Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
Being a faithful Christian is often a dangerous balancing act, one of those stage shows where a seemingly reckless juggler throws a knife, a flaming ball, and a revved-up chainsaw into the air and keeps them flying for the entertainment of the audience. Lose concentration, glance away for even a second, breath at the wrong time and all those sharp, burning, ripping objects come crashing into you with the weight of gravity! Not since the early days of the Maryland Colony, or the Know-Nothing Klansmen of the 19th century have faithful Catholics found themselves at the center of attention as we are right now. Juggling the competing demands of the public square, the Church, the individual conscience, the Body of Christ is on stage, under the spotlight, with an audience holding its breath just waiting for the edifice of our faith to come tumbling down in ruin. What is it that we are juggling? Global clerical sex scandals. Pro-abortion Catholic politicians, clergy, religious. Threats of being driven from the public square by anti-Christian secularists. Internal battles over the morality of torture and war. The death and decay of the Body of Christ in Europe and Canada. The encroachment of radical Islamists into the U.K., the Netherlands, France, and Italy. And global media attacks on the Holy Father himself. Look away, breath at the wrong moment, lose concentration for even a second and all these volatile elements crash into the Body, causing terrible wounds. How do we keep our balance, keep our concentration? How do we perform on stage without injuring ourselves? Jesus says to the crowd that accuses a woman of adultery, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When no stone is thrown and no one condemns her, he says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
What does the adulterous woman and her accusers have to do with the Church and our current predicament? We might say that the woman is the Church and the crowd is the world clamoring of our condemnation. But we could also reverse these roles and say that the Church is the crowd lusting after the death of a sinner and the world is the accused woman. Who fits which role largely depends on what century, what decade we are trying to understand, what situation we are analyzing. Of course, if you've spent even an hour trying to follow Christ on his way to the cross in Jerusalem, you know that the Church can be both accuser and accused, self-righteous and condemned simultaneously. Essential to the life of the faithful Christian living in the world is the precarious balancing act of being at once a condemned sinner forever forgiven and a righteous critic of sin. It seems that the Church gets into these aggravating, public confrontations with the world precisely because we freely acknowledge our failures yet steadfastly refuse to stop calling a sin a sin. In other words, we do not excuse our sins and the sins of the world by defining away Sin nor do we cloister ourselves away from the world by claiming to be sinless.
Jesus was the first juggler who taught us the dangerous balancing act of living in the world as faithful Christians: boldly challenge the integrity of our accusers; be the first to acknowledge our sins; forgive one another and our accusers in mercy; and sin no more. Leave any one of these out and the whole juggling act becomes a very messy, very public moral wreck. We see this wreck over and over again when bishops and priests cover for one another when rightly accused of sexual abuse. We see it when we fail to confront unrepentant dissent from basic Church teaching in our universities, seminaries, and houses of formation. We see it when our bishops refuse to call pubic figures to account for their anti-life, anti-marriage, anti-family votes in Congress and Parliament. We see it when those charged with defending and teaching the faith displace our faith with scientism, therapeutic models of human actualization, the false idols of New Age and neo-pagan mysticism, secular political ideology, and the murderous morality of utilitarian ethics. But we see it most acutely, feel it most intensely when we ourselves, each of us, sin and fail to forgive, or forgive and fail to call the sinner to repentance.
When Paul explains the righteous he shares through Christ, he is quick to add, “It is not that I have already taken hold of [righteous] or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it. . .” Here Paul gives us the key to interpreting the Christian experience of living in the world but remaining apart from it. We must lay claim to the real possibility of being righteous and all the while readily confess our distance from it. We cannot achieve this balance if we refuse to call sin Sin. Nor can we achieve this essential balance if we see ourselves as sinless victims persecuted by the vengeful crowd. The adulterous woman committed adultery. She is guilty. Jesus did not challenge the crowd to prove her guilt nor did he lift the ancient prohibition against adultery when he forgives her. Rather than condemn the crowd for their sinfulness, he challenges their integrity as judges and executors. In effect, he said, “Yes, this woman is guilty of adultery. But you yourselves are guilty as well. Why should you be the righteous judges and executors of this sinful woman when you are as guilty as she.” Sin is still sin. For the woman, for her accusers. Sin is still sin. And yet, both are forgiven.
As the Body of Christ, living as sinners among sinners, we are charged with being those who—despite our sin—acknowledge the reality of righteousness, the goodness of its pursuit, and the possibility of achieving it. Despite the scandals, despite the dissenters, despite the false idols, we must work against the temptation to relieve ourselves and others of the burden of calling our failures Sin. We must also resist the equally appealing temptation of lightening our load by believing ourselves to be without sin, without flaw. In the frenzy of juggling the elements of living day to day as sinners in pursuit of righteousness, we have no other refuge for respite than Christ himself. Paul writes, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish. . .” What lost things are we clinging to? What rubbish do we hoard and call treasures? As a Church, are we worried about our reputation? Our assets? Our numbers in the pews? Do any of these better condition us for the marathon that leads to righteousness in Christ? Are we worried about the loss of influence? The reduction of political power? The grief of persecution and trial? We've always known that following Christ means that we must walk the Sorrowful Way with him to the Cross. Why mourn the dangers of a path we ourselves have chosen to follow? Where's the integrity in that?
Leading our march toward Jerusalem this last week of Lent is the question that will lead us on through Holy Week and to the Cross: what are we most afraid of losing? As a Church, what is it that we simply cannot see ourselves giving up? As individual members of the Body, what is it that we will not relinquish? If we can name this idol, if you can name your idol, watch and know that we will all, you yourself, will be called upon to sacrifice whatever it is, to make it holy by surrendering it for the love of Christ. If we cannot or will not sacrifice, count all as loss for Christ, then our balancing act is rigged from the beginning. The knife is dull. The chain saw has no blade. The fire is bright but does not burn. If there is no risk, there is no reward. No danger, no possibility of victory. Those in the audience who eagerly await our failure heckle our performance b/c they believe that we would never truly put ourselves at risk, never truly court defeat for the sake of Christ. We can either prove them right or prove them wrong. We can either follow Christ as we have vowed to do, or we can follow the cynical expectations of the world and give them a show. If we truly count all things as loss in Christ, then our choice is crystal clear.
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