At a dinner party, recently, I was asked what is the greatest challenge the Church faces today. I thought a moment and replied: the chasm between faith and life. My questioner looked at me quizzically and remarked that she didn’t expect that answer. I imagine that she was ready for any one of the so-called “hot-button” issues that dominate the discourse, both inside and outside the Church. As noisy and divisive as those questions might be, they don’t worry me as a growing trend that seems to isolate us, convincing us to neatly compartmentalize our life, subtly seducing us to go to Mass on Sunday, and for the rest of the week, do whatever we think we need to do to get by.
During this Christmas season, God makes every effort to convince us that faith has everything to do with life – all of life. The proclamation of the birth of Emmanuel announces God-with-us. We do well to listen to that proclamation again and again; to hear over and over again that God is present in the midst of God’s people. This certainty, which we renew each year, is the source of our joy and hope. We just heard in the reading from the First Letter of John:
And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life.
The gist of the proclamation of Emmanuel is that eternal life is given in Christ and nowhere else. More important, to possess the Son is not acceptance of a doctrine a moral code, but of a person who lives now and is the source of life – and not just on Sunday morning!
Jesus lives in the Church
The words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel remind us that through the life-giving baptism with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:8), Jesus will create a new people of God. But first he identifies himself with the people of Israel in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance and in bearing on their behalf the burden of God’s decisive judgment. The decisive judgement is this: in Jesus we all become the beloved daughters and sons of God.
Jesus Christ lives today in His body, the Church, which is neither an elite club nor static container of truth. The Church is a set of interlocking and dynamic relationships among people and with the Triune God.
The Church is the place where believers speak and listen to each other, and it is the community of faith that speaks with and listens to the world. The Church senses a responsibility for the world, not simply as yet another institutional presence or a benevolent NGO, but as a movement of salt, light and leaven for the world's transformation. For this reason, our kindness must be known to all.
An appointment to Newark
Through the decision of Pope Francis, the Church has called me to serve the Archdiocese of Newark. It is a daunting proposition, not because of the size, rich history or wonderful diversity of this portion of the Vineyard. Rather, the appointment reminds me that stakes are incredibly high, for if we permit the chasm between faith and life to continue to expand, we risk losing Christ, reducing him simply to an interesting idea or a comforting, nostalgic memory. And, if we lose Christ, then the world has lost the salt, light and leaven that could have transformed it. If we lose Christ, how will anyone find eternal life that is not simply an empty wish that can be dismissed as “pie-in-the-sky,” but the abundant, joyful life that God intends for us even now?
Standing before you in the presence of Emmanuel to whom I must render an account for the service I assume today, I am comforted by the words Paul wrote to his beloved friends in Philippi:
Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice! ... Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.
Let’s think a moment about the author and addresses of that letter, lest we dismiss it as pure Pollyanna. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi was written while he was in a prison somewhere and in danger of death. Although Philippi was an important city in the eastern Mediterranean, the Christians there were an insignificant minority, living with the daily danger of disappearing, either because of external persecution or internal bickering. An imprisoned apostle writing to a feeble and fragile community. Yet Paul uses the words, “joy” and “rejoice” more times than in any other of his letters. The whole book is shot through with gratitude and confidence.
Paul reveals his human sensitivity and tenderness, his enthusiasm for Christ as the key to life and death, and his deep feeling for those in Christ who dwell in Philippi. With them he shares his hopes and convictions, his anxieties and fears, revealing the total confidence in Christ that constitutes faith. His faith illuminates his life, even the otherwise hopeless conditions in which he finds himself.
Rejoice in Lord
So, with the confident belief that my assignment to this Archdiocese is part of the saving plan of God, I can say to my beloved brothers and sisters of this Church: Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice, because God is with us. Rejoice, because we will grow in unity and humility and, in the process, discover joy and peace in our life together. Rejoice, because our kindness will be known to all: to the searching young and the forgotten elderly, to the stranger and the voiceless, to the powerful and the cynical.
I thank God for summoning me to the Archdiocese of Newark. I am grateful to all of you for your warm welcome. And, laying any anxiety that can too easily morph into fear, I make my request for you known to God:
… that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.