Prince of Peace and God of Power and Might.
I presided at the wedding of one of my former students yesterday, and the church was full. Do you know how rare it is, first of all, to have a wedding in a Catholic church these days, much less have one with over 200 people in the pews? Young Catholics regularly now choose destination weddings on a beach or in an exotic location overseas, presided over by their best friend or their father.
But yesterday’s couple really wanted the be married in their faith, and you could really feel the love in the room. At the reception, seated among a whole table of former students, watching them engaging with one another, I suddenly had a flashback, remembering them sitting in my classroom. My mind took me through a series of moments from those years of teaching, and one in particular hit me. It was pouring outside, a storm of hurricane proportions, and I had roomful of students who were taking an exam. They looked stressed. So I decided to put a fireplace video on the big screen in front of them (I was a film professor). I thought it might reduce their stress a bit from the exam and the hurricane. Sitting beside a fireplace with a crackling fire is calming and comforting, and this one was easy. No carrying of logs, no messy cleanup, no possibility of sparks, and of course no one could get burned. I read somewhere that domesticated fire on a screen is one of our great inventions, but of course it isn’t really fire at all, is it? You take something that is wild and tame it, and it becomes something else, doesn’t it?
Sometimes you have to domesticate wild things. Like children, for instance. Remember the Tasmanian Devil, from Warner Brothers Looney Tunes? He is a dumb, impatient angry whirlwind of a character, who can only be tamed by music. I suspect that at times my mother was subject to the ‘divil’ within me as a kid, and I have certainly seen untamed devil children at Cosco or Dunkin Donuts and even belonging to parents I know and love.
The words of Psalm 29 come to mind: The voice of the God of glory thunders; the voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The Lord, whose voice has a bit of the Tasmanian devil in it.
That Lord of the psalm is usually not the one we hear about at church, is it? We’re not actually looking for the Tasmanian devil deity when we come to Epiphany. We’re not looking for the God described in our reading from Hebrews, the God who is a consuming fire, are we? We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control, like a fireplace video. In a wonderful book called When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we can’t handle a fire-y God. And when someone actually does try to engage with the real God of the universe, it doesn’t end well. When you approach the burning bush, you know what? You get burned. Scorched. Smoked. Melted. Destroyed. It’s a lot easier to pick someone to do that for you, like maybe a priest, who of course doesn’t really do that either.
In today’s Gospel Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and he knew that he was also on his way to his death. He was harboring a furious storm inside, and it suddenly all came pouring out of him as he spoke to his followers, heavens opening and the sound of roaring thunder in his voice: “I have come to set the earth on fire…”, not to establish peace on earth “but rather division…a father divided against his son…a mother against her daughter…how I wish it were already blazing.” His friends no doubt were shocked. This gentle man, the one who had also said that “a house divided against itself will not stand”, this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, the suffering Prince of Peace, was calling for civil war among his followers? Which Jesus should I follow? Prince of Peace, or God of Power and Might?
Well maybe both.
When I was a young guy I wanted to help change the world, make it better. I wanted to do something radical, and for me that meant entering the Jesuit order. It was not because I wanted to be a priest-- to have the privileges and respect that could give you. Instead, it was the gospels that had the potential to set the world ablaze, it was those incredibly revolutionary words and actions that Jesus proposed, above all else: to take care of the homeless, the powerless, the naked, the hungry and thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned, the handicapped, the dying, those who are called expendable and who are considered worthless to the rest of the human race, to love deeply and radically, to bring real peace and real justice —to live my life with a radical faith like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—-that’s what inspired me to walk away from a planned career as a lawyer, and enter the Jesuit order.
But as the years of my training piled on, I found that there were cautionary voices urging me not to overdo it, not to go overboard, to be careful not to burn out. Maybe I should cool my jets a bit, settle in for the long haul, choose not to rock the boat too much.
It is sometimes too easy to live our faith as Christians and Catholics. The gentle Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd: truthfully, sometimes the Church encourages us only to see that side of the faith. It is a comfortable, consoling version, and if you simply follow the rules, stay within the lines, don’t make too many waves, you will be on the glory road to heaven. Sometimes I feel that is the message we get when we come to Mass. We want to be warmed, calmed, like the fireplace video, as the storm rages all around us outside—except when God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Sometimes in church we can create the illusion that all is calm, all is bright. You wouldn’t want me to put the fear of God in you, would you?
But there is another voice in the faith that thunders down from the heavens, and there is fire in it. It says that Christianity is not all that easy, that love demands extreme sacrifice, that the truth is bigger than our small hearts sometimes want to accept. This is the voice of Jesus that tells us that unless we truly accept the tough love and peace he brings, there will be real division in our lives---with our families and friends, and within our own hearts. This division…it is already visible in our politics, it is visible in our church, it is visible within our families and we can even admit that we can see it within our selves. Which side am I on here?
Sometimes I wonder if the reason young Catholics are abandoning the church—besides the scandals and the corruption—is because they are bored by its safety. And sometimes I wonder if we’re not just fooling ourselves pretending to believe that God is somehow entertained by our weekly good faith Mass attendance. One grown-up man at the wedding yesterday came up to me after the Mass and asked if it would ‘count’ towards today’s Mass requirement. I smiled and asked him, what do you think God would say? I mean the real God of stupendous, unimaginable, mind-blowing power. The writer Annie Dillard once said that we church-going people “are like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats to church,” she said; “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” We really have no idea what we are talking about when we talk about God, the astonishing power that lives underneath everything and everyone that is.
Maybe the only way to true unity is through the sometimes tough love of Jesus. Like a powerful summer rainstorm, it washes us free of our prejudices, our comfort zones, our closed hearts. It requires us to reject our sense of superiority, and to reject a culture that brainwashes us to believe that success is about money, power, glamour, and popularity. There is no peace in any of that.
The only real peace comes when we bravely follow Jesus all the way to the end…to that end, where the Prince of Peace and the God of Power and Might triumph together. At the end of that road, the Son shines out, the leaves dripping wet with the water that gives them life, a baptism for the world that washes us all with glory.