The Cost of Discipleship
When we compare the stories we have been reading in St. Luke’s Gospel with the reading today from St. Matthew, we are tempted to wonder if this is a story about two different families. On Christmas day we see Mary and Joseph being turned away from every inn and having to bring Jesus into the world in one of the caves near Bethlehem, a place where animals and shepherds took shelter. Jesus’s cradle was a feed box for cattle. In today’s Gospel Mary and Joseph and Jesus are in a house in Bethlehem, and instead of shepherds they are playing host to wise men from distant lands, probably what we would call Iran today. But the traditions that Luke and Matthew wrote down are not in conflict. Luke seems to be writing down the recollections of Mary, Mother of Jesus, remembrances of the very day that Our Lord was born. Matthew seems to be using stories from Joseph’s side of the family, written down for Matthew’s community of Jewish converts that had for some time been accepting Gentiles into their fellowship. And so he is emphasizing this visit of Gentiles to Christ, and their worship of the child. Herod is part of the story, and the fact that he later ordered the execution of little boys below the age of two suggests that Jesus is a toddler when the Magi visit. Mary and Joseph and Jesus have been living, and Joseph working, for some months in Bethlehem. In a later verse, Joseph heeds the warning of an angel about Herod’s plan, and he flees with Mary and the child to Egypt.
In both of the childhood stories, the Holy Family pays a heavy price for listening to God and obeying His will. Matthew tells us of their becoming exiles, refugees from their own country having to settle for a time in a foreign land because of what is frankly religious and political persecution. Luke emphasizes the family’s poverty, and the later visit to the Temple that features the elderly prophet Simeon predicting that the ministry of Jesus will end in Mary’s heart being pierced. That happens many times in her life–tradition tells us seven times–and culminates with her heart being torn apart when a soldier pierces Jesus’s heart with a lance. Mary’s motherhood and her discipleship extracted a terrible price from her life, a price she was glad to pay because it was a cause of our salvation, but one that hurt her as none of us has ever been hurt.
What price have I paid for my discipleship? What price have you paid for being a follower of Our Lord? Just witnessing our love for Christ and His Bride, the Church, is a risky proposition today, and not just in lands ruled by Islamic law, or in territories terrorized by ISIS and their clones, whose method of proselytism consists of “convert or be beheaded.” To be known as a Catholic in our day, and particularly a Catholic cleric, is to invite ridicule, scorn and the question, “Have you ever heard of Cardinal McCarrick?”
A total shift in the culture has occurred over the past five or six decades. When I was growing up, one of the most popular weekly shows on network television was “Life Is Worth Living,” with Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York. He had a popular column in the local newspaper, which I know at least one non-Catholic snuck a peek at every time it appeared. He even won an Emmy in 1952. It was a time that commentators called “the Catholic moment” in history, and it culminated with the election of the first and only Catholic president of the United States in 1960.
The Faith drew thousands of people, many of whom converted to Catholicism in the process, because of its unique claims to be the certain path to God. People looked to the Church as a place of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, as the earthly expression of God’s perfect Truth, Goodness and Beauty. The Church taught the way of Christ uniformly, had lay and religious people who were clearly on the road to sanctity, and everywhere prayed in churches with beautiful art and usually attractive music.
Pope Saint John XXIII called and opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and the Council spent three years in prayerful discussion, ultimately writing over a dozen documents on the teaching, worship, life and mission of the Church. But the sixties were rife with change in Western culture, and the sexual revolution of that day, enabled by the contraceptive Pill, took hold of the minds, imaginations and hearts of the young. The result has been catastrophic for the culture, for the family, and even for the Church. I know from personal experience in a religious community that psychologists were telling priests and brothers and nuns to “experience and celebrate their sexuality.” The results of that, and some of the new theological currents, were empty seminaries and religious houses of formation. Divorce rates soared, abortion became legal and resulted in millions of babies dead before birth, and the whole sexual structure of the West suffered earthquake after earthquake.
What is miraculous is that the majority of priests and religious persons who survived the earthquake remained faithful to the call of the Gospel, and the churches did not totally empty. It’s true that most Catholic churches, if they had beautiful sacred music, lost it to a wave of light rock and so-called “praise and worship” songs that all sound alike. Chant and polyphony became very rare. Newly-built churches no longer looked like previews of heaven, but more like entertainment venues. Much of the beauty of worship simply faded away or was demolished in a spate of church renovations and what my wife calls “wiggle-waggle” music.
So today we in the Church are in a similar place to where the Holy Family was at the Magi’s visit. Discerning wise men and women will still be drawn to Jesus and Mary, to the beauty, truth and goodness that are particularly evident in the seasons of Advent and Christmastide. But the secular culture, like Herod, rant and rave over the presence of anyone who would stand in their way of selfishness, hedonism, and the triumph of power over love and peace. We must resolve like Joseph to listen to the voice of God, speaking through angels or prophets or someone’s well-reasoned blog, and then act to follow God’s will. God’s promise is irrevocable.
Joseph used the valuable brought to him by the Magi to enable him to bring the Holy Family out of danger and into an exile with the Jewish communities in Egypt, where for a time that family enriched those who had been dispersed over the centuries, driven from the Holy Land. So we must discern as families how to respond to the attacks of secular culture, and use our assets, out time, talent and treasure, to restore beauty to our worship, teach religious and moral truths to our communities, and do everything we can to show goodness to the world–to become saints. We must pay the price.
So let’s resolve that our daily prayer be centered around that triple goal. We have to start, each of us, with our personal relationship to Jesus Christ and His Church. The prayer of St. Richard of Chichester should always be on our lips: Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.