Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Different culture; same question
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Sept. 18, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)
Mention “jet lag” to a group of people and you likely will notice a few affirming nods. Many folks know the experience, but one has to have “been there” to know what the reference means. Jet lag is that awful, pervasive feeling of being disconnected and disoriented after a long international flight. It just takes a while for the human body to re-adjust to time, sleep and eating patterns until that at-home feeling can return.
Trying to be cured of jet-lag is one thing. Catching up with a culture lag is yet another. Moving from the thought patterns, reference points and vocabulary of one time span to another is not necessarily easy. A return from a visit to a Third World country after a significant period of time has a twisting impact on the human psyche.
The ordinary citizen need not travel to a distant land to experience culture lag. A parishioner reminded me of that recently when he observed how difficult it was to understand the times of Jesus as they are portrayed in the Gospels. And then he rolled his eyes at what he described as the “convoluted letter-writing of St. Paul.” In sum, he noted how different the faith journey of people in the first century was from our own. I sensed a tinge of nostalgia in what he said, a unfulfilled wish that he had lived back then, and not now. He all but said it: Living your Christian faith then would have been so much easier than it is now.
Should one agree with such an observation? After all, the times of Jesus and those first disciples and apostles indeed were so very different from our own. The pagan world which was the seed bed for the Judeo-Christian Faith was an odd one by today’s “enlightened” standards. The vast majority of the folks whom Jesus met on the street or St. Paul encountered in his missionary travels believed in the influence in human affairs of shapeless principalities and powers. The Divine largely was considered to be a numinous element present in all creation. Earth, water, wind and fire were seen in the popular mind as the fundamental building blocks of all reality. In order to engage in the human experience, the Divine (or any expression of the Divine Spark) could take on the material form of anything from a farm chicken to a table leg – and usually it was for the purposes of skullduggery.
What a different world from ours! We are tempted to snicker at those who affirm personified elements of nature and gods who can usurp the form of table legs and the like. We bask in our Christian awareness that the Divine is, in fact, a personal God who has made himself known in the Son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. We affirm that, although something of God’s self-revealing love is recognizable in all created things, spirits and demons and holy sparks do not manipulate our world and spook us from around every corner.
People seemingly held (and defended) strange belief systems in what we now label the First Century. But there is no guarantee that even a “christianized” population – even a contemporary church-going population – necessarily has a genuine understanding of the truth of Christian Gospel. The so-called paganisms can remain. I think, for example, of the young student who quite sincerely asked me if Jesus “just beamed down to earth.” I think of the adult who insisted that Jesus was just one among a series of “spiritual asteroids” who have streaked through human history over the ages. I think of the many newscasters who (in their need to be faith-neutral) speak of Jesus as just another fine man of good moral values.
At a turning point in the Gospel narratives, Jesus asks his disciples a key question which transcends time and culture: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In other words, whom do people identify as the agent or revealer of the Divine. Interestingly, he asks the question at a site (Cesarea Philippi – near the source of the Jordan River where the ancient pagans had built shrines to the nature gods; the remains are still there today!). Speaking from their own culture and time, the disciples had answers at the ready: Elijah of old; a mad prophet from the desert (John); the prophets of a distant time; …or take your pick.
We likely would offer similar responses, even if they would be wrapped in contemporary vocabulary and images. To whom do we turn in our own day and age as the agents of Goodness and Wholeness of Life? Posing this question at the mall, sports stadium or supermarket would surface some rather strange images of the Divine. We may presume that most people would confess Jesus, but would they?
Every culture points in some fashion to where the Divine is to be found and who is identified as its spokesman. As he did with the disciples in the Gospel, perhaps Jesus would listen patiently to our profound insights and enlightened confessions. Would he not still press us in light of our intellectual groping: If that is how you say that all those people impact you, then who am I? Who am I for you? What difference do I make in your personal life?
These are questions which now cross many cultures and multiple centuries. They must be answered in a personal way by each and every disciple of Jesus. In our day and age we cannot presume that our Christian profession of faith is one which is affirmed readily by all those around us who bear the title “Christian.” Those with whom we rub elbows in the classroom, workplace, sports field or neighborhood may well surprise us with their understanding of God, the gods or whatever elements they claim give shape and purpose to the universe. In every age, Jesus’ question to the disciples remains persistently proper. We may no longer speak or write about “the Son of Man,” but we all still look to the Other for the ultimate meaning of life. Regardless what “they” say, Jesus’s question remains: “Who do you say that I am?” How we each answer that question makes all the difference in the world. What do we really mean when we confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior – or, to use St. Peter’s words taken from that scene at Caesarea Philippi, what does it mean when we claim that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God?
(Father Savelesky serves the diocese as vicar general and moderator of the curia, as pastor of the parishes in St. John and Rosalia, and pastoral administrator of St. Rose of Lima, Cheney.)
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