In the Introit for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, the Psalmist asks that God’s people “give glory to His praise.” We normally speak about glorifying God, and giving praise to God, but not much is said about glorifying the praise of God. Why should we do that? How do we do it? Today’s propers can provide us a useful guide, and they give us the only answer we need. We glorify God’s praise by being a doer of the word, not just a hearer.
Why does Catholicism place such an emphasis on the doing part? Is it all a belief that we can earn our salvation? Do we really believe, as our Protestant friends charge, that works are more important than faith? Why is it so important that the Collect asks that “we think what is right, and under Thy guidance perform it?” In the Epistle of James, the Apostle devotes his entire writing to these questions. He compares those who fail to act on their beliefs as one who looks in a mirror, but doesn’t know who he is. Everything about the image in the mirror is external. Later in the epistle, he talks about the great hypocrisy these kinds of people perform, because they fail to live the life the Gospel calls them to. For them, the Gospel is just something to preach to others, to have them change.
This idea cuts against the very core of the Gospel. The entire point of the Gospel is that we need to change. We are sinners, and our sins led to Christ dying on the cross. Another aspect of the Gospel is that as we believe in it, and let it change our life, we not only act in Christ’s name, but Christ acts through us. As St. Paul said “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” Christ practiced the true religion St. James spoke of: he visited the abandoned and kept himself free from the world’s corruption. If we aren’t visiting those individuals, all of the abandoned, Christ isn’t getting the opportunity to work through us, and their lives can’t be transformed. If we aren’t doing these things, we aren’t learning the deeper truth of our own abandonment: in sin, we were left to our own devices, and Christ delivered us. The poor and abandoned in today’s world will not make it on their own, they need us to reach out for them and guide them towards Christ.
The problems in today’s Church really boil down to a failure to act upon our beliefs. We preach compassion and justice, but how many victims of clerical sexual abuse have received either? We preach inclusion and unity, but I can tell you, as a traditionalist, we are but one visible example of those kept at arm’s length if not outright excluded from parishes. Even for those who live in sin, how often have they withheld returning to the Church and to mercy out of fear of our shaming or unnecessary judgment? While we preach solidarity with the suffering and poor, how often have we tried to shield our eyes from the suffering of the poor to make life in a consumerist society easier? Upon becoming Pope, Francis spoke about similar terms, decrying the “self-referential Church” that was very much like the Church James described, a Church so enamored with their own reflection, they’ve forgotten who they really were. When they dealt with the world, they reflected themselves, not Christ. He wanted a Church that understood “the mystery of the moon”, recalling the great words of St. Ambrose.
For Ambrose (Hexameron, Book IV, Chapter II), the moon gives off no light of its own, but rather the light of the Sun. Likewise, the Church is meant to give off nothing of her own, but rather her Creator, Jesus Christ. All that the Church does should be a revealing of Christ to the world. When Christians are not doers of the word, we are not revealing Christ through our deeds. Christ wanted His work spread to the ends of the earth, and you can’t spread something that far through words alone.
It is through Christ’s light that the Church gains her credibility. For Ambrose, a key source of that credibility was the martyrs. The world saw innocent men and women die not just for some abstraction called the Catholic Faith, but died by doing what Christ did, seeking out the needs not just of the wealthy, but of the poor and abandoned as well. Their Catholic faith impelled them to serve the world, believer and non-believer alike, because they wanted to bring Christ to the world. Offering a pinch of incense to another God would mean that work they were doing was a fraud. When people saw what good the martyrs did, and how they did that good no matter how much they suffered, many were moved, if not to conversion, at least to a newfound respect for their resolve, and seeing them as a source of good in the world.
This Sunday is the final Sunday of the Easter season. Next Thursday we celebrate the Ascension, and after the Octave of the Ascension, we celebrate Pentecost, the pouring of the Spirit on the Apostles, and the birthday of the Church. Throughout the Easter season the Church has used the liturgy to educate us on the things that are most important for us as Catholics. We have been called to mercy, joy, and trust in God among other things. Today the Church prepares us for the end of the time of special joy and for the beginning of our new life as Christians. The first lesson above all others is to practice what we preach. Without that, there is no way the Spirit can work within our lives. As we prepare for the coming of the Spirit, let us ask God for a Church that is willing to let Christ work through her actions. As the Gospel reading makes clear, when we ask of this in Jesus’ name, it will be granted. Yet are we honestly asking?