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25th Sunday in ordinary time: Counterculture

Wisdom 2, 12.17-20; James 3, 16 - 4,3; Mk 9, 30-37

Patriotism and national security have often been linked with religion. Nowadays they are being flagged again in the face of the ‘threat’ of the outsider, irrespective of the fact that they are in conflict with the values we stand for in our Western civilisation and with religion. On the eve of World War II, Hitler and Mussolini were bedfellows with the Church leaderships of their time, not to mention Pinochet in Chile much later and so many other renowned dictators.

Where faith is concerned, some people would rather do what others tell them to than think for themselves or let themselves be enlightened by what they stand for as belief. We often ignore what St James says in today’s second reading that as believers, there is a “wisdom that comes down from above” and which calls on us to be a counterculture in situations and on many issues that should provoke our critical thinking.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian and dissident, was killed by the Nazis for standing up for what he believed. He could have easily gone with the crowd. But he did not. In his Letters from Prison he wrote: “Christ not only makes people good; he makes them strong, too”.

‘Strong’, as Bonhoeffer understand it, means ‘virtuous’, as we read today from the book of Wisdom in the first reading: “The virtuous man annoys us and opposes our way of life, say the godless to themselves”. There were times and circumstances in the history of Christianity when followers of Christ were persecuted because they lived as Christians. There are still occurrences where this happens.

But today, mainstream Christians are persecuted because they do not live up to what they should stand for. By and large, the Church, particularly in our Western culture, has entered the daily rut of people and of mainstream culture. We have always been brought up to be minimal Christians: being a Christian meant going to church on Sunday, fasting when there is obligation, and respecting our parents. No big deal!

Today’s Scripture readings unmask this lie with which we are called to come to terms. In St Mark’s gospel text today, when Jesus tells his disciples that he will be put to death they simply did not understand what he said. They had no idea that there was a price to pay for being a disciple. We have also inherited this from our long 2,000-year history. The consequence of our minimalism is that we no longer annoy the godless with the way we live, and in no way do we oppose mainstream culture. This makes the Church in our times a part of the problem, with almost nothing to propose in terms of healing.

In the mid-19th century, Antonio Rosmini, an Italian priest, wrote his classic The Five Wounds of the Holy Church. He distinguishes between the wounds of the crucified Christ, which were salvific, and wounds that can simply be deadly. Of course, he diagnoses the wounds of the Church of his time as deadly. This is what we are again experiencing today. The Church, particularly as it is projecting itself nowadays, is even today being diagnosed as in agony.

In the second reading, St James, addressing his community of Christians, writes about jealousy, ambition, disharmony, partiality and hypocrisy as well as “the desires fighting inside your own selves”. Pope Francis echoes this in The Joy of the Gospel, especially where he writes: “God save us from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings. This stifling worldliness can only be healed by breathing in the pure air of the Holy Spirit who frees us from self-centredness cloaked in an outward religiosity bereft of God.”

Our lifestyles no longer annoy the godless because in our religiosity we have become godless ourselves.

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