08 September 2013

Love Christ first, last, always

23rd Sunday OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

I always think of this Gospel reading as “the one that makes me squirm.” I'm sorry, but you don't just tell a southern boy that he must hate his mama in order to love Jesus. That sets up a cognitive dissonance that might just explode his head! So for years I did what most good church folks probably do when this reading came along at Mass: I let the sharpness of it, the bluntness of it slide right off and chose to hear it all as more of Jesus' famous hyperbole. He's just being dramatic so that people will listen to him. He really doesn't mean that I have to go home and tell mama that I hate her, but it's OK b/c I love Jesus. (I'm not sure I'd survive that conversation!) This Gospel reading is difficult. It's difficult b/c it cuts right across what we think being a Christian is all about, and to take it seriously, literally would mean having to radically rethink what it means to follow Christ. Well, what's so bad about rethinking what it means to follow Christ? What's so bad about letting Christ shine a little light on how we've come to follow him? Sure, it might cause some squirming but it might also bring us closer to the holiness we all desire to achieve. 

There's comfort in our faith; I mean, there's a aura of certainty, calm, security in the religion we practice. We have rituals, liturgies, prayers, doctrines and dogmas, churches. Sacraments to ensure that we receive the graces we need. We have a long, venerable intellectual tradition, reaching back 2,000 years. We have a heavenful of saints cheering us on. Angels and archangels watching over us. Clear, uncompromising moral guidance. In fact, we have it all, in its fullness; we have everything we need and probably most of what we want when it comes to a religion. Loving God, loving mother, parish family, not to mention we have it all right here in New Orleans! But here's the problem: none of what we have, religiously speaking, is worth much if we are not first and last disciples of Christ; that is, if we love anything or anyone more than we love Christ, no amount of religion is going to bring us to holiness. Now, each sacrament, every prayer, all of our fasting and sacrificing, everything we do as Catholics is meant to help us along the path to holiness, following along behind the Lord. But if we are not learning at the feet of Christ; if we are not his committed students in the school of charity, then nothing can help us until we first choose to move out of the crowd and come into his presence. 

Now, please hear what I'm saying. To put it into theological language: we must be properly disposed by faith, hope, and love before anything the Church has to offer becomes efficacious for our holiness. To put it plainly: if you aren't ready to be holy, nothing the Church can give you is going to make you holy. So, let's ask some uncomfortable questions. What do I love more than God? (My life, my house, my career?) Who do I love more than God? (My spouse, my parents, my kids?) What crosses have been handed to me? (Sickness, poverty, temptation?) Will I pick them up? Do I have the courage to carry them? What possesses me? (A spirit of ambition, anger, vengeance? Addition, debt?) Who owns me? (My friends, colleagues, in-laws?) At whose feet do I sit to learn what I need to know? (Pop-stars, Hollywood actors, politicians, TV preachers?) Am I strong enough and courageous enough to handle my failures w/o help? Am I wise enough to celebrate my successes w/o celebrating them with others? Where else am I going to get the grace I need but in my love for Christ and the ministry of his Church? There is no where else for us to turn if holiness is our goal and this world is the world we must travel through. 

Being a student of Christ in his school of charity has consequences. No per-requisites, no conditions but lots of consequences. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This may sound like a condition, a per-requisite but it's actually a consequence. We cannot be true disciples and be unprepared for the consequences of following Christ. The hard truth, the truth that the history of Church's martyrs bears out, is that following Christ often means loss. Loss of family, loss of livelihood, even loss of one's life. If we love anyone or anything more than we love Christ, then these losses become unbearable, and we risk losing not only our holiness but our eternal life as well. When Jesus says that we must love him before we love mother, father, children, and self, he means that we can only love them and ourselves, truly love, b/c we have loved him first. Their loss, though devastating, will not destroy our first love. And it is this first love that brings us through to our holiness and our final perfection. Being a diligent, faithful student of Christ in his school of charity has consequences, eternal consequences. 

Being a diligent, faithful disciple of Christ also has temporal consequences, good effects right here on earth. First, the sacraments we celebrate work brilliantly to see us fed with the graces we need. Second, our prayers sharpen our gratitude and we grow in humility. Third, our ability and willingness to show mercy and live in peace is fortified. Fourth, our generosity is rewarded with abundance, and our attachment to the passing things of this world is loosened. Fifth, our struggles with temptation give way to the reality of Christ's victory over sin, and what temptations we have are more easily dismissed as illusions. And lastly, we become more and more like our Teacher: more loving, more sacrificial, more peaceful, and more certain than ever that we walk the path to our death with the Father, hand-in-hand. What comfort and security our religion can bring us is only comfortable and secure b/c we have prepared ourselves to be comforted and secured by first being faithful students of Christ. Love him first, then all others. And nothing we can lose will ever lose us the love that saves us. 

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  1. Gregg the Obscure6:26 AM

    This is a good one. I had to chuckle at the typo though. I don't think anyone is possessed by a spirit of addition.

    1. HA! I missed that one. Well, math is the Devil's language.

  2. I liked the way you approached this - especially the third paragraph of questions. And then your explanation in the fourth paragraph of what that love means - that we can only truly love because we have loved Him first. Thanks!

    Aside: am I possessed by the spirit of addition if I am compelled to count everything - stairs, how many rocks are in a river-rock fireplace, squares of marble tile on the floor, etc....? ;-). (Math is the Devil's language! Ha!)