I’ve enjoyed a very pleasant first day of spring, which also happens to be my 34th birthday.
(The pressure’s off this year. Last year my spiritual director observed that our Lord had died at 33. Alexander the Great and Catherine of Siena died at that age also. So he suggested I make sure my thirty-third year is a fruitful one!)
I have received a great many birthday greetings via e-mail and Facebook, but I’m afraid I haven’t received any via text message. That’s not to say they haven’t been sent. There are dozens of unread text messages on my phone right now. But the problem is, I can’t see them.
I dropped my phone last week. For a few days I persevered with a smashed screen, but my fingertips were cut to ribbons. I thought an el cheapo screen replacement would do the trick — and it did for 24 hours, but since Thursday the backlight on my phone has malfunctioned.
With the help of Siri I can still make and receive calls, so my phone is not quite an iBrick. But as far as iMessages and text messages are concerned, the situation is hopeless. I’ve tracked down the solution to my problem, but I’m not keen on soldering with a microscope, so I think I’ll have to replace the whole phone — eventually. In the meantime, I’m not receiving messages, so please accept my apologies if you’ve sent one and I’ve ignored it. It’s nothing personal.
Thanks for the birthday wishings and blessings. It’s been a good one!
I live in a town of less than 2,000 people, and I’m the only minister of religion in residence. Not long after I arrived, I was invited to speak and bless the town’s Carols by Candlelight, and in the time since I have presided at several funerals which the whole town attended. Chances are, if I walked down the street right now, people would know who I am even if I wasn’t wearing a priestly collar.
Nonetheless, since I was ordained a deacon in 2010, I have worn the collar every day. There’s maybe four or five days when I have not worn it, when I was on holidays and wearing it was impractical — bush walking for example, or mountain biking. But generally I’m ‘in uniform’ seven days a week, even on my day off. Apart from anything else, it’s a reminder to me that a priest is not his own. I’m called to serve others at the Lord’s convenience, not mine.
After five years of wearing the uniform, it’s not something I’m very conscious of. If it attracts the stares of strangers, I’m oblivious. There are occasions when strangers have spontaneously struck up conversation, either about the Church or about God. And once I was called upon to minister the sacraments. Good! That’s why I make myself identifiable. But honestly, I forget my uniform makes me sometimes stand out.
Reading this article, then, was as surprising as it was bemusing: What happened when I dressed like a priest. The author — a journalist — conducted an experiment, noting strangers’ first reactions to the uniforms he donned.
I bought four uniforms, modified them using the advice of people who wear them for real, and wore each one for a full day to test the reaction. A priest, a security guard, a mechanic, and a doctor. I stitched my name on—first, last, or both when appropriate. But I didn’t forge a thing. No fake lanyards, no ID cards, no crucifix, no rosary in hand. The idea wasn’t to trick people.
The author poses a fascinating question. How much do clothes maketh the man? Or, at least, how much do clothes influence the thoughts and behaviour of people around you? It’s telling that the headline and the bulk of his article focus on his experiences wearing a priest’s cassock or soutane. For myself, I only wear my soutane in the sanctuary and in the confessional, because the soutane isn’t customary street wear in Australia. (In this country, the custom is suit and clerical shirt, or suit and white shirt with lapel cross.) Still, I think the soutane and the collar elicit similar reactions. Reflecting on the article, I can verify its findings.
The author of this article concludes with a soutane-related quandary. I’ll let you in on a trade secret: a good soutane does have pockets (mine does), but every soutane at least has holes where the pockets should be, granting ready access to your wallet.
“It’s a tricky thing to wear in public. There are no pockets,” I said. “I have to hitch the whole thing up to get to my wallet.” I bent a little and started to demonstrate the issue, how I would have to hike up this giant skirt to retrieve five bucks for the valet. Both of them waved me off. “It looks kind of pervy, right?” I said. I asked them if they knew how a priest would have dealt with it.
Neither of them did. “There are some things only a priest would know,” one of them said.
They thought I must be an actor. I told them no. Eventually I asked about their faith, since they seemed to know a priest when they saw one. And when they didn’t.
