Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Are you an individual or a person?

Read Ephesians 4: 1-6

The mystery of God has always confounded the human mind. We cannot lift ourselves up to the level where we could adequately speak of God, even less explain God away. We babble, we stammer, we seek the least incorrect concepts and words to speak of the mystery which surrounds us and confounds us.

During the first centuries, Christians tried to find such concepts and words to speak of the new way of experiencing and understanding God that Jesus had brought about. One of those concepts was that of “personhood.” The bishops gathered at the Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of the Father, the Son and the Spirit as three “persons” in one God.

It’s interesting that we don’t speak of three “individuals” in God. Individuality resonates with notions of self-affirmation, autonomy, identity over and against others. Becoming an individual means standing out in the crowd, not going with the flow, being oneself no matter how that might grate on others. The “rugged individualism” of westerns evokes images of lonesome cowboys conquering adversity and enemies to establish themselves as men to be reckoned with.

The concept of personhood is quite different. Becoming a person means finding oneself in relationship with others. The human person, fully alive, is part of a community; stands with others, not against them; realizes that fulfillment cannot be achieved at another’s expense.

To speak of three persons in God is to speak of the source of all being as community, relationship and, ultimately, love. And to consider human beings as created in God’s image is to understand human beings as destined not for individualism, but for personhood.

In today’s excerpt from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s being which lies at the heart of the Christian faith: God as Father, Lord (Son) and Spirit. And he teases out this consideration: that if our God is involved in loving relationship since before the beginning of time, then we ourselves who believe in this God must strive to live similar relationships among ourselves. There is an inner dynamism in the Christian life which impels us to proclaim one faith, to celebrate one baptism, to share the same hope. And this dynamism yearns to flower in the humility, kindness, patience and love with which we are called to relate to one another.

We do not lose our personality in this process. Unity is not fusion. But our personality is shaped by the relationships that bind us one to another. As with God, so with us. Let us therefore endeavour to reflect in our love for one another the love which lies at the heart of God.

Friday, July 20, 2012

He has abolished the wall of hatred

Read Ephesians 2:13-18

In Jesus’ time, many people of Greek culture were interested in Judaism. They were attracted by the belief in a unique, transcendent God, as opposed to the multiplicity of Greek gods who often seemed more childish than ordinary men and women. The moral code of Judaism also appealed to them, seemingly more dignified and down to earth than what could be found in the writings of various Greek philosophers. They also admired the simple liturgy of the synagogue, centred on Scripture and prayer: this meant more to them than the many bloody sacrifices offered in the innumerable temples dispersed throughout the Roman empire. Yet, one thing stopped them from becoming Jews: the many ritual rules that would have made it difficult for them to live their lives in their own culture. One rule in particular was repugnant to adult men: the obligation of circumcision.

Saint Paul was convinced that salvation did not come from obedience to these ritual norms, but from faith in Christ, died and risen for us. This is why Christianity did not retain these rules. On the other hand, Christianity did maintain faith in a unique God, as well as the moral code of Judaism. Its liturgy was also inspired by the synagogue. Consequently, what attracted the Greeks to Judaism was found in the early Church, though reinterpreted in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, what had impeded them from joining the Jewish religion, particularly circumcision, was not kept by the early Church. This explains the great attraction of Christianity for people of Greek culture.

Paul saw this new situation as a result of the coming of God’s own Son into the world. Greeks and Jews would now be able to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in a common faith in Christ. This explains today’s text where Paul writes that Christ has abolished “the wall of hatred” which separated the Greeks from the Jews. Greeks, who were “far” from the Covenant, and Jews who were “close” to it, now found themselves reconciled into one body, one spirit thanks to Christ.

Unfortunately, the peace of which Paul dreamed was never fully realized. Certainly, some Jews and some Greeks were united in a common faith in Christ, but not all. Christians were excluded from the synagogues, Jews were persecuted by Christians. Greeks mocked the new faith, and Christians destroyed Greek temples. Paul could not even consider the great religious traditions of India or Persia or China, which were unknown to him, even less the animist worlds of Africa or the Americas. Over the centuries, Christians themselves have used their religion to build new “walls of hatred”, entering into religious wars even among themselves.

Yet, Paul’s dream remains a true dream, a good dream. Jesus did indeed want to unite all of humanity into one family, adoring the one God, sharing the same faith. Jesus’ work was a work of peace. And Christians today are challenged to build this peace: by striving for unity among the Churches; by entering into respectful dialogue with other religions; by promoting the dignity of all human persons whatever their culture, their race or their language. Jesus is called “Prince of Peace.” His disciples also must be men and women of peace.