There is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time. This couldn’t be truer today when Zephaniah reminds us of the mysteriousness of God’s way, and Jesus lays out his Gospel blueprint in his Sermon on the Mount. God’s ways certainly are mysterious. Those who are first are actually last, and those who have the most will end up with the least. There is an ironic twist to God’s wisdom and this is no more evident than in the Beatitudes. St. Oscar Romero states of the Beatitudes: “These are the paths along which true Christians travel.” Indeed, the Beatitudes embody the heart of the Gospel and define what it means to be Christian.
There is a tendency, however, to individualize and overly spiritualize the message of the Beatitudes. This keeps them at a distance, engaging them merely as interior virtues necessary for personal holiness. Rendering them to simply being matters of heart and soul and seeing them exclusively as dispositions needed for the salvation of our souls sidesteps what Jesus intends. Whether we want to admit it or even like it, the Beatitudes dramatically affect how we structure our lives and treat our brothers and sisters. Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, dubbed by Pope John Paul II as the “Man of the Eight Beatitudes,” has this to say: “We will never be truly Catholic unless we conform our entire lives to the two commandments that are the essence of the Catholic faith: to love the Lord, our God, with all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” The Beatitudes are definitely a matter of personal holiness, but only when accompanied by radical action. The Beatitudes are all about putting things in right relationship.
How do we love our neighbor? Consult the Beatitudes! Loving our neighbor as ourselves cannot be reduced to simply praying for them or wishing them well. Loving our neighbor means that what I desire and want for myself, I desire and want for my neighbor. In addition, it means that my actions and lifestyle must work to achieve those goals. Our resolution of conflict must serve our neighbor’s good and reflect peace. Our economic life must work in service of all so that all of God’s children have access to the goodness of God’s creation and are able to engage in profitable work. The kingdom of heaven, the fullness of which is eternal, begins here. What we do here must mirror the life to come. Bl. Pier Frassati further states that “charity is not enough; we need social reform.” The hope of heaven gives us the courage to work for justice here.
Some find discussion of the social implications of the Gospel unsettling. St. Oscar Romero continues to offer insight: “Christians cannot allow sin, the enemy of God, to reign in the world. Christians must work to banish sin and establish the kingdom of God. To struggle for this kingdom is not communism; to struggle for this kingdom is not meddling in politics. It is simply what the Gospel demands: that Christians today commit themselves more fully to history.” We fail to realize the great tradition of Catholic Social Justice teaching in our church. This reflects the church’s attempt to translate into action the profound words and vision in today’s Gospel. The cries of injustice are heard throughout history and continue through today. The Church can draw from the Gospel the things that can resolve these ills and bring them to peaceful ends.
One of the most notable in our history is Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor). In it, he discusses the condition of the working class, the relationships, and obligations between labor and capital, as well as governments and citizens. Subsequent popes also echo this teaching in encyclicals of their own. Our own United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has detailed the Social Justice teaching of the church, highlighting seven principles: the life and dignity of the human person, a call to family, community and participation, rights and responsibilities, an option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, solidarity and care for God’s creation. It is incumbent upon every Catholic to familiarize themselves with these essential teachings. We all have to learn how the church tries to unite respect for human rights and respect for the duties that flow from these rights.
We need faith. We need love. But we also need to know how to translate all of this into action. Jesus pulled no punches and clearly told those listening that what they did to ONE of the least of these they did to him. People are victims of famine and starvation, struggling with mental illness, being abused, and being sold and used for profit. Innocents are killed in senseless wars, families are stressed trying to make ends meet, and people are victimized. There is no scarcity of injustice, and greed, corruption, lust, power, envy, anger, gluttony, and pride reign supreme. None of this needs to be. It can all be fixed.
Take an honest look at our world. Now, picture Jesus standing on the mountain delivering the sermon on the Beatitudes. Is this the world he was envisioning? It’s very unlikely. How did it all go so wrong?
The basic themes of Ordinary Time, which lead us into the fullness of the mystery of our loving God, are nothing ordinary at all. In fact, they are quite unordinary. Piercing the truths of the Gospel and delving into the teachings of our faith, we find a radical and more equitable way of living coming into focus. Sadly, it has yet to be really tried. For some reason, we have successfully skipped around where the Gospel message is intended to lead us, preferring a style of living of our own design instead. Human beings struggle with their need to cling to things, foolishly thinking that’s where security lies. What’s mine is mine, and yours is yours, and we become frightened and defensive when challenged to think out of the box. After all, doing precisely that sent Jesus to the cross.
Parishes and individuals do amazing acts of charity for those in need: clothing drives, food collections, diaper drives, serving in soup kitchens, and the like. All of this is good and necessary and deserve commendation. However, charity is only one piece of the bigger picture. It is also necessary to study our great treasure house of Social Justice teaching to begin to acknowledge, understand and work to change the systemic causes of poverty and injustice. Education is key. Once we open our minds and eyes, we begin to recognize how even some of the little things we do contribute to the larger problems of our world. A little education and enlightenment go a long way.