These days, there are a lot of new non-denominational churchesthat place tremendous emphasis on the cheerful aspects of the Christianmessage. They preach that God loves and cherishes everyone, and that ifwe return that love, we will be showered with blessings. God has a planfor each of us, and if we say yes to that plan, we will be filled withhappiness and peace, and all our highest aspirations will be fulfilled. Thenew churches are popular with young professionals who have achieved ameasure of financial and social success, and who are now seeking spiritualvalues. Worship services are informal occasions marked by enthusiasticsinging and good fellowship. It’s religion tailored for young people whoare discovering the extent of their God-given gifts. They are strong,intelligent and attractive — the privileged children of a powerful nation.They are aware of the wonderful opportunities that life affords them, andthe awareness fills them with gratitude and enthusiasm.
All this is good. The Good News they have embraced is perfectly true,and it’s marvelous that so many previously unchurched young people arediscovering Christ. Nevertheless, I fear that, as often happens with newreligious movements, in their enthusiasm for one aspect of Christiantruth, they are neglecting other elements of God’s revelation that areequally true, and equally essential to a life of faith. I’m thinking especiallyof what our tradition teaches about power, failure, and pain. I supposeit’s perfectly understandable for young, gifted people to want to brushaside these aspects of the Church’s teaching as dated, gloomy, andirrelevant. But no human being, no matter how privileged, can evadethese realities forever. And the danger is that when the crunch comes –when they encounter personal tragedy, inadequacy and all the limitationsthat are part of life — their edited version of Christianity will provewanting. Will they conclude that their faith was, after all, only a pleasantdelusion? It is also unfortunate that people destined to wield authorityover the lives of others, should be ignorant of the profound insight aboutthe nature of power that lies at the heart of the Christian message.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote, “Our life as Christians begins bybeing baptized into a death; our most joyous festivals begin with, andcenter upon, the broken body and shed blood. There is thus a tragicdepth in our worship … Our joy has to be the sort of joy that can coexistwith that.” In other words, our Christian joy is tempered by the factthat Christ was crucified; just as our Christian grief is tempered by thefact that Christ is risen. Pain, is not a senseless negation of the Christianpromise of salvation. Jesus himself took solace in today’s reading fromIsaiah: “Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days;Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt heshall bear.” Our suffering has meaning, because it is united with thesuffering of Christ, to bring about the Kingdom of God.
As for power, Piers Paul Read (b. 1941) has written of thetemptation to join with others “in sculpting the world to fit their dream.But. . .you cannot carve living tissue. You are left with a wound.” Overthe course of generations, countless idealists have sought power in thebelief that by its exercise they could lead humanity to brotherhood andhappiness and peace. Invariably, their efforts have failed, with disastrousconsequences. In our Gospel, when James and John ask to sit at Jesus’side when he comes into his glory, they are seeking power. Our Lord asksthem, “Can you drink the cup I shall drink or be baptized in the same bathof pain as I?” In their enthusiasm and ignorance, James and John insistthat they can. But Jesus responds, “Anyone among you who aspires togreatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among youmust serve the needs of all. The Son of Man has not come to be servedbut to serve — to give his life in ransom for the many.”
Here we stand at the heart of the mystery. Jesus Christ, the Sonof God, will succeed were countless powerful men and women before andafter him have failed. He will bring salvation to humanity. But he will do itnot through power, but through service and weakness and pain. Hethrough whom the very universe was created, achieves his victory not byconquest, but by being nailed, broken and humiliated, to a tree. And ifwe, with all our talents and gifts, would better the world, we must be likehim.
So, our tradition has crucial things to say about failure, power andpain. Any part of the Good News might lead us to discover Christ, butonce we have pledged our life to him, we will require, over the course of alifetime, the whole of his revelation as safeguarded and preached by theChurch, to bring us safe into his Kingdom.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”