Thursday, April 29, 2010

To See the Face of Christ

As our sons enter their teenage years, the challenge of imbuing them with Catholic Christian values is becoming more difficult. How do I live in the world as a Christian when my tendency as a Christian is to protect my sons by running and hiding with them? I just got off the phone with one of my dearest friends. As usual, talking with Martha illuminated me. Today's hour-long chat included mention of a tattooed, pierced truck driver. Not the one at left, but someone like him.

Martha lives about an hour from us and is busy raising four daughters with her husband. So we don't talk or see one another as much as either of us would like. We joke that during our occasional marathon phone calls, however, we "solve world problems." We nearly always talk about how we are trying to live out our faith and raise children to follow Christ in a world that seems increasingly indifferent to spirituality.

Martha and her husband, devout Christians, had considered homeschooling their daughters. Instead, they enrolled them in public schools, believing the girls could be a light of faith for other children. Lately, she's been struggling with the same issues I am: how to maintain and communicate our values to our children, while not condemning or avoiding others who don't share our beliefs. Our faith teaches us, after all, that every human being was called into existence and is deeply loved by God. Everyone we encounter is redeemable. Each of us is part of the face of Christ in this world. This is how she began to talk about the truck driver.

Martha told me about how she recently had stopped at a red light with her daughters. Her third grader looked over at the truck stopped next to them. The driver had lots of tattoos on his arms and multiple piercings on his face and ears. The daughter sneered at the sight of him,  turned to her mother and said "Why would someone look  like that?" Martha took a deep breath. "You know what? He's the kind of guy Christ would want to hang out with." "Really?" the daughter asked.  "Absolutely," Martha told her.

During the time of Christ there lived a group of Jews called the Pharisees. Their name comes from the Hebrew word parush, meaning "set apart." They came into existence during the third century B.C. "A growing sense of superiority to the heathen and idolatrous nations among whom their lot was cast came to be one of their main characteristics." Boy, does this hit close to home.

How easy it is for me feel self-satisfied in my sweet cocoon of family and parish, from which I sometimes look out at others with suspicion or contempt. Christ had a strong name for people like me: hypocrites. If we want to follow the life of Christ, we need to take a look at how Christ lived. He didn't hang out with pious people. In Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Mark, Christ leaves his home. He argues with other Jewish teachers. He heals a paralyzed man and then shocks people by forgiving his sins. He finds Levi, who is a tax collector, a man doing one of the most sordid jobs for the Roman occupation. (Think of how we view loan sharks.) Christ says to Levi, a married father of four: "Follow me."  Christ shares a meal with Levi and his disreputable friends. The Pharisees were disgusted to see Christ eating with such a crew. Levi eventually becomes an apostle of Christ. He's St. Matthew (pictured). See how much he looks like the truck driver?

It's no coincidence that Christ came into our world during a time when Pharisees were a revered group or that Christ considered them a bunch of hypocrites. And it isn't some random biographical detail that Christ chose to share meals with people who lacked piety. This all is designed to instruct us how to live our Christian faith: in the world, not just the sanctuary.

Here in the suburbs, I'm not likely to encounter a leper. Who are our modern-day undesirables? The teen rushed to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. The neighbor spotted at nearby bars, cheating on his wife. The parents who prefer cocktail parties to spending time with their children. The former parishioner who mocks the church. The mother who sends her troubled son to a counselor with his nanny instead of accompanying him herself.

We're called not to condemn. We are called to see, as another friend puts it, "the smashed face of Christ" in those we encounter, including ourselves.

Immediately after Christ gives us the Beatitudes, he gives us marching orders through tough questioning: For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

This isn't easy. God help us.