Given by Fr Peter Anthony on 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 18th August 2019.
What on earth are we to make of today’s gospel reading? I can’t think of a description of the gospel life that is more at odds with the way we usually think of our Christian faith. Our Christian discipleship is surely something which reconciles us with those around us, brings peace, concord, and justice. Yet, Jesus tells his message will involve division, fire, and sword!
Well I suppose you only have to switch on the television set and tune into the news to find places where that division, that fire, and that sword are keenly felt.
A recent foreign office report showed that the most persecuted category of person in the world at the moment is the Christian. Christians are fleeing the Holy Land and the Middle East in their thousands every year because of war, conflict, and prejudice.
And even here in England, I have spoken to people whose acceptance of the Christian faith caused their families to respond with hostility and rejection.
So often the things we value as Christians seem to be far from the values that inform policy decisions, and the principles that increasingly undergird our laws. It does indeed seem sometimes like we’re caught in the middle of a culture war between Christian faith and hostile secular materialism.
So how do we make our way through this labyrinth of complexity? Where can we find some answers?
That mention in our gospel this morning of households divided made me think one place to begin might be a novel I’ve just finished reading this summer. It’s by the Spanish author Emilia Pardo Bazan, and it’s called the House of Ulloa. It’s one of the most curious, but interesting books I’ve ever read.
To cut a long story short, Pardo Bazan writes a searing critique of Spanish society in the nineteenth century at a time of great social change and revolution. She tells the story of young priest, Julian Alvarez. He is sent as the chaplain to a Spanish noble family who live in the deepest darkest part of the Galician countryside. He arrives there to find an almost feudal society still in existence, unenlightened by modernity, and crippled by corruption and vice. He sees his call as bringing the virtue of the Gospel to this hopeless situation.
The problem is this. He himself is not the answer to the problem. He is presented to us as so hopelessly naïve and inexperienced that from the beginning you realise it’s all going to come terribly unstuck somehow. If ever there were a household divided, it becomes the House of Ulloa: Father Julian Alvarez on the one hand, representing Christian faith and idealised virtue; and the Marquis on the other representing fallen human life – selfish, brutal, and impossible to change.
It’s a vision of the Christian Gospel as almost irreconcilable with the grim, complex realities of human existence. Two extremes that somehow will always be in destructive tension with each other.
I shan’t reveal the ending of the novel to you, but suffice it to say that clash results in a complete catastrophe, as I’m sure you can imagine – precisely the kind of fire and sword that Jesus predicts.
So where can an answer be found? Well, I think the author of that novel presents one of sorts.
In the last chapter, Fr Julian returns to Ulloa after many years away. After the calamity of his early years, much has changed and moved on. Fr Julian still bears the scars of the trauma he experienced, but he’s become a slightly more human figure, a slightly more realistic priest now. He meets people he remembers from years ago who have all grown up and changed too. But the ending is curious. It’s full of ambiguity and puzzle. No clear, easy answer is given.
The author certainly doesn’t exclude the possibility of a new beginning, and of Fr Julian making a better fist of things second time round – but things somehow feel slightly more realistic, and tempered. What we read in those last pages raises more questions than it answers, and I think that’s the author’s intention. If you’re looking for simple, easy answers, she says, you’ll be disappointed. Life’s complications and frailties mean you’ll always be doomed to failure if you approach things with too idealistic or inflexible an outlook. Sometimes it can take years to acknowledge our own mistakes and learn from our imperfections.
The way Christian faith is lived out in a fallen and imperfect world will always be complex no matter who we are and when we live. The Christian faith is not about being given easy pre-prescribed answers to life’s problems. It is our responsibility, however, to use the faith, conscience, and reason that God has given us to find him and live according to his love, as part of the Body of Christ. He calls us to grow and learn as we experience life in his company. Yes, we may be given the grace to live in a time and place favourable to the Gospel. But there may also be times where we find ourselves in contexts hostile to it, when we must have the courage to cling to its truth, no matter how much that separates us from the culture we find ourselves in.
Whatever we do, however we act, Christ must always be at the heart of our response to life. For he promises to guide us as we make our way through its decisions and quandaries. If that is so, if we place him at the heart of things, then no matter how complicated things are, how unclear or distant answers may be, no matter how arduous the cost, or divisive the consequences, we will be rooted in the only person, the only reality that is actually truth itself.