By J. David Franks
This column appeared in the August 29, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.
I recently joined Facebook, so I figure the thing is about to go the way of diplodocus and the typewriter eraser. No early adopter, I! (I was going to add the Walkman to the list of entities lost in the mists of history, but who knows? Guardians of the Galaxy might just revive the fortunes of the audiocassette. “Hello, hipster retro recovery service?”)
But having finally become convinced of the evangelical necessity of using social media, I had to relinquish my misgivings. We are to give voice to the Word of love the Father whispers down through history to each human heart. For this we were given existence in time. Indeed, this is the point of time as such. As Walter Benjamin put it, each moment could be the straight-gate through which the Messiah breaks into history. But it’s more than that: Jesus really does break into history through each moment of a person’s life, because He has assumed all time into His broken body and pierced Heart, from the height of the Cross—the recapitulation of each moment of human existence.
But look at this truth from the flipside. If Christ has assumed each moment to Himself, that means everything has changed for each of us: “The love of Christ compels us, for we are convinced that One has died for all, therefore all have died. And He died, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him Who died and was raised for their sakes.” (2 Cor 5:14-15)
Now each moment of our life is the playing out of the initiative of the love of Jesus. It is always so in fact. But it is more fruitful, and to our credit, when we cooperate with this divine initiative.
And this brings us to John the Baptist. Summer winds down with the feast of the Beheading of John, who comes in the Spirit of Elijah. As the season of fire and of the Sacred Heart comes to a close, this feast prepares a harvest of the works of love.
The flesh of our existence should be the royal road by which Jesus strides into history. This is the prophetic mission, to disturb the complacencies of the world. And the Baptizer epitomizes the whole prophetic lineage.
What does it take to witness to the invisible reality of truth and love when the world, and our hearts, close against the dawn from on high? We can see our world mirrored in that of Israel after the sundering of the Davidic kingdom with Solomon’s death. The people of God fell into an extremity of self-seeking, superstition, magical thinking, practical atheism, predation by the strong on the weak (in commerce, politics, worship).
King Ahab, ruler of the northern kingdom, reached a zenith of malice. Then, “like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah, whose words were as a flaming furnace.” (Sir 48:1) This was not a happy mission. Think of the father and son in the ruined world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Xenophon with the Greek mercenaries fighting their way through Persian territory to reach the Black Sea. “I have grown old surrounded by my foes,” David sings in Psalm 6. If you bear witness to the reality of divine truth and love, you will be reviled. If you are not reviled, you aren’t doing it right.
Elijah challenges all of the “prophets” of Ahab and Jezebel to a test on Mount Carmel. Each side is to pray that fire from on high come down to consume a sacrifice. Poignantly, the narrator notes that all day long the prophets of Baal called upon their god, “but there was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening.” (I Kgs 18:29) There’s what we magically think is so, fitted to our expectations and desires, and there’s what is.
John the Baptist comes as the final Elijah: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Mt 3:1-2)
And that is our mission. The world is dark. Our own hearts are dark. We have but one task: let the Light penetrate us more deeply, and show that the Light is flowing down in starry cataracts. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11) The fire of true and divine love. This love never ceases to bleed for the powerless, for the nameless victims of abortion and euthanasia, for the Iraqi Christians and Yazidis and females and others brutalized by the terrorist state of ISIS, for James Foley and those who lose their lives to report the truth, for all the poor being ground down by daily abjection the world over.
Let me make a personal appeal in support of the mission we have been given. Consider studying the Catechism with me in the Certificate program at the Seminary’s Theological Institute for the New Evangelization (one Saturday a month for the academic year). It will change your life, and make you an even better witness to Jesus. Go to www.sjs.edu. And please consider joining Massachusetts Citizens for Life: www.masscitizensforlife.org. Pray about what you can do to bear witness to the most powerless human life. I need your help. Finally, friend me on Facebook and check out my new personal website: www.newcityrising.com. Let us pray for one another in our evangelical mission.
Christian witness is not bourgeois comfort. John fearlessly tells the powerful what the truth of marriage is. He gets beheaded. But I promise you, I promise you, as we decline and fall, bearing witness to that limitless love that Jesus wishes to give, the fire of the Spirit will burn more intensely, at a level deeper than feeling: “O Elijah, enveloped in the whirlwind!” The falling is a rising.
Hear the words of T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding:
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
There is only one fire, and it is Love. And there is only one life, and that is one on fire.