Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Suffering Church

Reflections on the Readings
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 14, 2010 - Year C
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
By Dennis S. Hankins
The Suffering Church

"But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake." - Jesus

Today's Gospel, like Matthew 24 and Mark 13, is Jesus' prediction of Jerusalem's siege and destruction of the Temple.  This took place in 70 A.D., about forty years after the ascension of Jesus.  Each of the synoptic gospel passages include the basics of Jesus' prophecy: 1. Wars, 2. International strife, 3. Earthquakes, 4. Plagues and famine, 5. Persecution, and 6. De-Creation.

Jesus' words of 'not one stone of the temple remaining upon another' no doubt startled the disciples.  And Jesus saying, "This generation will not pass away till all these things take place," give his words an imminent meaning. (Matthew 24:34)  History confirms that these words of Jesus were contemporary: Roman armies destroyed the familiar and sacred Temple representing the Old Covenant in 70 A.D. 

It is wrong to think that somehow Jesus had something against the Temple or the city of Jerusalem.  Jesus, like the prophets preceding him honored the Temple with deep reverence.  Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth. At the age of twelve he identified his mission as His Father's business at the Temple.  He even regarded the Temple as a special dwelling place of his Father, calling it a 'house of prayer.'  But Jesus, speaking of himself, taught that, "Something greater than the Temple is here;" Jesus now describing himself as God present among the people.  

The crucifixion of Jesus presaged the demise of the Temple.  Jesus' death also prefigured the hostility and betrayal that has accompanied the Church in every age since Pentecost.  Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you...if they persecuted me, they will persecute you."

In regard to Jerusalem, the city of the great King, Jesus lamented, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  No one should miss the divine affection dripping from these words.  Jesus did not want anyone to perish outside the door of salvation; Jesus himself said he is that door.  The divine caress of urgency to draw his covenant people unto himself is felt in every word of Jesus' heart cry for the City of David. (Matthew 23:37) And upon the cross, Jesus embraced not only Jerusalem, but the whole world,  pouring out his love upon all without distinction of race, tribe, color, or language. 

Jesus described worship as "in the Spirit, for God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." Everywhere that the faithful are gathered, or working, playing, or moving in next door, the Church is present.  It is present in you and in me, for we like Jesus are temples of the presence of God in the world.  And like the early Church, the first temples of the Holy Spirit, the Church today is persecuted and maligned.  In some places of the world, where the Church has been present since the first century, the Church is under attack and being scattered.  Those with a fundamentalist urgency view the ancient people among them as foreigners and infidels; yet they are people who have roots as deep in the ancient world as those who persecute them.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has entered into heaven itself to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Through Christ, the new covenant he mediates is better, since it is based on and enacted upon better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)  
This sacrificial gift of salvation through Jesus captured the hearts and the imagination of the common folk and fisherman in Israel.  God's laws now were written by the Spirit on the hearts of the faithful; their new life described by St. Paul as 'life in the Spirit,"  and their very being as "temples of the Holy Spirit."  

It is within the years between the Ascension and the destruction of the Temple that we find the suffering Church in Jerusalem.  Luke records in his Acts of the Apostles the persecution of the first generation of the Church in Jerusalem.  It is Stephen, a newly ordained deacon who speaks to the Temple Council asking them, "Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?  And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."  Enraged at this, they took Stephen outside of the city and stoned him. (Acts 7)

On the day of Stephen's death, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8; cf. Luke 21:12-17; Matthew 24:15-22; Mark 13:14ff)  Daily, the infant church picked up its cross and followed Jesus.  Caring not for their reputation or their lives, they accepted the repudiation of their faith as a crown of glory.  And to this day, persecution remains the experience of the pilgrim Church.

To Tertullian is attributed the statement, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  It is said more martyrs were made in the twentieth century than all of the previous centuries combined.  Their voices are united in declaring, "We have only one King and his name is Jesus!"  

Some have time to see what may be the necessary end of their life.  Others do not.  Deranged zealots strapped with explosives and artillery, spill the blood of innocent worshippers.  Such absurd violence rarely shows up on the radar screen of the American evening news.  Yet women and men and their children lay strewn in the house of prayer and the world remains unmoved and uninterested.  But God knows. And God opens wide the gates for these newly crowned martyrs whose last prayer on earth is finished with an "Amen" in heaven.

It is difficult to read of such unprovoked violence.  The recent brutality unleashed against the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, Sunday, October 31, is one such story.  The Bishops representing the Catholics of the region including Roman Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian, and Chaldeans issued a statement regarding the massacre.  

Together the Bishops said in part, "Words of distress, condemnation, and incrimination, are no longer enough in the face of the horror that is taking place repeatably in Iraq, especially with regard to Christians over the past years and which reached a pinnacle of savage insanity with the massacre on Sunday.  Before all else, we want to come and pray in reverence and incline ourselves before the bodies of these heroic martyrs, the sufferings of the innocent wounded, the pain of the relatives and victims and the injured.  We ask Christ our Lord to receive in the glory of His love this new convoy of heroic martyrs, who join the millions who went before them, from the days of St. Stephen until today."

With eloquence born out of tribulation, Peter described the church as living stones; a temple built out of persons covered with grace into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  The spirit of the age often seeks to destroy this temple, but Jesus Christ is our precious and enduring cornerstone.  He is the stone that the builders rejected, a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make the disobedient to fall; for they stumble because they disobey the word.  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (I Peter 2:5-9) 

The suffering Church is a brilliant light of grace in a world of much darkness.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body. Hebrews 13:3

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