No Fear of Failure

No Fear of Failure

Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Aidan Nichols finds challenge and encouragement in the mission of the twelve apostles.

‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ One of the sayings in the Gospel tradition, then, that registers the merciful love of Christ for his own people, the consecrated nation.

In this spirit, he sends out his twelve closest friends, his inner group of disciples, on mission. He sees them as the new ‘twelve patriarchs’ of the people, destined to give the House of Israel a fresh beginning, just as the great heroes of the past, the sons of Jacob, had done before. And what was the result? A flop. The Twelve do not convert Israel. Jesus will weep over the Jerusalem that rejects him. Whatever else we may say about his Sacrifice, he goes to his death in the awareness that he had been unable to bring his people to share through him the life of the Father.

This tells us two things — something about God and something about ourselves. First, something about God. When God involves himself in our world and becomes incarnate, his life is, in human terms, a failure, and a spectacular one at that. This seems like nonsense. How can divinity which, among other things, is omnipotence, fail?

God is indeed omnipotent, but his omnipotence is in function of his love. His power realizes what his love intends. It does not compel assent when the ‘Yes’ of creatures is withheld. If God is to show himself in our world precisely in his love, he must be open to possibilities of defeat. And in a world affected through and through by original sin, by the warp that makes ordinary respectable people do the things we read about in newspapers, it’s morally inevitable that God will be defeated — at first.

Boundlessly exigent, ennobling love such as God’s must be: this puts limitless demands on us, and hence we want to blot it out. That is something already presented to us in the Passion narrative of St Matthew, the first Gospel, though it will not be analysed until the fourth Gospel, St John.

Secondly, the failure in human terms of Jesus’s ministry tells us something about ourselves. If the incarnate Son of God accepted the defeat of the Cross as the right way to witness to the love that is his Father, why are we so frightened of failure? In countries like Britain, the Catholic Church today seems paralysed by the thought of seemingly inevitable decline. For the liberal press, it is certain that Christendom is over, and for the more traditionally minded newspaper, the question is only, ‘How long, O Lord?’

How long before a multi-faith society is constitutionally recognized — a prospect which is only a half-way house before we move on to acknowledging a global ethic — we might call it ‘ecological humanism’ — as the religion of the future, in comparison with which all historic religions will look parochial and out of date.

Such a prospect should not make us defeatist and passive. The Church has known many setbacks in history, many unpropitious sets of circumstances in which to work. She has known situations where whole populations have fallen away, leaving only tiny remnants to carry the precious burden of revelation, the message of salvation, through history.

Let them do their worst. They will not say ‘No’ more vociferously, or (for that matter) with greater indifference, than many of the participants in the Passion of Christ.

Whatever happens, our task is to be faithful to the mission our Lord has given us, and, if we are young, to consider by what means we can best serve the Kingdom of God — it may be to live and work directly for the Church as a priest or in a religious order, perhaps helping to revive one that has become moribund yet represents something valuable. If we are middle-aged, and at the height of our influence in our particular milieu, ‘being faithful’ will mean using that influence. If we are old, it will mean counselling others by what we say and do, and praying that the Church be kept Catholic and not fritter away her commission in platitudes and blandness.

Readings: Exodus 19:2-6 | Romans 5:6-11 | Matthew 9:36-10:8

fr Aidan Nichols is a well-known and prolific writer and theologian.