Monday, September 25, 2006

The Obnoxiousness of Holiness

Homily for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
James 3:16—4:3
Mark 9:30-37

How many of you have ever known someone you called a "goody-two-shoes", or something like that? You know the type - the kind of person who delights in calling attention to his or her own goodness: it's not enough that they are good, they need to make sure everyone knows they're good. Usually someone like this is also tattletale: again, it's not enough that they are good; no, they have to make sure that those who aren't as good as them get in trouble for it. We rightly find such people annoying.

But sometimes we are annoyed by good people, and make fun of them, and mock them, because they truly are good. We are annoyed by them because their goodness reminds of our faults. Sometimes we can be annoyed by people who are truly holy because their holiness seems to call attention to our sinfulness. We resent being "shown up" by those better than ourselves.

I had the privilege and good fortune of meeting Mother Theresa twice: once while I was in graduate school and once while I was in seminary. And on both occasions I was awed by her holiness. I was struck by her goodness. Her holiness was so powerful it was as if you could reach out and touch it. And I found that in her presence I wasn't reminded of my own sinfulness or faults, because I wasn't thinking about myself at all: I was thinking about how amazing she was, and how amazing God was.

But not everyone had the same reaction to Mother Theresa. Even a saint like her had her detractors. Even she had enemies. I recall from time to time over the years reading articles and books condemning her for not living up to the world's idea of what she should be doing, and saying the most horrible things about her.

Those who have set themselves on the path of wickedness cannot stand the presence of goodness, and that's what our first reading is about. Listen to these words from the Book of Wisdom:

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings,
reproaches us for transgressions of the law...

The world finds holiness obnoxious, finds truth annoying, and finds goodness a reproach.

Now we live in a society which is giving itself over more and more to relativism and secularism: Relativism, as I've explained before, is the belief or attitude that "no one can really know the truth", or "if one person says something is good and another says it is evil, there's no way to tell who is right," etc. Secularism is the attitude that we must keep religion out of our public life: We cannot bring our faith to bear on our political life or priorities - religion is only permissible in the privacy of our own homes and churches. And these two "'isms", relativism and secularism, have in large part led to the decay of morality in our society today.

So it came as no surprise to me to see the New York Times condemn Pope Benedict for "fomenting discord" between Muslims and Christians, It came as no surprise because the Pope's speech, which revealed such a depth of hatred and violence in the Muslim world, was in fact not really a speech about Islam at all. The criticisms of Islam were made almost in passing. The real point of the speech was to criticize the hollowness and emptiness of our modern Western society - the moral and intellectual weakness brought about by relativism and secularism. The Pope's point was that our society's values of "whatever feels good, do it", and "no one can really say what the truth is" and "whatever you do, don't be judgmental", leave us ill-prepared to stand up against the challenge presented by forces like militant Islam.

And the New York Times, as the principal voice of our dominant secular culture, understood very well the real import of the Pope's words: The editorial board of the New York Times are not stupid people: they knew perfectly well where the Pope's criticisms were really aimed. And they felt the need to point our attention in another direction. As one commentor wrote:
"The [New York Times] is carrying out a diversionary maneuver. They recognize that it is the falsity of their ideology of secular relativism that is the main object of the Pope's teaching." They are trying to deflect us away from this truth by pretending outrage at the "offense" offered to a third party.

Truth, goodness, and holiness are not popular in this age of intolerant secular relativism.

The pope's speech is a wake-up call to us. The pope's speech is a call for us to see clearly the signs of the times and be prepared. We live in a society which claims to be just and compassionate, but yet we allow the slaughter of 4,000 innocent unborn children every day. We live in a nation which claims "in God we trust", but yet we have outlawed God from our public schools and much of our public life. If we do not get our spiritual and moral house in order, we will not be able to stand in the face of the challenges that confront us.

In our gospel today Our Lord foretells His passion and death to the disciples. He tells them that He will be killed, and that He will rise again. And after hearing this, after hearing Jesus explain this critical truth, what do the disciples do? They get into an argument about who will be first among them. At the critical moment, the disciples get caught up in a side issue: The disciples didn't "get it". They got lost in a distraction at the critical moment.

The pope is warning us. We cannot get lost in distractions. We cannot get caught up in distractions at the critical moment at which we find ourselves. And most of the values and priorities of our society are just that: distractions.

So how do we "get it"? How do we become prepared for the challenges confronting us, how do we become prepared to be disciples in the world?

Well, the answer is also to be found in today's gospel. The answer is to get close to Jesus: After teaching and healing the multitudes Jesus took the disciples aside to spend time with them, in prayer and teaching. He calls us to be with Him in a similar way. To spend time with Him in the quiet of prayer, in the quiet of meditation, in the quiet of studying His word, so that he may teach us. In Him, and only in Him, will we find what we need to make our way through the trials of this world. By becoming intimate with Him he will give us what we need to deal with the troubles and needs of our own lives, and stand up against the challenge of Islam, and all the other trials of our world.

By becoming intimate with Him we will be strengthened and trained to spread His word, His teaching, to the ends of the earth. Only in Christ will we, and will the world, find peace. Only in His truth will we be able to live rightly with one another. Only in His justice will Justice prevail on earth. He alone: His teaching, His Way, will provide the solution to the challenge faced by our nation, our society, and our world.