Greetings, SBT Readers!
As this week draws to a close, two incidents demand that we stop to take pause and reflect. The first is the attack on three massage parlors near Atlanta, and the second is Pope Francis' approval of the March 15 decree from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructing Catholic priests not to offer blessing to same-sex couples because "God cannot bless sin."
The bloody rampage in Atlanta which left 8 people dead may have been the result of a tormented man's struggle with sex addiction and religious guilt; it has also been linked to the horrific wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that have swept the nation since the former president began referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus." This negative naming now puts anyone who could remotely pass as Chinese -- whether Vietnamese, Korean, Singaporean, Japanese, or Filipino-- at existential risk. All it took was two words to unleash acts of violence and hatred.
The Vatican's pronouncement about God "not blessing sin" is guaranteed to have similar consequences. Members of the LGBTQ community have always been at risk, but any steps forward made in recent years received a major setback as the door to mercy, compassion and inclusivity slammed shut. Now fanatics in the public sector can justify their hate-filled actions and rhetoric by claiming divine approval-- or, at least, Pope Francis' approval.
Words hurt and words destroy. Let us be conscious of our words and their power to give life or take life away. Let us reach out to those traumatized by disappointment and fear -- it is the pastoral thing to do!
Jesus answered them,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be."
As I read Jesus' words about loving and hating life, I wonder how much has been lost in translation. As a Jew, Jesus would have celebrated the fragrance of life, ritually marking the passage of each week by welcoming Shabbat, that day of rest set aside for God, family, and friends. We know from his presence at the wedding feast in Cana that he celebrated important events in the lives of his community; we also observe him keeping table fellowship with friends and strangers -- no signs of "hating" life here! Moreover, his teachings and parables are replete with references to the natural world -- to wheat and the lilies of the fields, to sheep and fig trees, to vineyards and fishing... Had he "hated" life, he would neither have embraced children nor extended compassion to the sorrowing and afflicted. On the contrary, he would have shooed away the little ones and told those suffering from leprosy, blindness, and paralysis, to "grin and bear it," so they could earn their heavenly reward. No, Jesus did not "hate" life at all -- in fact, he was fully alive and delighted in creation, so much so that he raised Lazarus from the dead.
Unfortunately, Christians have often misinterpreted Jesus' words, believing that they mean we should forgo pleasure, forget about having dreams, and instead focus only on the afterlife. This, sadly, was the message that before Vatican II filtered into religious life; the novice directors of countless communities warned their charges against having "particular friendships," often assigning them roles contrary to their interests and talents. To this day, certain Protestant denominations see sensory enjoyment of any kind as sinful while some expressions of Catholicism actively encourage seeking out physical pain --as for example, in public Good Friday self-flagellation and crucifixions.
What, then are we to make of today's Gospel? Based on other sayings of Jesus, I would say that "loving life" in this context has nothing to do with living life to the fullest or delighting in creation; on the contrary, it means a distorted kind of "loving" that would be better-translated by words connoting addiction, greed, a sense of entitlement, lack of flexibility, a hunger for wealth and power, the consuming of goods and people, the "worshipping of false gods," and a lack of spiritual values. This kind of false "loving" focuses on our ego needs rather than our soul needs. It means clinging to the past, or to anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge; it could also mean refusing to leave one's comfort zones when they become non-productive or even toxic, or defining oneself by possessions, credentials, and other forms of privilege.
Conversely, "hating life" could be translated as accepting life with open hands as God's gift, freely given. It means seeing life on earth as beautiful in its own right but also as a prelude to something better yet to come -- the fullness of God's presence.
It involves the willingness to listen to God's call, wherever that might take us, even if it means leaving home and crossing oceans -- literally or figuratively. If we "hate" life we can let go of grudges, forgive our enemies, take risks, be vulnerable, fight for justice, express gratitude and see ourselves as one of God's children, not as the "only child"! We also allow God to be the center and circumference of our lives, instead of relegating God to the sidelines. In short, we attend to the needs of our souls, living with integrity and desiring nothing more than to delight the Holy One.
Ironically, it is those who distort life who hate it and those who live fully who actually love it.