Wednesday, March 5, 2008

One Small Gesture


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the classics of children's literature is the wonderful novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (She also wrote another classic, The Secret Garden). The young heroine of this novel is an English girl named Sara Crewe, who is initially treated as a "little princess" because her father has acquired some wealth through mining speculation, and was able to establish her as one of the more prosperous girls in a boarding school in London. Yet, when the father loses his fortune and unexpectedly dies, Sara finds herself alone and penniless and now at the mercy of the cold-hearted headmistress at the boarding school. Though now treated as a menial servant, and living in abject poverty up in the unheated attic, Sara maintains a graceful spirit that does not succumb to the physical hardships and psychological abuse of her unwanted poverty.

In a deeply touching passage in the book, Sara, living on near-starvation rations, finds a coin in the street and rushes to the local bakery in order to purchase a few newly-baked rolls. The kind baker gives her a few extra because she knew Sara before her unfortunate "reversal of fortune." Yet, when Sara emerges from the bakery with her rolls, she encounters an unkempt and homeless little street waif who is clearly even more impoverished and hungry than she is. In a spontaneous gesture of compassion and kindness, Sara graciously gives the little girl all of the rolls save one. Unknown to Sara, the baker witnessed this act, and was so impressed by Sara's sharing, that she in turn was moved to compassion and eventually brought the little girl into her shop as a worker.

This profoundly Christian scene of "co-suffering love" embedded in an Edwardian novel meant for young readers, always reminds me of the Gospel passage that we just read this last Sunday, known as the pre-lenten Sunday of the Last Judgement. Then we heard the Parable/Teaching of the Last Judgement, found in MATT. 25:31-46. Jesus powerfully describes an active ministry of love as the way to, and characteristic of, the Kingdom of God. In theological language, this is called an eschatological orientation. (Eschatology is from the Gk. word for the "last things"). Christ enumerates the following deeds of an active love that render a human person worthy of entering into the joy of the Lord at the last judgement:

• feeding the hungry
• giving drink to the thirsty
• welcoming strangers
• visiting the sick
• visiting those in prison

The biblical scholar, John L. McKenzie summarized this teaching in the following manner:
Ministry to the basic needs of one's fellow man is the only canon of judgement mentioned here. One could paraphrase by saying that man is judged entirely on his behavior toward his fellow man. The evasion that this does not include man's duties toward to God is met in this passage; Jesus identifies himself with those to whom service is given or refused, and their behavior toward men is their behavior toward God.

The surprise of those who are condemned is easy to understand; they never accepted the fact that they encountered Jesus in other men and that they cannot distinguish between their duties to God and their duties to men. They are ranked with the devils, whose proper element is the fire of Gehenna. Eschatology means man is capable of a final decision that gives his life a permanent character. Both the righteous and the wicked here have made decisions that are irrevocable.

Like the last discourse in JN, the theme is love based on the identity of Jesus with men. In the last analysis, it is love that determines whether men are good or bad. If their love is active, failure to reach perfect morality in other ways will be rare, and it will be forgiven. But there is no substitute for active love.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, also stressed the importance of an "active love," especially in the character of the elder Zosima in his final masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, and in his young hero of that novel, Alyosha Karamazov. Active love, for Dostoevsky, was seen by him to be the most convincing repsonse to all of the arguments of theoretical atheism. In the novel, the elder Zosima says the following to a woman racked by doubts concerning immortality - and God by extension:

Strive to love your neighbor actively and tirelessly. To the extent that you succeed in loving, you will become convinced both of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain complete selflessness in loving your neighbor, then will indubitably be persuaded, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested, this is certain.

Though fictional, Sara Crewe's one small gesture is the embodiment of an active love manifested in a gesture of mercy and compassion for the neighbor. It had no theoretical or ideological component to it. It was deeply personal and devoid of any hidden motives or calculated gains. It transcended all such categorizations. This, I believe, is what most truly exemplifes this remarkable passage in the Gospel. At a time of acute and endless discussion due to the political processes that are now consuming our attention - to the saturation point and beyond it seems - we hear on a daily basis from the various candidates a stream of proposed programs, pledged policies and passionate promises concerning the care of the many people devoid of any safety nets when they inevitably fall between the cracks of our flawed social systems. The teaching about the Last Judgement by Christ transcends any such programs, policies or promises. It does not matter whether or not you are a Democrat or a Republican; a liberal or a conservative; or a proponent of strong or limited government intervention into the lives of our citizenry. The Parable of the Last Judgement is a direct appeal - perhaps a "warning" - to each person who encounters Christ and His teaching. What are you doing as part of a ministry of active love seems to be what Christ is asking. Or, at the Last Judgement, what have you actually done? Deeds of active love may just be the most potent signs that we took Christ and His teaching seriously.

Fr. Steven

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