What does it mean to say that, in Jesus Christ, God has met his people?
One of the more delightfully awkward moments in a priest’s ministry is when children mistake us for God. No, I have not developed a newfound delusion of grandeur. In fact, this phenomena is so common that all you have to do is ask any Mass-going parent if their child has mistaken the priest for God and you will hear some of the more delightful stories imaginable.
I recall in my first year of priesthood when a young family shared one of these stories of mistaken identity. At the beginning of Mass, as I was singing the opening hymn, the parent’s young son turned with eyes wide open and exclaimed, “It’s God!” The parents started to laugh and corrected their child, “no, no, no – that’s Fr. James.” They said their son looked confused, reaffirming, “No it isn’t – It’s God!” We all had a good laugh about it and I explained to their son that I wasn’t God. The funniest part of this exchange was that he didn’t believe me – he thought God was simply being humble.
Obviously, priests need to correct children when they think we are God. At the same time, I wonder if this common phenomena of mistaken identity might actually touch upon something that is part of our theology of the Mass? During the Mass, the priest “stands in the person of Jesus Christ.” I am not Jesus Christ, but I do become for the community of faith a tangible symbol of God breaking into human history during the celebration of Mass. In light of this, perhaps the childlike faith of this young boy allowed him to intuit the symbol of my priesthood in a way that should not be so quickly dismissed.
One of my “goto” lines in homilies is this: If God has met his people in Jesus Christ, then everything changes. In a modern, secular mindset, the daily encounter of people on the street can be seen as mere coincidence, a random collection of independent mammals seeking community and survival. However, if God has met his people, then those very same people become expressions of God’s love, bearing God’s image and likeness to the world, deserving of respect and dignity. This simple shift of mentality can transform the heart from simply thinking, “How am I supposed to survive today,” to “how is God calling me to live today.”
From a mechanistic standpoint, to understand how the universe changes and evolves simply identifies how things function, change, live, and die. Absent from these explorations is the understanding of meaning and purpose. However, when we explore the same mechanics from the presumption that God has brought all things into existence for a reason, then the mechanics of the universe become one small piece of a much larger puzzle, asking questions about where everything is going, why are we here, how did we come into existence, how are we to live well, and what will happen to us after we die? If God created the universe and God met his people in Jesus Christ, then there is a reason that everything exists, including us, that needs to be explored and understood.
From the standpoint of human genetics, a secular view can quickly devolve into a presumption of genetic superiority, deeming that people with physical or mental “handicaps” are viewed as undesirable, leading some countries to encourage parents to abort their child if they are found to have conditions such as Down’s Syndrome. A social view in which God has met his people reinforces the simple sentiment from the Gospel of Matthew, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) In other words, the very same people that secular society might label and view as undesirable become, through the eyes of faith, living Icons of Jesus Christ, testing how we view and treat the most vulnerable in society.
These examples could go on, but the point I wish to make is that we live in a time when some people falsely presume that science can become the building blocks of all of society. Yes, science is a powerful tool that has eradicated disease, improved the standard of living in the developed world, and provides many creature comforts, such as the technology that allows this blog to exist, for the betterment of the human person. However, to answer the question of what constitutes the betterment of the human person is not simply a question of science, but a much broader question about how we view our world, how we view God, and how we view one another in light of our understanding of God. To reduce existence to one dimension of social thought risks recreating some of the most devastating atrocities in human history.
There is a need, in our time, for a healthy intellectual diversity in which the sciences, philosophy, theology, and the best thought from many cultures and world religions need to be in honest, charitable dialogue to help better our world and our society. Yes, this vision of society presumes some level of conflict as it places differing ideologies in direct conflict with one another. However, at least from a Catholic perspective, the call to recognize the dignity of all peoples, to be open to explore truth wherever it may be found, and to promote a religious freedom that allows for a plurality of beliefs is fertile soil to move us from a bland understanding of culture that would be more monochromatic into a rich, vibrant tapestry of the human experience, rooted in a commitment to peaceful coexistence in the face of differing ideologies.
How do you view the world we live in? Do you see the world through the eyes of God meeting his people? Do you view the world in more pragmatic, mechanistic terms? Is there an openness to an eclectic view of society that is rooted in respecting the human dignity of all people or are we trapped in a monolithic box, thinking that social structures must emphasize our own, narrow biases, reducing the worldview of others to arcane fantasies that need to be rejected? Pray this week to be open to viewing the world through new eyes. Pray to be open to discovering the human dignity in the people you encounter today. And pray to view our world in light of the fact that God, indeed, has met his people, transforming our approach to this world from random mechanics to an exploration of meaning and purpose.