They told me, too. I just listened. It seemed like what was called for.
A Facebook friend maybe didn’t know what he was in for, when he started a light hearted discussion on “what Jesus really looked like.”
It all started with a meme currently doing the rounds on social media. The image on the right derives from a speculative composite prepared in 2001, which presents a “typical semite from the first century”:
A lot of people take exception to that depiction, which they feel demeans the Lord. In fairness to the original artists, they never intended to depict “the real Jesus.” They’re just presenting the typical features of a first-century Jew, particularly noting the man’s swarthy skin tone and his closely cropped hair.
Hairstyle is worth bearing in mind. St Paul — who saw the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, don’t forget — clearly disapproves of men with long hair:
Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? (1 Cor 11:14)
For my part, though, I still invest faith in the Shroud of Turin:
It’s worth noting, I think, that the “fake Jesus” of the meme more closely resembles the image on the shroud. That’s a good reminder that Tradition isn’t as unreliable as many argue, and that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” should not be opposed in dichotomy. (Mind you, I readily concede that blue eyes and an Anglo-Celtic skin tone is unrealistic.)
What really surprised me, though, in the Facebook “debate” that ensued (I’m feeling generous), is that a great many Christians dismissed the question outright. “Does it really matter?” they demanded. “You receive him in the eucharist. What he looks like is irrelevant.”
I don’t know about that. The proliferation of artistic renderings of Jesus suggests that it does matter. Speaking more personally, I can’t help but wonder what he looks like — the person I speak to frequently every day, whom I long to meet one day, whom I speak about to others most days.
I guess it doesn’t matter what Jesus looks like, insofar as his appearance doesn’t impact faith, and doesn’t measure love. But at the same time it matters very much, insofar as Jesus is both God and man, and it’s natural for us to relate to each other materially, not just spiritually. If we’re speaking to someone face to face, we make eye contact. If we’re talking to someone over the phone, we intuitively pick up nuances that are lost in email and chat.
I often wonder what Jesus looks like. How his voice sounds. What mannerisms distinguish him. It’s a very natural thing, I think, to value these things in someone you love.
It’s instructive, I think, how much Jesus objects to the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In today’s Gospel he enumerates many sins, but nothing raises his ire like the Pharisaical spirit.
When thieves, murderers, adulterers, cross the Lord’s path, they encounter his mercy. They are moved to contrition. But the moral superiority of the Pharisees elicits a very different response from Jesus, probably because it is impervious to mercy. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ insightful warning:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Put that way, it’s easy to discern that the Pharisaical spirit is not exclusively religious. There are plenty of moralistic tyrants populating the secular sphere. A few contributors to the global warming and marriage equality debates come to mind.
Nonetheless, the Pharisaical spirit is especially odorous in the religious sphere. It caused the Pharisees to believe they were better than God. Literally. That sort of moral superiority is anathema to Christian discipleship.
Our Lord wants all his disciples, I think, to sincerely believe, and frequently recall, “I am a sinner.” But on its own, that’s not enough. The world abounds with sinners who proudly declare, “I am a sinner,” and extol their wickedness as a badge of honour. How many sins are used as attractive marketing techniques? How many vices have been redefined as virtue?
It’s true that this sort of shamelessness is a safeguard against the Pharisaical spirit, but like Pharisaism, it’s impervious to divine mercy, which means that it’s just as toxic. And yet the opposite of shamelessness — shame — is no less disastrous. Shamelessness and shame are both forms of pride. They are both egotistical. Shame is centered on the self: “I’m so ashamed of myself.” “What will people think of me?”
Shame prevents a person from publicly admitting guilt. Shame causes us to avoid the people we’ve offended. We delay seeking forgiveness. Shame discourages us, and we can wander far from God. Shame usually comes from our own ego, it can come from the evil one, but it never comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s never good to dialogue with shame.
