Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
January 2, 2021 – Memorial of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen; Foundation Day of the Marist Brothers
Every now and then, there’s a person or two who I just can’t deal with. Honestly, there are also moments when I can’t deal with anybody whomsoever. I’m sure nobody can relate, right? I don’t choose to be irritable any more than I choose any other given emotional state. Although I may not have complete control over my passing and perhaps arbitrary moods, remembering that I am called to love others regardless of how I feel can remind me that most of the things that annoy me aren’t actually that important.
While grappling with his own shortcomings, St. Paul prayed to be relieved of his particular faults, to which God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” By their very praiseworthiness, the good things in this world often attract our attention to themselves rather than to the origin of their goodness. I can give God thanks for a beautiful person, vista, or piece of music, but God’s own beauty is most clearly recognized when it powerfully overwhelms my natural revulsion to what might ordinarily repulse me. Consider St. Francis of Assisi greeting the leper with a kiss or the young volunteers at the Marist Brothers’ Center at Esopus who bathe and clean special needs campers who cannot do so for themselves. Yet, even as they experience God in those who are normally shunned, an outside spectator may once more admire the compassionate servants themselves rather than the source of their compassion. “Aren’t they amazing?” rather than, “Isn’t He amazing?”
God is quite accustomed to manifesting in the places where most of us would rather not look. We must always remember the outrageous scandal of the Christmas Incarnation, by which God overthrew many prevalent notions of holiness. After all, the Messiah was not born into the Levite or priestly castes that conducted and regulated the Temple worship. Neither was he born into wealth nor security. Instead, he was born of internally displaced parents who resorted to a filthy stable for a nursery and a feeding trough for a crib. That was even before the Holy Family became refugees in Egypt. Although Jesus eventually gained enough respect as a rabbi to teach at synagogue, the carpenter’s son from Galilee always bore the stigma of his backwater and working-class origins. Furthermore, in freely mingling with Samaritans, prostitutes, the poor, the sick and disabled, and even tax collectors (not to mention women!), he rebuked every discrimination against all who were marginalized for their racial, religious, sexual, economic, and social identities. Like other Pharisees, he greatly valued the Law, but also maintained that the only way to correctly interpret and apply sacred religious norms was through the lens of love and compassion. Christ came not to enshrine our good qualities but to redeem our pains and weaknesses.
If Christ were to be born among us again today, what form and circumstances would he assume to again challenge us to love more radically and to seek God everywhere? Would he come to us as a black transgendered child in a public housing project? As the HIV+ baby of a trafficked mother? As a developmentally disabled girl in the isolated hill country? As an indigenous orphan with fetal alcohol syndrome? Would he or she be gay and/or homeless? An undocumented migrant? Whichever of these hypothetical Christs seems most upsetting or inconceivable to you, might just exactly be where God is waiting to be found by you in the most powerful way. Regardless, it does little good to imagine Christ as white, male, healthy, economically secure, and powerful—it seems to me that such depictions, though ubiquitous, are neither historically accurate nor theologically valuable. After all, Jesus felt no special need to affirm those who could easily affirm themselves.
Aside from our inherited conditions, God also desires to infiltrate, redeem, and transform the identities we construct through a lifetime of challenging situations and even our poor decisions. St. Paul was a vicious anti-Christian bigot before his conversion. St. Marcellin Champagnat was an unruly dropout before he answered the call to priesthood and later to establish the Marist Brothers, as we remember today, on January 2. No matter who we are or what we have done, there is a God-seed planted in each of us, including in those whom you or I most tend to dislike or look down upon. By God’s unconditional love, it is never too late for that seed to germinate and sprout. That absolute love always invites our response, if sometimes obscurely. We too can learn to better love God and people.
As part of my own spiritual reflection over the past two years, I have found different patron saints in Scripture to use as a touchstone as I look at the growth to which I am presently being called. In 2019, that saint was Jacob the Patriarch. In 2020, it was King David. My trend of using figures from the Hebrew Scriptures continues, as I look to Job in 2021. The suffering Job grabbed my renewed attention during a time in which misery seemed to reign all around us. Reading Gustavo Gutierrez’ reflections on Job though helped me to see him primarily as somebody who met God’s unconditional love with unconditional love of his own: Although he got cranky with his friends and even angry with God, no grievous misfortune could destroy the foundations of his love for his Creator and eventual Redeemer. It may be easy to praise God and treat people kindly when I’m happy and all is well, but what’s so great about only loving when it is easy to love?
May I learn, like Job, to authentically love God and others no matter the situation in which I find myself, who appears before me, or what my passing mood is. I have no illusions about arriving at that goal over the course of a short year. Easier said than done is one thing, but that desire is not even easily said! Nonetheless, if I can even begin to better understand the course of the journey, I will be better for it.
The first ‘ear candy’ I offer in this New Year is a different style than I normally present here, but it may also serve some of us as not only a prayer, but also as a New Year’s resolution. This includes me, given what I have written above. Our ‘brain food’ is an interview with Protestant minister, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, one of the great religious voices of our times who wants us to get serious about Jesus’ priorities.
Ear Candy: “Make Me What You Will” by David Kauffman
Brain Food: “Rev. William Barber on Greed, Poverty and Evangelical Politics” by David Marchese
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!