Tag Archives: individualism

The Body of Christ

body of Christ
“We, though many, are one Body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.” {Romans 12,5-16}

St. Paul often uses the term “Body of Christ” to describe the union of Jesus with his followers. Those who follow Jesus are never isolated, self-sufficient individuals, sent off on their own. They’re united with him and with one another, and the gifts each has are to be shared with all.

Paul offers a lists of these gifts in the Letter to the Romans, read today at Mass:

“if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;
if ministry, in ministering;
if one is a teacher, in teaching;
if one exhorts, in exhortation;
if one contributes, in generosity;
if one is over others, with diligence;
if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

We may see one or other of these gifts in ourselves, but we also need to see them in others too. The danger in our individualistic age is to not recognize our dependence on others and look at someone and think: “I don’t need you,” or “I’m more important than you.” Being in the “Body of Christ” means we need each other.

Family Values

I mentioned previously that the 11th and 12th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading during the novena, deal with the growing opposition to Jesus as he preaches and performs miracles in Galilee. A rather dark section of the gospel.

Jesus is opposed by the Pharisees, who now take “counsel against him to put him to death” (Matthew 12.14). They’re not satisfied with his teachings and miracles and demand a sign. He offers the sign of Jonah. He will enter the mystery of death and will rise again. This is his greatest sign.

Jesus also is rejected by “this generation” of Israelites, the towns “where most of his mighty deeds had been done.” Corazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. (Matthew 11,16-19) They’re like the rocky ground Jesus spoke of in his parable of the sower. They received him first but later forget him “because the soil was not deep.”

Concluding this section, Matthew adds another source of opposition to Jesus that may surprise us. His own family from Nazareth seems to oppose him.

“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him.

 [Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.”]*

 But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”

 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.

 For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12,47-50)

We need to remember something about family life at the time of Jesus to appreciate this gospel. It’s safe to say that in Jesus’ day nuclear families did not exist. A nuclear family is a mother, father and children, and it’s a modern form of family life. In Jesus day families were extended families or clans, who lived and worked together.

For this reason, the picture we sometimes have of the Holy Family– Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth– is not a realistic picture. Families in Nazareth, as we know from the excavations at Capernaum, lived in compounds. People lived together in those days, as they often do today in the Middle East and elsewhere, working together in the fields or in a business and offering each other support.

You were obliged to be loyal to your extended family or clan in Jesus’ day. Everyone had to help in the harvest; you were expected to promote your family’s interest. The mother of James and John who approached Jesus looking for a good place for her sons in his kingdom was only doing what she was expected to do.

What we see in this gospel is the extended family of Jesus descending on him as he is speaking to the crowds to remind him of his family obligations. What did they want to remind him of, we wonder? Were they off to a wedding or a funeral of a relative and were telling him to come along? Or, was the wheat harvest ready at Nazareth and they came looking for help? Or, they just wanted him for themselves for awhile?

Whatever it was, Jesus said that his family was the crowd before him and there he was meant to be.  “ I belong here now,” Jesus seems to be saying to them. The kingdom of God, God’s family, God’s purpose, is greater than his family’s interests.

Today, of course, individualism is our predominant value, and it often stands in the way of family interests. It’s what “I” want that counts. But still today, family interests, family pressure can be strong and can get in the way of what God wants. Sometimes those closest to us, like our family, can be hard to manage, even though they want the best for us.

Jesus experienced that too.

Calling Us Together

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (February 18,2012) entitled “Religion for Everyone” the British atheist Alain De Botton expressed his hopes for a future world without God, but he suggests keeping some things religions have done well in the past. One of them is the ability to create vital communities.

“One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community.” De Botton writes. Religions once supplied a sense of neighborliness. Now it’s “been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.”

We’re set on making money, getting ahead and plenty of sex, he says. We’re building more restaurants, more bars, more gated communities, but there seem to be fewer places where all of us can get together. “The contemporary world is not lacking in places where we can dine well in company, but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.”

Of all things, De Botton points to the Catholic Church and its liturgy of the Mass as his prime example of religion’s ability to create community:

“Consider Catholicism, which starts to create a sense of community with a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their confines there will reign values utterly unlike the ones that hold sway in the world beyond. A church gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.”

No one asks what you do or how much you earn when you come for Mass.  The banker and the cleaner sit side by side. The Mass places you in a setting that focuses on human dignity and its blessings. It urges you to give up being judgmental of others and look on them with respect.

“Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.”

De Botton makes you think, doesn’t he? Modern society is losing a sense of community as we become more and more individualistic. An atheist, he recognizes in a religion like the Catholic church a powerful remedy to the ills of our times.

Why don’t we see these same blessings in our church? Though De Botton doesn’t see them so, they’re signs of God’s lively presence.

