Sunday, December 5, 2010

Because I've Been Struggling with "the Kingdom Of Heaven is At Hand"

Second Sunday of Advent

Dear readers,

I'm struggling with something. When you're done reading my diatribe, will you let me know your thoughts?

Here we are, the second Sunday of Advent and the Gospel reading recounts how John the Baptist preached: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." I understand what this means on a chronological level. John is prophesizing that the Messiah is coming. But why does Christ then tell his Apostles to tell people the very same thing? "From that time Jesus began to preach and to say: 'Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' "

Is Christ saying the end of the world is coming? That we need to renounce the world and long for God's heavenly kingdom? Or is Christ saying the Kingdom of Heaven is right in front of us? Or is Christ introducing both of these concepts at once?  I am troubled when Christians refer to our earthy lives as a "vale of tears" only to be endured because our true home is heaven. This doesn't match my own experience. Maybe I'm missing something.

My confusion and anger began on All Soul's Day, when I tried to read the Liturgy of the Hours. The second reading was a sermon on man's mortality by Saint Cyprian, a bishop. Let me be blunt: I just don't "get" his sentiments. I was on board with his first sentence "Our obligation is to do God's will" but he lost me by the sermon's end. He talks about how Christians should not go kicking and screaming into our deaths. Okay, I get that. Here is where he and I part ways. "Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we would rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ? The world hates Christians so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?"

Living is not de facto serving the devil. Using the gifts with which God has blessed us is a privilege and a responsibility. Following Christ need not happen only when we die. Isn't Christ about how we live, too? The world might hate Christians, but God loves the world and everyone in it.

Dualistic thinking restricted my spirituality for much of my life. I used to see the Church over here and the world over there. I used to fear the world outside my comfortable life of family and parish. I couldn't understand the Church infuses the world. Saint Cyprian tells us we must wish to meet the glorious band of apostles."Let all our longing be to join them a soon as we may," he preaches. 

That's not what I long for. I long to learn to love my husband and our sons more fully each day. I believe Christ brought them to me. I believe He is uses my struggles, past and present and future, to draw me closer to Him. I believe the love we share among family and friends and neighbors is beautiful because it give us a glimpse of the love Christ pours out to us. I believe I am supposed to be looking for the face of Christ everywhere - in the stories my students tell me of damaged lives, in the struggles I see in our small town, and so on, because He lives.

To refer to our lives here as "bondage"  feels ungracious. One could argue that Saint Cyprian's sermon only applies to early Christians or those who live under fear of torture and persecution, such as our brothers and sisters in Iraq. But I don't think he was limiting his remarks. And then this weekend when I started reading "Teacher Man" a magnificent book  by  the late Frank McCourt about  teaching in New York City public schools  I wondered again about how Christ wants us to envision ourselves in this world. Frank McCourt's  his description of growing up Roman Catholic in Limerick, Ireland caught my breath. Among those McCourt forgives for his miserable childhood are "the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful." He continues: "I had spent childhood and adolescence examining my conscience and finding myself in a perpetual state of sin. That was the training, the brainwashing, the conditioning and it discouraged smugness, especially among the sinning class." Is this Christ's message? Is this how we want to pass on the faith to our children? I don't believe so.

I'm not interested in arguing the particulars of Frank McCourt's childhood or his issues with the Church because I know his was a common experience. How many adults, given the responsibility of instructing the faith, failed spectacularly? Our own sons endure CCD classes that are dull, uninspired and focused solely on rules and consequences. They receive not a word of guidance about developing  interior lives of prayer and faith.

This exasperates me. How do we learn and teach the truth of the faith in all its richness? I always discerned "the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand " means it is within our grasp, that we can encounter Christ here and now. I asked myself: Is this just a remnant of my post-Vatican II, felt-banner, not-so-Catholic childhood?

So I looked it up. I went to a source that I consider official. It turns out I'm not so unorthodox.  The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry for "The Kingdom of God"  fits my perceptions.

 "The various shades of meaning which the expression bears have to be studied. In the mouth of Christ the "kingdom" means not so much a goal to be attained or a place — though those meanings are by no means excluded; cf. Matthew 5:3; 11:2, etc. — it is rather a tone of mind (Luke 17:20-21), it stands for an influence which must permeate men's minds if they would be one with Him and attain to His ideals." 

 I'm going to keep praying and waiting for the Christ Child, who is with us. Right Now.
(photo courtesy of Karen Horton, whose husband's blog is here)