Guilt, on the other hand, does come from the Holy Spirit. Where shame is focused on ourselves, guilt is focused on the wrong we’ve done. When we do something wrong, when we use our freedom selfishly, when we ignore or injure or demean God or ourselves or our neighbour, our conscience bothers us; we feel guilty. Thanks be to God! Guilt is a means to conversion; an impulse to seek forgiveness and make amends.
Guilt is good thing, which safeguards us from the proud spirits of Pharisaism, shamelessness, and shame. But more importantly, guilt makes us responsive to mercy, and grateful for it. A person with a healthy sense of guilt actively seeks divine mercy, and generously ministers mercy to others.
Put guilt and mercy together, I think, and you have a great recipe for humility and love. “I am a sinner,” the Lord wants us to say. But more than that: “I am a sinner, madly in love with God.”
It’s significant, I think, that the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection!) which is related by all four evangelists. This is clearly an important event in the Lord’s ministry, and it contains lessons for us.
Some Christians cite this gospel to support the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ This is a doctrine, with roots in the Old Testament, which suggests that material prosperity can be a measure of God’s blessing. More importantly, if a person is faithful to Christ, and lives according to Gospel values, then God will bless them with material wealth. The feeding of the 5,000, it is argued, demonstrates this. Our Lord responds to the people’s needs, and then some. The twelve baskets of left over foods is testament to God’s super-abundance.
The experience of the saints, however, tell us something different. Miracles which impacted St Jean-Marie Vianney and St John Bosco come to mind, but instead I’ll cite a much more local example. This is one of many similar stories I’ve heard from many people.
A couple I know in Hamilton have many children of their own, and they’ve fostered a great many more – some temporarily, others permanently. For many years the household has included ten children or more. A few years ago, the mother of all these children resolved it was time for a holiday. People were tired, tempers were short, and relationships were frayed. As you might imagine, the household is seldom flush with cash, but that didn’t concern her. A holiday was needed, and she prayed that God would provide.
So the holiday was booked a month in advance, on the hope and prayer that the funds would accumulate in time. As time passed though, the money was not found to pay for the holiday accommodation. The family forged ahead anyway, putting their faith in Providence. On the very morning of the holiday, as the family drove off the farm, they stopped at the mailbox. There they found a cheque whose amount coincided precisely with the sum needed to pay for their holiday accommodation.
This, it seems to me, is precisely how God works. We can ask for material blessings just as we ask for spiritual graces, but where God will give a thousand times the spiritual favours we request, God’s material generosity is more circumspect. God gives material blessings as needed, and no more. The reason is self-evident. We humans are susceptible to material attachments which are deadly to the life of faith. Material abundance typically does us more harm than good, and God will never harm us.
Today’s Collect acknowledges this very point:
O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Besides, it’s notable that our Lord instructs the disciples to collect the left-overs, “so that nothing gets wasted.” Jesus has no intention of permitting the crowds to be gluttonous, taking more than needed. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the prosperity gospel!
So what lessons can we learn from this miracle?
Firstly: God is sensitive to our material and spiritual needs. We can trust in Him whenever our resources fall short. We should use whatever resources we do have — even if they are plainly inadequate. God will supply what is lacking.
Secondly, God will recruit us to do his work, if we are willing. Our Lord could have worked this miracle without any input from others, but he deliberately collaborated with the disciples, despite their poverty of resources. This is true for us also. We think we don’t have the words or the eloquence to spiritually nourish others. Or we don’t have the goodness or authority to speak about God. After all, who are we?
The answer is one we easily forget. We are children of God, baptised into the Body of Christ, and nourished by His Word and his Sacred Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, ready to infuse our words and actions with God’s grace.
Our own apostolates, unlike our Lord’s, are rarely spectacular. We serve God in simple and mundane ways — in our kindness towards strangers; friendliness towards acquaintances; and our dedication to family and friends. Let’s not neglect the material: our punctuality; our temperance and self-denial; our care for books and computers and tools. But by our habitual, day-to-day struggle to do the small things well, we grow in virtue. And by doing that, we draw closer to the Lord.
So let’s pray today that we make use of the resources the Lord gives us, even if they seem inadequate, so that we can attend to the spiritual and material needs of those people whom God puts on our path.