Too often we regard Holy Week, the Stations of the Cross, the ceremonies of the Triduum, as having to do with the salvation of our own souls only. There is a persistent tendency in many of us towards a private kind of religion. Irish Catholics of a certain age are prone to confine the mystery of redemption to a personal transaction between God and the individual.
Heavily influenced by a flawed and limited grasp of a theology of sin and redemption, many of us failed to see salvation as a communal matter for all God’s people, reaching into the heart of the world itself.
The liturgical experience of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is intended to lead us, not into a flight from the world into heaven, but to a sense of responsibility, with God, for saving the world, for transforming it into a new creation. In his second encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope) Pope Benedict wrote that Christians had ignored Christ’s message that true Christian hope involves salvation for all. We focus instead, he said, on individual salvation rather than on ‘a city of communal salvation . . . No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.’
There is rich width and depth in the vision of this encyclical. ‘God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us, and humanity in its entirety.’ The seeds of Easter are unlimited and they blossom everywhere. That is the reason for our hope.
The mystery of the Incarnation can only be taken literally. Its implications for the world are real beyond any doubt. When God became human, humanity itself was transformed. When the Word became flesh, the whole world became utterly full of God – God’s flesh, God’s body, God’s essence, God’s redemption. Given that this universality is the non-negotiable story of Christian redemption and hope, and facing ‘the dark door of the future’ as Pope Benedict called it, there are a few questions to be asked just now about why our Church seems to be shrinking in a swiftly growing world.
Have we a genuine desire to share and explore Good News stories with others in an interfaith, multicultural society and context?
The Second Vatican Council makes it quite clear that we, as Roman Catholics, are called to welcome, respect and learn from, the teachings and stories of other world religions. God loves all people equally, granting everyone the necessary graces for the abundant life in this world, and the joy of heaven in the next. We must ask ourselves, as Christians, about the quality of our listening to our sisters and brothers from other denominations and other faiths. More than ever before, in a world that is tense with suspicion and threat, we need to make sure that the nature of our dialogue and attitude is full of genuine respect and affection. The miracle of the Incarnation calls for a humble approach so as to understand and honour ‘the other’, too, as the imago Dei, abundantly blessed and graced by God no less than we Christians are. That is what we celebrate in the feast of the Epiphany. Without such an expansion of vision our reasons for hope will inevitably weaken.
What is our real attitude to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers?
The world today contains waves of peoples moving relentlessly across international boundaries, driven from home by oppression and famine, and drawn by the often faint hope of a better life in another place. This presents a huge challenge to governments and citizens all over the world. Despite what the papers tell us, the statistics reveal that far more peoples cross borders from one African country to another to seek refuge than they do in Europe. There is a deep dilemma here for all of us. The mystery of God’s becoming a ‘child at risk’ at the first Christmas, takes us to the heart of the matter.
How do we read in our time the message to Joseph in a dream to flee his country for safety from persecution and threat to life? How seriously are we taking the urgent ecological concerns of governments and environmentalists in their efforts to save our planet?
Pope St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all fostered an awareness of this vital question. They urge us to make a radical, paradigm shift so as to fully grasp the immediacy of the issue. Spe Salvi applies the Easter victory to ‘the building up of this world’. Otherwise, the encyclical repeats, the incarnational reality of redemption fails. In the past, especially in Ireland, a fatally skewed presentation of a certain doctrine of atonement has led to serious neglect by many Christian Churches, of the world, of matter, and of all creation. In popular sermons and teachings ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ were once bracketed together as the enemy of God. Many still carry traces of that awful, dualistic teaching. But the Paschal Mystery tells a completely different story of a world so beloved of God that Jesus Christ died for love of it. Here again the prophets of the beauty and wonder of our world, and the healers of her brokenness, no matter what their background, are the visionaries who are inspired by the natural goodness of their own human hearts and the faiths of their own communities. Either way, it is all, in the end, the work of God.
Do we welcome the discoveries of our scientists as further revelations of the wonder of our Creator?
A theology of creation that springs from the mystery of Incarnation can support no other attitude. The power and promise that extends the horizons of human creativity are the work of the Holy Spirit. To deny this is to deny the life-giving core of our Faith. The free Spirit of Pentecost may sometimes touch the so-called secular world before it does the more exclusive Churches. As Christians we humbly and delightedly welcome the advances, the discoveries of our richly gifted scholars and visionaries in the ‘secular’ sphere, knowing and declaring that these, too, are revelations of the inclusive mystery of the God of Jesus. Instead of being suspicious and fearful of the technical and genetic miracles that are happening daily, the true Christian response is one of welcome and discernment at every level of research and study. And all of its creative energy is the work of God’s imagination.
Here, too, are rich grounds for hope.
Are we ready to meet the challenge to our faith that is rapidly gaining momentum from a post-modern world?
Here, as in the above realities, there is a choice. We can wring our hands and curse the inevitable phenomenon of human progress and unprecedented advances in cultures and communication as though it were all highly regrettable and ill-conceived. Or we can be inspired by the revelation and feast of the fleshing of the Word, assuring us that all forward movements in society, all developments of consciousness in the human community, are manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Of course there are all the dangers and threats that our leaders have pointed out. They, in fact, are always there. We need to be eternally vigilant about the nature of the grand narratives that are displacing our familiar Christian one – the narratives of relativism and consumerism, our individualism, our celebrity culture, our subtle nihilism, the alienation that is spawned by a global capitalism. But we are Easter people. The darkness of these deep-seated trends in society has been overcome. We search for the light in them.
Are we confining on-going revelation to the institutional church only, not recognising God’s prophets in the wider world?
When God became human, all humanity became the potential source of divine revelation. Wherever men and women inspire others with their courage and faithfulness, that is the activity of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we limit the possible places and people of prophecy to religious ones. The real stars of the Kingdom are generally unrecognised by the official Churches. Those bright lights in a persecuted and depressed community, country or group who, by bringing confidence and hope to oppressed people, are agents of God no matter what Church or Faith they belong to. The true heroes and heroines in the eyes of God may be of any colour, belief-system or class, as long as they speak the truth, and witness to possibility, in crushed peoples who face impossible odds. Compassion is always the hallmark of the Risen Christ.
This conviction of the graced unity of all being is repeatedly emphasised in the words of Scripture, in papal encyclicals and in the theologies and spiritualities of nature and grace. Here is the safe source and basis of all responsible outreach. Awful things happen when our faith becomes self-centred and self-serving, when we lose that sense of interconnectedness, when the tribal horizons of our family, or our church, or our group become the horizons of God’s world.
Exclusive extract from Horizons of Hope: Unpublished Fragments of Love by Daniel O'Leary (Columba Books, 2021)