The times they are a-changin’
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Gregory Murphy asks how, in a time of change, are we to perceive the eternal wisdom of God.
As we grow older we perhaps become more sympathetic to the teaching of Heraclitus – all is change, everything is in a state of flux, nothing is stable. In the bustle and complexity of our everyday lives it is easy to be unaware of how much is changing, including ourselves, until something breaks into our self-absorption and brings this to our notice. That was borne on me on returning after some decades to work in the town where I had spent the first sixteen years of my life: one of my primary schools and the high school I attended had been demolished, and in the former case the very street had been wiped from the map. What once seemed to me permanent structures had gone.
Granted, there is a considerable difference between a couple of nondescript C20 buildings in a small city compared to the visual splendour and magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple, not least in the relative importance of the buildings to their users. The Temple Jesus knew had been rebuilt after the Israelites returned from exile, and had been constantly embellished since. And yet, as Luke knew, writing after the destruction of the Temple and the city by the Romans in 70AD, within a generation it would be razed to the ground, testament to the fragility of human structures and hopes. Yet out of this desolation the people of Israel shaped a new way of worshipping God, not centred on one beautiful place, however splendid and sacred, but in the synagogues, the prayer rooms of their scattered communities. And this pattern of prayer and worship endures to this day.
The church today appears to be in the throes of similarly profound changes, by some welcomed, by others feared. The current model of the church as human institution, dating from the 16th/17th centuries, seems unable currently to meet satisfactorily the challenges and expectations of its members in the face of, for example, the ongoing trauma of the abuse scandals (most importantly that of the victims but also the damage done to the wider Christian community). Or the conflicts between those who see hope in the evolution of an encultured Catholicism in the discussions of the Amazon synod against those who would find hope in a more static picture of reception of unchanging traditions. Or the new questions and challenges technological advances bring to the very notion of human identity. ‘Many will come using my name …’ … indeed.
But the church is not only a human institution, and that is the basis of our hope amid present uncertainties. Jesus himself, through the gift of his Spirit, promises us a wisdom that will guide us home to God through our perplexities. Inspired by his recent canonisation we might take comfort in the words of a famous hymn by St John Henry Newman, “Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on”.
How then to perceive the light of God’s wisdom? We must first do so in humility, in receptive listening, allowing the idols of our fears and false certainties to be purified by God’s word. But that demands of us patience, a word derived from suffering. Our endurance, Jesus says, will win us our lives. So, in considering our response to difficult issues we must abjure the gut response, the tweet, the automatic reaction driven by our innate prejudices in favour of receptive listening also to those to whom we attempt to proclaim good news. Unless we can show we are responding to their concerns our words will be empty. Of course, that is not to say we must uncritically endorse positions contrary to the values of the gospel. It is rather to see effective proclamation of the good news as entering into a dialogue, in which, if honest, we may find our own positions also challenged and changed. This is not to say that everything is relativised, that we necessarily abandon our own deeply-held beliefs; rather it is recognising that while we have some grasp of truth we do not fully possess it, and are ever, patiently, striving for a more complete understanding. Jesus is our way, our truth and our life, and in holding to his name (his teaching and example) we will come, through his Spirit, to sharing in God’s life.
Our endurance is asked of us in bearing witness to the gospel critique of our contemporary ways of living despite the reaction that will provoke. Equally, if we are to speak of God’s love and mercy to those desperate to hope we must show we can understand and empathise with their concerns, and try to discern a way to go forward with them towards God’s kingdom. We too need to find a new way of worshipping God which speaks to the challenges of our time without denying the truths of our heritage, rather rendering them accessible. We might give Newman the last word: “to live [here] is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect”.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Second Temple Model from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.