During the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes us back to that original time, when the Lord Jesus first demonstrated how Christian life works. That is, how He gives us a share in His transcendent power, how He unites Himself with us from within, how He grafts us onto the living vine and makes us His branches.
The young Saul of Tarsus thought he was ‘being himself’ by prosecuting strict fidelity to the Law of Moses, the law of his people. Saul thought that he was really coming into his own as a man, marching east and west, north and south, to stamp out all the foolish nonsense about a so-called Galilean Messiah who had risen from the dead. Then Christ showed Saul how “coming into your own” really works.
One of the most important ideas we have to help others grasp is this: There can be no ‘competition’ between me and God, when it comes to determining who I really am. If I try to assert myself over against God, with God as a rival for power in my life, then up in heaven all the angels look down and laugh sadly at the spectacle.
Trying to compete with Almighty God is patently ridiculous. And it’s sad. He made me, after all, and He alone can open up the path for me, by which I really can ‘find’ myself. He does not see our relationship as a contest. God no more thinks of competing for power with me than a mighty killer whale thinks of racing a tadpole across the Arctic Sea. If I try to beat God at the game that only He truly understands, I lose before I even begin. Why would I fight?
On the road to Damascus, Saul beheld the truth of Christ: God united with man. Saul heard the voice of the Creator, and it was the voice of the Galilean, the one whom all these rubes were calling the Messiah.
Saul realized: I am fighting a pointless battle. I am actually a million miles away from my true self, with all this self-righteous militancy of mine. If I really want to come into my own, I have to try and forget about what I think, and learn what God thinks.
And God thinks this: I will take a beautiful Bride to myself! The Church. I will unite the scattered individuals of this lonely world, whose pride isolates them from the people they need the most—I will unite them by loving them Myself, through each other.
Let’s try to imagine for a moment just how little Saul of Tarsus had in common with the other Christians he met when he was first converted. Saul grew up a well-to-do diaspora Jew, in a commercial city in what is now Turkey. Saul was a Roman citizen. He had received a meticulous education. If Saul had ever gone fishing, it was when he was a kid, just for fun.
When Saul first went to Straight Street in Damascus, to meet up with Ananias for baptism, it was kind of like a member of the British royal family going to a backstreet in Tijuana, looking for a guy named Pepe to give him a tattoo.
Christ wills to love us Himself—through each other. We become ourselves together. If we don’t come together, each of us individually trails off, into some strange, distorted side-street of my particular personality.
But by coming together regularly—by learning that who we are is: branches on the living vine of Christ… All of us, totally dependent on Him, rejoicing to share in that utter dependence together… When we become, and live for years as, people who attend Mass every Sunday—by doing that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of becoming the loving brothers and sisters in God’s family that He made us to be.
Here’s a little quiz. I can’t claim to have the answer to this one. I just have my impression… What is Pope Francis’ favorite image of the Church?
Certainly not “institution.” Of course, the Church is an institution, but that’s not all She is. And Pope Francis clearly does not think of the Church as primarily “an institution.”
I don’t think “Bark of Peter” is Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church, either–though we certainly do sail in a windswept sea these days, as a world-wide family of faith. At one point, the pope said the Church must see herself as a ‘field hospital.’
I think Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church is: A loving mother.
The pope invoked that image in his Apostolic Exhortation on the New Evangelization. And he also invoked it as he concluded his declaration of the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. If I might, let me quote a sentence from his Apostolic Exhortation. The paragraph is entitled “Mother with an open heart,” and the pope writes:
If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.
Mother Church can give birth to our truest selves. Mother Church has the sap of the ancient vine living in her. She gives birth to us, to the people God made us to be, by the power of divine love that comes from Christ. To be a branch on that vine is the greatest thing any of us could ever aspire to be, and the vine grows in church. The sap flows from the altar.
We can go ‘looking for ourselves’ hither and yon, from Milwaukee to Timbuktu, from yoga classes to Springsteen concerts to off-road derbies with Jason Aldean blasting from somebody’s boom box. But the only place any of us can really find ourselves is under the roof of Mother Church, together. Because who we are is: branches on the vine, the divine vine of Christ.