We are in a time of darkness and uncertainty. It feels like darkness is covering the whole earth. From bitter partisan politics to worldwide lockdowns, from troubling messages from Church leaders and inaction from others, things seem dark. There are troubling things going on in the world and the Church is not exempt from this darkness.
I’m in the process of finishing up The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and I must say that story seems to be resonating right now more than ever with me. A creeping darkness pervades and an evil malice is taking over the whole realm of Middle Earth. What can good men do against such reckless hate is the question asked. I feel like Tolkien could have written this book yesterday.
It seems that there is a pervasive darkness and confusion seeping over everything these days, an evil malice that threatens to drown the whole earth in slavery to some nebulous new society that will not lead us to freedom but rather to slavery to the new world order.
It seems to me that the prophet Isaiah speaks to us and our world today in our Old Testament text, Isaiah 60:1-6. “Darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples…” Seems appropriate for our world today. This is a spiritual darkness and we see it today not only in the world but, if we’re honest, in the Church.
But even in this darkness, the prophet brings us hope,
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
He tells us that the glory of the LORD will be seen, that nations and kings will walk in the brightness of the rising of the light. He tells us that, if we will only lift up our eyes, we will see and be radiant, that our hearts will thrill and rejoice and that the wealth of the nations shall come.
Gotta be honest, I’m not feeling it these days. What exactly is he talking about? How are we to know what he means?
Our Psalm (Psalm 72) tells us what life will be like under the rule of the “royal son.” The Psalmist tells us that the people will be judged with righteousness and that justice will reign. He tells us that the cause of the poor will be defended, deliverance will be given to the needy and the oppressor will be crushed. He tells us that the presence of the royal son will bring refreshment, righteousness, peace and prosperity.
I don’t know about you but I’m not seeing that too much these days. We seem to be a little short of righteousness, peace, justice, freedom from oppression, refreshment, peace and prosperity. This is not just true of the world today either. This is true of the Church these days. There are some really confusing and even dark things coming from our so-called leaders these days and, even in the visible Church, there seems to be dearth of these qualities. Who, then, shall bring about righteousness, peace, justice, refreshment, peace and prosperity?
We begin to get a feel for some of the answer in our Epistle reading (Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6). We see that this righteousness, peace, justice, refreshment, peace and prosperity is for all peoples, not just the Jews of the Old Covenant. This “mystery” that St. Paul refers to is that the “Gentiles” are fellow heirs. In other words, the promises of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 and indeed all of Holy Scripture are for all people. And what is that promise?
A holy and righteous King who will bring peace, justice for the oppressed, refreshment, peace and prosperity. Where shall we find such a King?
Our gospel text fills in the gaps (Matthew 2:1-12). The King has been born in Bethlehem of Judea around 2000 years ago. You would think that the birth of such a King would be heralded and celebrated by the world. Peace at last! Prosperity at last!
Not so with this King. This King’s birth begins a revolution. This King’s birth means that the Light of Life has invaded the darkness of the world. This King’s birth is the answer to all our real problems. When we hear words like peace, justice and prosperity, we think money and freedom from conflict. And so it shall be under the rule of this royal Son.
But His peace is peace between God and man and it lasts eternally.
His justice is the justice of a holy God who cannot abide the oppression of sin and death.
His refreshment is His shed blood and broken body.
His prosperity doesn’t involve nice houses and cars, but rather the prosperity of a world that is free from the corruption of our sinful humanity.
This King has come to set us free; free from the pervasive and spiritual darkness of our own sin. This King is kind and has paid the price on our behalf, for nothing comes without a cost. This King comes as a Son, born of a Virgin, running for His life from a murderous and craven worldly king who will have power at all costs. This King gives up worldly power as He lays down His life so that all peoples may be reconciled to the Creator and to each other.
See your King who has come, Jesus the Christ!
There have been a couple of distinct times in my life that I can remember having to “go back.” Let me explain.
Once was in college. I was in the Army ROTC program and a part of the Ranger battalion. As such, one of the things we had to learn was “land nav.” That’s land navigation if you didn’t pick that up. Basically, what that means is we had to learn how, given nothing but a map and an objective, how to get ourselves and our unit from where we were to where we needed to go to accomplish our mission. You had to learn how to read a map and the “lay of the land” in order to do so. Getting lost could have, literally, fatal consequences.
