Why are gossip magazines and columns so popular? Why do most of us seem so fascinated with the “Lives of the Rich and Famous”? I suppose that some of it is wishful thinking; “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I had what they have?” Yet, I think a big part of our fascination is a feeling of incredulousness. How is it that Britney Spears, Robert Downey, Jr., Paris Hilton and so many of the rich and famous still seem to be so unhappy?
In today’s second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. Paul is also dealing with feelings of incredulousness. As I mentioned in a previous homily, one of the reasons that St. Paul wrote his letter to the Christian community in Rome was to address a sore spot in the community. There was a lot of rivalry in the Christian community in Rome between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. In the first part of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul discusses the salvation of the world in general terms. The middle part of his letter, which begins with the section we read today, turns to a discussion of the salvation of Israel in particular.
Apparently one of the arguments that were often thrown in the face of the Jewish Christians was the fact that despite all the privileges that God had shown the Jewish people, most of them had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. This was a source of great sadness and embarrassment for many Jewish Christians. St. Paul says that he has “great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart because of this situation. He acknowledges the many blessings and privileges that God had shown the Israelites: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, ….”
This situation causes St. Paul so much sorrow, that he goes so far as to say, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Now St. Paul, the apostle who said just a few lines earlier in his letter that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” is not saying that he would like to be permanently separated from Christ if that would bring all of Israel to faith in Christ Jesus. No, in rather typical oriental exaggeration, St. Paul is saying that God’s love moves him, like it should move all of us, to love others so intensely that we are willing to suffer anything if it will mean the conversion of others to God. St. Paul is saying that he is willing to renounce not only material favors for the sake of others, but even spiritual favors if it will lead others to an encounter and relationship with Jesus.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul does not give us the answer to this concern, the salvation of Israel. Rather he will start explaining that starting with next week’s reading. However, that does not mean that we cannot start to look this issue, as it applies to us today.
For, to be honest, the same argument or criticism that was directed towards the Jewish Christians of St. Paul’s time could be directed at us today. How is it, with all the blessings and graces that God has given to us over the past 2000 years of Christianity that so many people who call themselves Christians seem to live their lives as if they have never encountered Jesus? In the 20th century “Christian Europe” experienced two devastating world wars, and we do not seem to be doing much better now in the 21st century. In our own country, we estimate that less than 25% of Catholics attend Mass each week — and that is more than double the percentage of Catholics in Western Europe who attend weekly Mass. Just look at our own parish; we have approximately 4000 families in our parish, yet we do not have 4000 families attending Mass on the weekends, not even a 1000 families. And even among those that come each weekend for Mass, look at how many who can’t seem to wait for Mass to be over so that they can rush out of church — actually over 25% do not even wait for the end of Mass. It is as if Mass is just an unpleasant duty that one wants to quickly get out of the way.
Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, once said, “For most people (also for those who go to church) the relationship with God, with the divine, that is with what should be perceived as origin and destiny of everything, is words” (L. Guissani, “He exists, if He works,” supplement to 30Giorni, n. 2, February 1994, p. 68). In other words, for too many Christians the Mystery which we call God is abstract and far away, instead of being a personal, intimate relationship with the real Presence of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus who promised to be with us until the end of time. The reason that too many of us perceive the Mystery as being abstract and far away is because within many of us there is a breach between reason and experience. Instead of seeing Jesus as being truly present in all the circumstances of our lives, we try to fit God into an one hour box each Sunday. Faith is reduced to just a set of dogmas and duties, instead of being lived in the fullness of freedom as the children of God.
On our own, we could not close this breach between reason and experience. Thankfully God Himself has closed the breach by Incarnating Himself. By taking on our human nature, God has entered into the life of Man as a man. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #1).
Most of the Israelites at the time of St. Paul were too engrossed with the things of this world — politics, economics, just getting ahead — that they did not appreciate the blessings that God had bestowed upon them. They treated the divine covenant that God had entered into with them as just a set of duties to be fulfilled, and not a relationship of love between persons to be entered into. Then, when that loving God took on a human face they did not recognize Him. They rejected the life of freedom as children of God, for the confines of life in this mundane world, which was the root of their unhappiness.
Too often we are not unlike those Israelites. It is not just the “rich and famous” who fail to experience happiness because they are possessed by material possession. We too can be so wrapped up in the things of the world that we reduce God and try to keep Him far away, abstract and distant. And our souls are restless and unhappy. We need to encounter Christ Jesus each and every day. From the first moment we awake we should resolve with all our hearts to desire to recognize Jesus Christ present in our lives.
In commenting about today’s Gospel passage, St. Augustine wonderfully summarizes the life of the Christian, “If you love God you will have power to walk upon the waters, and all the world’s swell and turmoil will remain beneath your feet. But if you love the world it will surely engulf you, for it always devours its lovers, never sustains them. . . . if, in a word, you begin to sink, say: Lord, I am drowning, save me!” (St. Augustine, Sermon 76).