I’ve just finished reading (again) The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I had forgotten what a beautiful storyteller Tolkien was and how much I loved the story of the hobbits of the Shire and the coming of the great King of the West.
There is something deep in the heart and soul of the human race. It is a longing; a longing that we, at times, cannot give a name to. Our stories reflect this. We all love a good story, especially one with a happy ending.
Why do we love story?
I believe we love it because our longing for the story comes from the One true Story. We find its beginnings in Genesis 3.
The story started out so perfectly. Warm, sunny days; abundant and lush food. Peace reigned and the human race was in perfect communion with God and one another. But evil comes, as in all stories. Evil enters, disrupting the entire order of the world. Now instead of peace, there is enmity; shame where there was innocence and darkness where there was light.
But a promise is made. A Redeemer will come, One who will bring the story to its dramatic climax by stamping out this evil. For thousands of years, we waited. The human race floundered in a story of depravity, death and sin. Where was the Promised One, the Redeemer who would crush the evil of the serpent?
This brings us to our readings for this week:
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10
Let us begin by considering the text from Isaiah. Look at the descriptions given for the “servant” of God. We are told he will be:
Upheld by God Himself
The delight of God’s soul
The Spirit of God will be upon him
Bring justice to the nations
He won’t be someone you would notice
He will not be cruel to the oppressed
He will be a light to the nations
He will give sight to the blind and set prisoners free from darkness
He will be a covenant to the people
He will not fail.
This seems impossible when we look at the conditions of the world then. And now. There is none who can fit this mold. Many leaders of the people came along but none of them lived up to these standards. All of them failed. All of them. The people of Israel had to be frustrated. The Promised One, the servant of the LORD, the Messiah was not going to come. I’m sure we would have felt the same had we been alive in those days. For hundreds of years, nay thousands, they had been waiting and continued to wait. Where was this Messiah?
St. Mark and St. Peter tell us. St. Peter, in our text from Acts, tells us and those listening then who this Promised One was and is. St. Mark tells us the story, albeit in his typical succinct way, of the fulfillment of the promise.
Look at St. Mark’s gospel text today. St. John the Forerunner was preaching that someone greater than him was coming, someone that he wasn’t even worthy to untie his shoes for him. You have to understand this in its context. St. John was popular in a sense. Holy Scripture tells us that many were coming to John to be baptized and hear his preaching. St. Luke calls John’s audiences “the multitudes,” while St. Matthew says “all the region” was coming to hear John. There was great anticipation. Was this the One? He seemed to fit the description. But he says no, there is Another.
Into the story steps the most unlikely Redeemer; a peasant carpenter whom no one knew. No one had even heard His name. But look at St. Mark’s account. When Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, something happens. The Spirit of God (the Holy Ghost) descends bodily upon Jesus and the voice of the Father speaks from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Does that sound familiar?
Chosen, upheld by God Himself, the delight of God’s soul, not being someone noticeable…Sounds like Isaiah 42. St. Mark and the other gospel writers will go on to tell us how Jesus fulfills the rest of the Isaiah 42 prophecies.
I want us to go back to something in Isaiah 42 for a second. Look at verse 6. God says, about His servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…”
Notice God doesn’t say I’m “making a new covenant” in a legal sense. Let me explain.
God had been making covenants with His people throughout their history. He made a covenant with Adam (the covenant of works), He made a covenant with Noah (not to destroy the world by flood again), He made a covenant with Abraham (a promised people), He made a covenant with Moses (to be a kingdom of priests) and He made a covenant with King David (eternal kingdom). Then, in the prophets, specifically Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, God speaks of a new covenant. What is a covenant? It is a promise that God makes with His people. “If you will do this, then I will do this” kind of thing. God’s covenants are always tied to promise. If you will obey, then I will bless you. But the people could not obey. They did not keep God’s covenants.
Now what? The people have not kept the covenants they made with God. What will God do?
He says, through Isaiah (and others), that not only is He going to make a new covenant, but we see in our Isaiah text today, that covenant is a Person. It’s no longer merely a formal agreement. It is the very person of God in the second person of the Holy Trinity come as one of us.
This is the triumphant and happy ending of the sorry story of the human race! God Himself has become flesh. In His flesh, Jesus is the New Covenant.
Oh Church, do you see?! Do you see the delight of God’s soul, the light to the nations that He has given us? Jesus, the Christ, is the fulfillment of all the promises of God! He has come to the nations as the promised Light, the bringer of justice, the freedom from the darkness of sin, the sight for the blind!
He will not fail!
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.