Accepting the Back Nine

“There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” John 1:26

St. John the Baptist spoke these terrifying words to some Pharisees—some Pharisees who did not acknowledge that the Messiah was then walking the earth. God had become man, but these Pharisees did not recognize it.

Perhaps we can understand the Pharisees’ confusion. They saw Jesus’ miracles. But they also saw a man with a former prostitute and a former tax collector among His closest friends. The Pharisees heard His noble teachings about prayer, penance, and purity in God’s sight. But they also heard Him presume to forgive sins, and they heard Him promise to rebuild the Temple in three days after it was destroyed.

The Nazarene carpenter had them quite confused: An amazingly powerful and noble guttersnipe, beautiful and out of His mind. He fed multitudes, slept on rocks in the wilderness, caused trouble in Jerusalem, and captivated everyone with His words. He talked like God, acted like God, and walked like a rustic Galilean.

One among you whom you do not recognize.

Almighty God keeps everything from falling into oblivion at every instant. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit guide the course of every event—and yet we get impatient at red lights. God revealed the holy Law by which we can find peace and joy in this life, and yet we carry on as if doing good were some kind of impossible rocket science. God promised us eternal life, and yet we fear tomorrow.

The Pharisees had their reasons for confusion. What excuse does modern America have?

As Mother Theresa put it, Christ does come in distressing disguises. He reigns in heaven, yet He wanders with many needs here on earth. He goes hungry and tries to thumb a ride on 220. He needs help with rent and utility bills. He vociferously disagrees with any hypocrisy we fall into. He takes ill and winds up in the hospital at inconvenient times. He drives the speed limit right in front of us when we are in a hurry. He shows up unexpectedly just when I am getting ready to relax.

We comfortable do not like to be afflicted by the many demands that the Suffering Wanderer makes on us. But I think there is more to our reluctance to recognize him.

I think the main problem with acknowledging Christ these days is this: He demands everything–complete submission. He has brought the definitive revelation of God. He is not a nice guy; He is not flexible and tolerant when it comes to what we owe Him. As C.S. Lewis put it, Jesus of Nazareth is either a lunatic, or we had better get on our knees.

How about an analogy? When someone plays a full round of golf—18 holes—you go out nine, then back nine. Right? I myself have never played a full round of golf in my life. I do not intend to comment on the finer points of the game. Let’s just focus on the ‘nine out, nine in’ aspect.

The human race as a whole had a first nine. And every individual human life has the nine out, too. Life opens before us like an enormous buffet. Nothing but options. Paths to take, everywhere.

The attitude of the first nine holes: What’s the meaning of life? Not sure. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to live? Not sure. Can I do all these things that I find enjoyable? Am I bound by any rules? Everything just seems so wonderfully wide open! And yet, the uncertainty scares me…

The coming of God as a man–as the definitive revelation of truth, as the Savior, the Redeemer, the King of the universe—this has marked the turning point. Now we are on the back nine.

Don’t get me wrong. These back nine are an adventure. No more magnificent undertaking exists than the adventure of getting to heaven by faithful diligence. Making a commitment and sticking to it. Doing good and avoiding evil. Exercising reason, moderation, discretion, and patience. Going to Mass every Sunday and holy day. Examining my conscience and going to confession. Giving money to the church and to the poor.

In other words, the greatest adventure on earth is the life of dull Catholic routine. Because that’s the way people get to heaven. Recognizing Christ means accepting that such is our lot. We need neither fear boredom nor expect ease. The life of dull Catholic routine actually abounds with surprises. God never stops creating.

But the deal has been definitively sealed. And the deal is: I am not the star; I am not the king; I am not the man. Jesus Christ is The Man; He is the King. He knows a million times better than I do what is best for me. He makes demands; I quietly obey.

I just keep patiently hitting my shots to get through the back nine. The reward will come at the clubhouse.

Again, I am not a golfer. But I think I am right in saying that the 10th hole, the 11th, the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th…the only way to get through them is to play steadily. These holes tend to be hidden from the sight of men. Sometimes it starts to rain. The cart runs out of juice, and we have to walk. The caddy gets crabby.

But we hit through; we play through. We love the game, and in the end, the whole round winds up being breathtakingly short.

One thought on “Accepting the Back Nine

  1. Father Mark,

    Several thoughts:

    1. Regarding the supposedly humdrum life of a Catholic, it is every bit as filled with surprises as you indicate; and the surprises can be every bit the joy of life IF WE LET IT BE. The problem often seems to be that Christians assume life was meant to be serious business. Certainly, it’s deadly business — that’s what life is all about, in the end (puns intended). But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. C. S. Lewis understood; and it allowed him to make the perceptive comment you quote, and many more [my favorite was the discussion that led a group to ask him what made Christianity different from all other world religions, to which he responded, “That’s easy: GRACE!”, and departed]. As I like to say, “If it’w working for you, why ain’t you smilin’?”
    2. Ah, for that sense of Christ right in front of me, all the time, in the face, and body, and heart of all those he gives me. Let me never forget; or, forgetting, let me recover rapidly; or, lapsing long, let me seek forgiveness.



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