What’s a Retreat?

I’m preaching a retreat for priests next week and I’m wondering what to say. As usual,  I ask myself –what is a retreat anyway?

A car tune-up comes to mind.  I usually delay getting it done because I wonder if I really need it; after all, the car still runs. Why go on retreat we say; we’re still going along spiritually? But the car needs to be tuned up; the oil needs to be changed; the tires need to be balanced and any unusual noises need to be checked out.

The concept of balance stands out. A retreat is a time to regain spiritual balance. That’s suggested by a commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian I read recently.

God is “our” Father; we pray for “our” daily bread; we ask that “our” sins be forgiven, the saint stresses. Early commentators like Cyprian emphasized  a common approach to God as they reflected on the prayer taught by Jesus.

It’s not just me and God.  We go to God together, not alone, the saint says. My voice joins with others. I have to ask for others as well as myself. I have to pray that “Our bread–that is, Christ,” the cosmic Christ who embraces us all, be given to us all.

“ We must fear and pray lest anyone should be kept at a distance from salvation who, being withheld from communion, remains separate from Christ’s body. For he has given us this warning: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. And therefore we ask that our bread – that is, Christ – may be given to us daily, so that we who live in Christ may not depart from his sanctification and his body.”

We live in an age of  “expressive individualism,’ as Charles Taylor describes it, and we need to rebalance ourselves by entering into communion with other realities besides ourselves.  We’re imbalanced towards individualism, and  imbalance is dangerous.

What realities? Certainly we need to open ourselves to other human beings. We belong together and we need each other. We tend today to become preoccupied with ourselves, which leads to isolation and loneliness. We  might need rebalancing.

“As generous distributors of God’s grace, put your gifts at the service of one another.” ( 1Peter 4,9) It’s not enough for me to have gifts; it’s wrong to hoard gifts;  I have to use them for the service of others. That will cover a multitude of sins, St. Peter writes, our personal sins.

In an age of expressive individualism, it’s easy to fall into a selfishness that causes us to look out for ourselves and turn away from others.

It’s not just the human world we must commune with. What about the natural world? The fragile world of nature so endangered today? Some say we have become imbalanced because we have lost our connection with the universe. We come from the dust of the earth;  besides giving ourselves to our human family, we need to put our gifts as the service of our natural world as well.

Finally, we must remember our union with God, our creator, the One who sustains us; the one who calls to intimacy and lasting communion. “God is my refuge and our strength,” we say in the psalms. “Without me you can do nothing, “ Jesus says.

In the recent issue of the Jesuit magazine American (June 6-13,2011) Fr. Richard Hauser SJ reviews a book by Louis Savary call The New Spiritual Excercises: In the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, (Paulist Press)  It’s an attempt to re-envision Ignatian retreats in the light of de Chardin’s evolutionary and cosmic perspectives. Good idea, the reviewer says.

Is a retreat a time of rebalancing, renewing our communion with God, our human family and our world? Is a retreat a time to become aware of where we fit in the evolution of things, in the cosmic picture? I think so.

Our Union with Jesus Christ

We should not forget our union with Jesus Christ, Pope St. Clement tells us in his Letter to  the Corinthians. Though we celebrate our independence, our uniqueness, our power to choose, as we do particularly today, these are not isolated from the gift of communion.  Jesus does not take these away these gifts or suppress them; he redeems them and gives them new power.  He calls us to communion.

We are made for communion, Clement says. The various parts of our body unite to bring us life; soldiers in an army come together for common causes. Above all, Christ becomes our eyes, our face, our hearts, our understanding. Yet, instead of becoming the sole focus of our lives, Jesus directs us to the service of our neighbor:

“In Christ Jesus let our whole body be preserved intact. Let every one of us be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him.”

A beautiful letter from today’s Office of Readings:

“My dear friends, this is the way in which we find our Saviour Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all our offerings, the defender and helper of our infirmity.

“By him we look up to the heights of heaven. In his face, exalted and without blemish, we see ourselves reflected. By him the eyes of our hearts are opened. By him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards his marvellous light. By him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge. He is the radiant light of God’s glory. He is now as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name.

“Let us then, men and brethren, with all energy act the part of soldiers, in accordance with his holy commandments.

“Think of the soldiers who serve under our generals, and with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. Not all are prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage.

“ Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head. The very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. All work harmoniously together and they are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body.

“In Christ Jesus let our whole body be preserved intact. Let every one of us be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him.

“Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because he has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by mere words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence.

“ Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made. Let us consider how we came into this world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness: who and what manner of beings we were. He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared his bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into his world.

‘ Since, therefore, we receive all these things from him, we ought for everything to give him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”