Well, I got lost. I was unsure on how to read a compass at the time and how to plot routes to travel from point A to point B. So, rather than ask, I just sucked it up and tried to get it done. And I got lost. My platoon sergeant found me wandering around and said, “Go back to the beginning and start over.” I wasn’t happy about it but I knew I was lost and so I did.
The second time was putting that concept of land navigation into practical use during my time as a trainee police officer. I had to learn how to read street maps in order to get from where I was in the city to where I needed to go. Yes, it was long enough ago that we needed physical maps and didn’t have fancy computers or GPS to tell us where to go. Anyways…
I got lost more than once. My training officers were not amused with lack of attention and inability to do my job. I remember getting lost once and not knowing where I was. My training officer said, “Then go back to the last place you know and start over.”
Sound familiar, right?
Sometimes we just have to go back to the beginning and start over.
I think this is really apropos for the Church today. I feel like, in many ways, the Church has lost her way. She has become confused and is wandering around lost, trying to find her way from point A to point B, not really sure how to get to where she needs to go to accomplish her mission. I think there are a lot of reasons for this and I really don’t have the time or space to discuss them all. But I do want to touch on one that I believe is really important: Tradition. Specifically, tradition in worship.
Some of you reading this were instantly triggered just now when I said tradition and worship. It’s okay, you’ll be fine. Some of you are probably thinking that I talk about this too much and some of you probably don’t care.
We should care because our abandonment of tradition is killing the Church. I know that sounds very dramatic, but I want us to consider some things. I base most of this on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. There are some hard facts that I can and probably will quote but, nevertheless. We look around us and lament about how the secular world is so corrupt and lost and blah blah blah. And it is. The secular world is so corrupt and lost and sick that it’s dizzying to watch the pace at which things seem to be disintegrating.
But the Church is no different. I mean, if we’re being honest.
Ok, so some hard facts first. You can find some of these in Kenneth C. Jones’ work Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II.
In 1958, 74 percent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass. By 2000, that number dropped to 25 percent. In 1965, there were 126,000 adult baptisms. In 2002, there were 80,000 (keep in mind that the population of the world has increased in these years also). In 1965, there were 58,000 priests. In 2002, there were only 45,000 priests. In 1965, there were 1,575 ordinations to the priesthood and in 2002, there were 450 ordinations to the priesthood. In 1965, 1 percent of parishes were without a priest. By 2002, 15 percent of parishes were without a resident priest.
These numbers could go on and on. One of the most shocking is found in a 2019 study published by the Pew Research Center that found that only 31 percent of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Read that again slowly and let it sink in. 69 percent of our brothers and sisters do not believe when Jesus said, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” He meant it. The overwhelming majority of Catholic Christians in the world today do not believe what Jesus Himself taught about the Eucharist.
And we wonder what has happened to the Church.
To be fair, we are the ones who have allowed this. We, the faithful, are the ones who have not only stood by and quietly went along with the slow decline of the Church, but we have actively participated in it. We are to blame. Jesus hasn’t changed His mind about the Church. The Bible hasn’t changed. God the Father hasn’t changed His mind about how things are to be done, how He is to be worshipped.
We have done this.
So, what are we to do?
To be honest, I think some of this is inevitable. Some of this, I believe, is a purgation of the Church. Some of this God has and is allowing to see who will be faithful. But, other than some of this being God’s doing, most of it is our doing.
So, what are we to do?
I think the answer going forward is to go back. With all my heart, I believe the way forward in the Church is to go back to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We need to return to the traditional beliefs and practices of the Church as she has been and done from the beginning. And this is not a mystery. We know how to do this, and we know what must be done.
Let’s be honest, we don’t want to. We don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable for us and, truth is, we’re really more about our comfort than we are our holiness. We’re more about the status quo and less about obedience to what Jesus has told us we are to do. We would rather be friends with the world than brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus.
And we wonder what has happened to the Church.
Let us return, with humble hearts, to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Let us return to the worship of Christ’s Church as the saints before us worshipped. Let us jettison our concerns and insecurities about how the world views us and prostrate ourselves before the throne of our Lord and Saviour. Let us beg His mercy. Let us bring our sacrifice of praise in a proper and holy way befitting His majesty. Let us sing and pray along with our forefathers in the faith. Demand it of ourselves and our priests and bishops. Make no mistake; this will not be easy and demands great courage of us. Cry out to those who will listen that we want to be part of the Church as she has always been, not as the world has tried to make her.
Sometimes the only way forward is to go back to the beginning.