s Olive Oil Diet! Seven Stepping Stones to Gospel Wealth! I’m a Good Catholic and Everything the Church Teaches is Wrong! Chicken Soup for the Illegal-Immigrant Oppressed by American Global Consumerism and Persecuted by The Racist Man for Wanting a Piece of the Big Apple Pie Soul. . . . .eighth edition. Sorry. I was wrong earlier. That rushing sound you hear isn’t your spiritual life being sucked out of you. That sound is the sound of the Cross being emptied of its meaning. And it would seem that the only remedy to this desecration is repentance.

We know that the cookie-cutter-seven-steps-to-happiness-without-any-effort-or-money-down trash dominates the shelves and flipping through these tree-wasters, no one would blame you for wondering why Jesus bothered to suffer and die on the cross for us. Apparently, all we need for earthly bliss and heavenly union is a positive attitude, an imagination for seeing dreams come true, a willingness to cut loose “negative” friends and family members, a good job, a stuffed savings account, lots and lots of liquid capital, and the megalomaniacal delusion that God cares one tiny iota about your net worth or your car or your wardrobe. Somewhere, probably, among all the glossy covers of plasticized, dry-gelled Rev. Ken dolls is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, wherein we read Paul writing of himself: “…Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,…so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” How is he going to accomplish this oh-so-small feat? Paul writes, “…not with the wisdom of human eloquence…” But what’s wrong with the wisdom of human eloquence that prevents it from being used to stop those who would empty the cross of its meaning? Human wisdom, human eloquence had nothing to do with giving the Cross its meaning in the first place. Why assume that either or even both together can prevent its desolation?

Let’s say that the Cross is our symbol of suffering and death. Yes, it represents sacrifice and salvation as well; but for now, let’s say that the Cross emptied of its meaning is little more than a randomly drawn figure used by billions as a Sunday decoration or a bobble for the neck or ear. The Cross is a brand. A recognized product complete with packaging, logo, trademarks, marketing, and a faithful customer base. Emptied of its meaning through neglect—faithless catechesis, sorry preaching, and disobedient liturgy—the Cross is a small thing in the lives of some Christians, a mere survivor of centuries of human aversion to sacrifice, suffering, pain, and the reality of sin. Paul is charged with the arduous task of preaching the gospel of repentance so that the Cross is never emptied of its meaning entirely…there must always be some flicker of hope, some glimmer of expectation that the Cross remains a gateway, a thoroughfare, a passage.

But if the cross of Christ is not to be emptied of its meaning and the wisdom of human eloquence cannot be used to prevent such a disaster, to whom or what do we turn for help? Matthew says that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea…From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” To whom or what do we turn for help? We turn to Christ; we convert to Christ; we switch ourselves around toward Christ and walk a very, very different road behind Jesus to our salvation. There may be seven steps, or four hundred and eight steps, or a lifetime of running, or maybe no movement at all, nothing but the tautly pulled bow-string silence of waiting. Regardless, when we walk with Christ, follow along with him, our first stop is the Cross b/c without the Cross. . .well, in other words, with an emptied Cross, we are get-saved-quick-coupon-junkies with no more possibility of eternal life than a freshly cut stump in the rain. Both Jesus and Paul are clear: repentance is the key.

Jesus moves to a new part of his country. He does so to preach the good news of his Father’s two-part message, “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” What do we do when we repent? Let’s repeat an experiment we’ve done before. “Stand up!” “Sit down!” “Clap” Now, “repent!” You see? “Repent” is an imperative, an order, a command. It is done. Not just thought about or written about or contemplated. But done. Similar to “Love God, love your neighbors and love yourselves,” this command is best carried out daily, but the clock ticks faster and the calendar seems to flip more quickly. Time may be running out to figure out what repentance requires of us. At the most basic level, repentance requires us to embrace without hesitation the life of Christ—the life of mercy, care, forgiveness, service, and everlasting joy. It means for us to turn our backs on sin; to convert our lives to love God’s Word; to turn and face a future in graced obedience, a future without division, without factions in the Body. “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” Here, in front of a loving Father, the Cross—for all its violence and death, suffering and pain, for all of its scandalous politics and sketchy Roman history, here, in front of a loving Father, the Cross is a visible call to holiness, a welcome mat to heaven; it is The Way to say “I am Christ’s!”

The Cross’ lust for the broken body and abandoned soul is insatiable. The false crosses of mass-marketed DIY “win friends and influence people” philosophies will not lead us to the terrible Beauty of heaven’s throne. We do not navigate around the Cross. We cannot fly over it. There is no speech, no prayer, no devotional practice that will seduce its hunger. There is no theology or philosophy or occult science that opens its saving doors.* We must climb on—with Christ the Chief Thief—and let ourselves be stolen for the Kingdom! You do not belong to Paul. Or the Traditional Latin Mass. You do not belong to Peter. Or the “Spirit of Vatican Two” liberals. You do not belong to Apollos. Or John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Mother Angelica or Hans Kung. You do not belong to a piece of the Body; nor do you belong to just one breezy wisp of the Spirit.

We turn to God through Christ—a repentance that takes hold and brings us inevitably to the hunger of Cross. Therefore, with Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the saints, follow Christ, making of yourselves a magnificent feast!

*This needs clarification lest someone come to think that I am a Catholic feidist. My point here is that our initial contact with redemption is made possible through the Cross of Christ. We do not come to the point of being redeemed by reasoning our way through to a philosophical conclusion. Nor are we brought to heaven by assenting to theological propositions. Once we have est'ed a firm relationship with Christ, all of the --ologies mentioned are invaluable in helping us to understand our faith more deeply.


  1. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Magnificent, Father.

    Thank you.

  2. Wow. That is an astonishing homily, Father. God did good by you.