After Mass celebrating the Epiphany, a parishioner commented that we live in a joyless society. His thought was part cultural critique, part affirmation of my homily. It bears further consideration that may lead to a worthy new year’s resolution.
The worshiper’s remark rings true with others. Lance Morrow recently opined in The Wall Street Journal that “America is addicted to outrage” as the signature emotion of public life today. The nightly news provides ample evidence for his claim that “the greatest casualty of outrage may be judgment itself.”
That claim also applies to the Church. There, outrage masked as defense of the faith follows from, and contributes to, an ethos of “us vs. them” applied even to fellow believers. As Father Paul Scalia once described it, the “Church militant” risks becoming the “Church belligerent.”
These essayists note a connection between our joyless state of affairs and the rise of new communications technology. With supposedly “social” media, we can be anything but. Forgetting that at the other end of the digital fibers are real people, we increasingly tweet or post in ways that we would hesitate to do were the person(s) we are talking about standing in front of us. Drawn downward to the miniaturization of interaction made possible by devices, we fail to see the bigger picture of meaningful human encounter.
Actually, this is nothing new in the realm of faith. In “The Reform of Zeal,” a study of religious culture at the time of the French “wars of religion,” Tom Donlan points out how Catholic belief turned militant in its strident belligerence not only toward Protestant reformers but also against fellow Catholics. It even turned inward, promoting a self-awareness of “eschatological anguish” and a resultant need for harsh penitential discipline.
Donlan then lays out the convincing argument that the spirituality of “gentleness” (douceur) championed by St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, constituted an effective critique to such religious militancy. Redefining the fervor of devotion away from fanaticism, de Sales formed believers through the Good News of a God who affirms his identity in Jesus as one “gentle and humble in heart” and who invites people to “come to me” for rest because “my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
That’s the Good News we celebrated at Christmas. Coinciding with the joyous sights and sounds of the holidays, the proclamation of the Nativity is intended to last longer than the season that has come and gone.
The biblical stories during the Christmas season speak of the joy that attends a child’s birth, the swaddled infant who, as yet, has not said or done anything of historic note. Still, his mother’s spirit rejoices, but she had insider information on who this child really is. Likewise, shepherds rejoiced at the visual confirmation of an angelic message, though theirs could be construed as a fascination born of curiosity amid the boredom of a night watch.
(Listen to a podcast with Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S. on St. Francis de Sales’ spirituality of gentleness.)
Then the Magi arrived. Their joy seems different. It appears as a conviction, born of the choice to follow a star that inspired them to travel to a foreign land, at night, seeking someone they didn’t even know. That joy enables them to overcome the resistance of reason and to persist in their search, despite the unknown destination, the fearful darkness, and the troubling resistance from others.
The joy of the Magi holds the antidote to a culture of outrage. Their discovery of the humble and gentle Jesus changes everything, for them and for us.
The three “wise” travelers found joy by looking up, literally, to the heavens. Figuratively, they learned to look up as a matter of faith.
And when they did, they saw a picture bigger than themselves and discovered a world greater than their own positions. They laid eyes on a child, simply born and lovingly lain in a manger. They discovered the king of all peoples in the Son of God who chose to be present in the midst of human beings, just as they (we) are. And they did him homage.
That act holds the key to eradicating outrage and mitigating militancy. Social and religious zeal will be reformed when we learn, as did the wise men, to kneel before him who is God-with-us (Emmanuel).
Resolving to spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of God’s continuing presence among us, we, too, can find a joy that lasts beyond the holidays, the joy which alone will bring rest to our hearts and souls.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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