The Ideal, the Real, and the Perpetual Fresh Start
Chapter two of Joe Paprocki's book Under the Influence of Jesus calls attention to the "face of the Kingdom [of God]" (p.15) to tell us that it was an unexpected face. Jesus was an "unusual poster child", Paprocki writes, because he did not fit the expectations of what a Messiah needed to look and act like. Of course we all know this too well since we Christians have been championing virtues like compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another, and forgiveness (Col 3:12-17) to imitate our Jesus, the one who did not fit the criteria for Messiahship.
With an initial glance, everything prescribed by St. Paul is clear, simple, and quite doable. In fact, these prescriptions are so simple that any decent mature human person can live them without actually needing to have faith in Jesus. However, like many things in life, nothing is really as it seems when we truly allow these virtues to penetrate the facade of our ordinary appearance of decency and goodness. Our resumes may list many volunteer activities, and our names may be attached to various donations of humanitarian agencies but is there compassion in our heart of hearts? Have we provided service by truly looking out for the good of the other or is our service one way for us to satisfy our egotism - "I just feel so much better when I serve others"? Have we truly forgiven those who have wronged us in the silence and from the depths of our hearts or have we simply voiced the forgiveness while harboring hatred? Do we truly love others or are we simply shrewd navigators of the world in order to avoid collision and to reap the benefit of "optimism" and "positivity"?
The virtues of Christianity ought to make us tremble with fear, for after all they are virtues that require us to abandon the one thing we desire to love most: ourselves. Look no further than the brief encounter between St. John the Baptist and Herod to see how God's perspective on love is drastically different than the world's (Mt. 14:1-12). Christ's ideals do not conform to us; rather, they demand that we conform to them.
Yet, how can we, finite and pitiable sinners, come to conform to Christ's ideals when our hearts are weak and overburdened by the human condition and its dross? My experience says that it's more than difficult, but what God demands of us He does give us the grace to accomplish. God's grace is at once judgment and encouragement. It is judgment because in strengthening us to do carry out the great commission (Mt. 28:19-20), it reminds us of our own accountability as a disciple of Christ. It is encouragement because without it we simply cannot accomplish the task set ahead of us. And at the Mass is where we will find this grace in abundance.
We proclaim his death at Mass in order to recall how it brought us new life. We submit ourselves to the laws of his cross, a sign of ultimate human powerlessness obediently exercised manifesting the ultimate power of the God of Life over death. We receive the body and blood of the Lord in order that we can be more conformed to Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas puts it best:
I thank You, Lord, Almighty Father, Everlasting God, for having been pleased, through no merit of mine, but of Your great mercy alone, to feed me, a sinner, and Your unworthy servant, with the precious Body and Blood of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this Holy Communion may not be for my judgment and condemnation, but for my pardon and salvation. Let this Holy Communion be to me an armor of faith and a shield of good will, a cleansing of all vices, and a rooting out of all evil desires. May it increase love and patience, humility and obedience, and all virtues. May it be a firm defense against the evil designs of all my visible and invisible enemies, a perfect quieting of all the desires of soul and body. May this Holy Communion bring about a perfect union with You, the one true God, and at last enable me to reach eternal bliss when You will call me. I pray that You bring me, a sinner, to the indescribable Feast where You, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, are to Your saints true light, full blessedness, everlasting joy, and perfect happiness. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen
So we, finite and pitiable sinners, can only conform ourselves to the demands of Christ's ideals by first coming to him for help. But his help will not remove our free will and thus we will fall over and over again. The wonderful thing about God's mercy and patience is that we can return over and over again when we falter despite our best efforts. However, our perpetual fresh starts will require our perpetual returning to the Mass, be it daily or weekly.