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March 28, 2021
photo above: Photo by Markus Schumacher on Unsplash
WN: The reflection highlighted below is profound and humbling.
I have been a priest for 57 years. Ever since I read The Brothers Karamazov as a seminarian, with its description of the rejection of God by Ivan, the middle brother, because of innocent suffering, I have struggled with the tension between my belief in a loving God and the presence of so much evil and pain in the world. I have come to recognize increasingly the cross of Christ as God’s response to that suffering and as the force that inspires his followers to immerse themselves in action to overcome suffering. What has helped me is the image of “dispossession” which characterizes human life, tragic crises such as a pandemic, the very cross of Christ and Christian discipleship.
Dispossession and discipleship
Jesus was dispossessed of life on the cross. Jesus also willingly accepted that dispossession. He knew well in advance of his triumphant return to Jerusalem that his enemies were plotting to kill him. He accepted that as the price of his mission. His entire life had been one of dispossession. At the very beginning he entered into a people who had been dispossessed of freedom and true nationhood by the oppressive Roman empire. His family was possessed of no abundance. Upon birth he was laid in a manger. His earnings as a young worker were likely meager.
Adding to the dispossession that his nation and neighbors endured politically and economically, Jesus embraced dispossession all the more as he began his public ministry. He left home and became dependent on others for shelter and food. His sharp calls for conversion dispossessed him of the esteem of many, even his own relatives. His bold proclamation of himself as an instrument of divine forgiveness, his insistence on faith in him as a prerequisite for healing, his interpretation of the love of God and neighbor as underlying all human laws, his severe challenge to those who stubbornly refused to hear him—all of this led to the ultimate dispossession of the cross.
I deliberately choose the word “dispossession” to describe Jesus’ life and crucifixion because it strongly contrasts with the possessiveness of our culture. Seventy percent of U.S. gross domestic product comes from personal consumption. That means not only the basics of life but also the superabundance of the “stuff” we own, to the point where there are professional advisors to help people “declutter” their homes. We become overwhelmed by our possessions even as the media entice us through advertising—often quite subtle—to possess more. Even more perverse is the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the many. Some own multiple homes in different parts of the world, while vast majorities have little more than a fragile roof to call home.
The current pandemic has thrown all of humankind into a state of dispossession. Familiar routines of daily life have been taken away. More tragically, millions have lost their lives or suffered serious illness and its consequences. An economic recession has caused massive unemployment, deprived multitudes of the basics of life and intensified inequalities. The bulk of dispossession has fallen upon the poor.
Christian reflection on the cross of Christ has yielded so many meanings. Most importantly the cross is the sacrifice Christ made, a dispossession of his life for the sake of all of humankind. In our culture of massive possessiveness, the cross stands as judgment and salvation. That is all the more true because the cross reveals the very nature of God.The Son of God “emptied” himself in taking on our human nature. He did not dispossess himself of his divine nature but revealed it in the humility of earthly dispossession. This mirrors and brings into human history the eternal self-emptying that takes place in the life of the Triune God as each person surrenders to the others the divine being so that there is one God but three persons with, as is said in the preface for the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, “their unity in substance, and their equality in majesty.”
I deliberately choose the word “dispossession” to describe Jesus’ life and crucifixion because it strongly contrasts with the possessiveness of our culture.
The perfect and total self-emptying of each divine person means that the Son, in becoming incarnate, could not do anything but embrace a life of radical dispossession that culminated on the cross. That dispossession of Jesus was passive insofar as he entered into a history of oppression and poverty, but active insofar as he voluntarily embraced the life of a wandering prophet at the price, ultimately, of crucifixion.
Unwelcome message or promise of salvation?
From the beginning, the cross has stood in judgment over the church and world. It stands in sharp contrast to all greed, obscene consumption, exploitation of people and earth, unnecessary accumulation of goods, abusive power, excessive competitiveness, unbridled ambition and manipulative dealing. Because of that, the cross often does not offer us a welcome message.
In the Catholic Church, we lament declining numbers of practicing Catholics, for which there are many reasons, one of them being perhaps the worship of a naked messiah on a cross. In the developed world, with its comforts purchased at the expense of cheap labor, the cross is not a welcome message. When economies are built on possessions, the story of a man who dispossessed himself of everything does not easily get a hearing. More welcome is the story of Jesus the friend who understands.
But the cross also saves. The primary beneficiaries and heralds of that salvific message are the poor. Most Catholic homes have crosses, but almost always among the few possessions of the poor is a cross. I grew up with Polish grandparents who came from a poor village in the Tatra Mountains and brought with them a cross that was prominently displayed in our home. The message of the cross for the poor is simple: God died on the cross. It is the sheer event and image prior to doctrinal refinement that speaks to the poor.
The message is straightforward: Jesus, poor like us, God, crucified like us, still lives for and with us. It is the unspoken “sensus fidelium.” Poverty deadens and kills. Many survive because they find in God crucified solidarity, hope, purpose, love and destiny. Though the poor are the primary beneficiaries and heralds of the cross, those who are possessed of much can also be touched by the power of the cross, most especially in moments of tragedy and death itself.
…Every person is born into some situation of passive dispossession. Some may be surrounded by favorable circumstances, although they eventually must face dispossession. But for untold masses of human beings since the beginning of history, there has been dispossession of fundamental rights to nutrition, health, education and freedom. Children have been born into abject poverty that then remains their destiny. We generally define abortion as cutting short the life of an unborn child, but the lives of so many born children have also been cut short or diminished by famine, disease, migration and war. To neglect these children is immoral and criminal, too.
When economies are built on possessions, the story of a man who dispossessed himself of everything does not easily get a hearing.
In the Old Testament, Job is the quintessential poor man, dispossessed of everything, lamenting before God and friends his miserable state. In the end God responds by revealing the awesome mysteries of creation and his wise establishment of order. Job can only surrender in humility to this overwhelming revelation. Can we hope that every dying person surrenders to the mystery that lies at the root of all human consciousness? A doctor I know once told me she had never met any atheists on their deathbeds.
In the New Testament, God reveals himself definitively in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This poor man is crucified and dispossessed of all. All the dispossessed of the world can see him in themselves and themselves in him. Simply speaking that he is God crucified is all that is needed to have some meaning in the midst of dispossession. We are not alone. Merely to gaze on the cross is to gain a sense of solidarity. One of the actions by which Jesus identifies his mission is in the good news he proclaims to the poor. Is this the good news? God crucified, but living?
Empathy and solidarity
To take seriously that sacrifice requires that we recognize the solidarity of all human beings in the experience of dispossession, and therefore respond with empathetic and compassionate action. In the words of St. Paul: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Or, in the words of Dostoyevsky: “We are responsible to everyone for everything.” In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis calls for a gratuitousness that works for the good of others without seeking recompense for ourselves (Nos. 139-141). Ultimately all we possess is gift—gratuity that then should provoke generous sharing of gifts.
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