February 5, 2023

The Church as a light?

The Church as a light?

Last week, we thought a lot about light on the Feast of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple, and the person of Simeon – the priest who recognised the mysterious reality about the baby he held in his arms. We heard his words – echoed to this day in the Church’s Daily Office – which celebrated Christ’s Presentation as the Light to enlighten the nations. 

This Sunday we move on in our thinking away from the source and towards the presence of that Light in our world today.

And immediately, we realise that we cannot separate the two – we cannot separate the source from the presence any more than we can separate the photons of a light beam from the source of that beam – be it bulb, candle, laser or whatever.  The source produces a beam.  After that, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen to it – reflection, diffraction, absorption all produce different effects.

Physical light is not a bad analogy, then, for what happens to the light of Christ in our world.  Small wonder that Jesus uses this image to describe the qualities required of his disciples – along with being like salt.  Salt is a strange kind of thing to use as an analogy, of course.  How on earth can salt lose its saltiness?  Either it is or it isn’t salt!  If it is then it’s salty.  If it isn’t then it isn’t salty either!  But once again, the answer is illuminating.  Because the kind of salt that Jesus would have known was produced in a rather less refined way than the stuff we use today.  The Palestinian salt of his time would have included many impurities, probably even various mineral ores.  So if this product became wet, very quickly the salt part (sodium chloride) would dissolve out leaving a rather unpleasant residue which, whatever its value otherwise might be, would be no use whatsoever for seasoning food!  The salt would have lost its saltiness and all that would be left would be the rubbish that you did not want in the first place.

It is said by some who claim a degree of justification that today’s Church is in exactly this place.  The salt gone and the debris left behind.  Around the time that Donald Trump was seeking election in the US,  the American Calvinist writer Marilynne Robinson spoke of – and I quote – the Churches disgracing themselves.  She was referring to a silence of complicity with which the American Churches largely greeted the generation of fear, hostility and resentment that characterised not only that election period but the entire period of Trump’s office to the bitter (and it was bitter) end.  In its worst form, she spoke of the weaponising of piety – which right wing Christians have long practised.  Even the Bible itself became a weapon in Trump’s hand – a memorable moment was him brandishing a copy after battling his way through to the door of a church assisted by machine guns and tear gas. And alas, the history of the Church gives us many similar examples of the light being extinguished when it has sought an alliance with political power.

Sadly, in the eyes of many today the Churches have disgraced themselves.  If not in the political realm, then in the moral one.  The collapse of confidence, for example, of many people in the Church in a country like Ireland, where not many years ago priests were respected and welcomed without question at all levels of society and where now many apparently have forsaken distinctive clerical dress because of the fear of attack – verbal or physical – following the series of abuse scandals.  And alas this has been repeated in many parts of the globe.

Yet, as Marilynne Robinson said elsewhere in an interview some years ago with another US President, Barak Obama, Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive.  It’s supposed to be difficult.  It’s supposed to be a challenge. 

And maybe there, in that statement, is part of the answer to the disgracing of the Churches.

The Church as the Body of Christ, the continuation of the Incarnation into every place and moment of history, the Church is – like Christ – possessed of a Divine nature and a human nature.  The Divine nature we celebrate in the Creeds.  We speak of our faith in God the Holy Spirit who is not only Lord and Giver of life but also whose presence brings into being the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  A beam of divine light in a dark world.

But that body is also at the same time composed of human beings.  And unlike Christ in this respect, those human beings are fallible, sinful and in need of healing and forgiveness, even though in essence those human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.  Only when we fulfil that essential truth are we properly human – and for all of us that is a lifelong process of failing and repenting, healing and growth.

So there is an inevitability about a degree of disgrace, failure, within the life of the Church.  Because we don’t get it right all the time.  Sometimes we get it very wrong and succeed not so much in putting out the light but so deflecting it that the effect is like passing a white light through a prism which breaks up the white light into confused patterns and colours – exciting as that can sometimes seem!

Our calling by Christ is to be his light in the world.  To bring to bear in the situations where we find ourselves the light that Christ’s being, that Christ’s risen presence sheds upon us.

Going back to Marilynne Robinson’s strident accusation, yes, I agree with her that the Churches have disgraced themselves.  Over our two thousand year history there has been plenty of disgrace, but there has been and continues to be in response plenty of Divine grace when we turn our hearts towards it.

None of us wants to see a disgraceful Church.  Such a Church would fail grievously in her purpose.  Yet to go back for a moment to think about the essence of the Church again.  Divine and human.  So sharing in the creative, redemptive and sanctifying work of God.  And a place of human encounter.  Where we discover what it is to be truly human.  Made in God’s image.  Made for relationship.  Made for communication and communion.  Made to discover and delight in God’s image in and through one another. 

This is not always an easy task – it is indeed counterintuitive in our individualistic competitive and covetous culture.  One which is increasingly fearful and suspicious.  And yes, because of this flawed humanity with which the Church is made up, sometimes the Church is disgraced if not disgraceful, complicit in such fear and suspicion, if not engaging in its own versions of that dynamic.

Yet in those moments, if the Church remains true to herself, there comes an opportunity of healing, restoration and new growth.  For the moments of disgrace, the moments when we get things wrong, when we obscure, deflect or confuse the light of Christ which we are called to reflect faithfully, for these very moments are moments not so much of disgrace as moments of new grace.  New moments of encounter between the healing light of Christ and the darkness of human sin.  And, not that it is possible, but if there were a choice between being part of a fallible Church made up of very human sinners and a judgemental totally correct one, I suspect that we all know where our preference might lie!

We are part of a Church which indeed is called to reflect into our world the light of Christ our Risen Lord.  Only the blindness of human pride can stop the reflection of Christ’s loving forgiveness as part of that radiance.  This is a truly creative forgiveness for all our disgraces.  And that is a spectacularly bright light in a mean and unforgiving world.  A world that just does not want to see the image of God in every other human face.  For that vision is just too much of a challenge to much of our world’s self-absorption.