For Christians Easter is a time for showers and squalls of grace, for the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through us. Living prayer is the Spirit praying in us: when we pray from the heart, God is praying. That is why we try to "fast" during Lent: to uncover our soil, to expose ourselves to the elements. Our prayer must become more real. As we enter the final week, the storm reaches its climax. Against the solidity of the everyday, of the world that tries to live as though God did not exist, the Spirit rages like a hurricane. We feel the pressure of time as the Incarnate God in us is swept along to a death he fears, and a cup is pressed to his lips that he dreads to drink. How can he remake the world if we remain in our sins? The power of death must be broken, and the throne of Satan cast down. The forces against which he pits himself are too great for us to comprehend, and only the love of God is greater; a love that conquers the world by becoming weak, and teaches by hanging naked in silence, like an image of despair. All around him the dead grow restless in their haunted sleep - but the light begins to shine where it always begins: in the darkness.
Eschatological hope, that is, hope in the Second Coming, hope which consequently fosters within us great poverty and great dependence upon God’s will, does not encourage laziness—far from it. On the contrary, it leads us to understand that time is given for us to apply all our energy to the service of the Kingdom of Christ.
Christ’s Holy Week was his final week. Viewed from without, this final week was a failure. Viewed from within, it was the moment when he revealed fully that he accomplishes and brings to completion the Father’s work. It will be the same thing for the Church, for she follows "the Lamb wherever he goes." For the Church as well, the final week will necessarily be the "great week," that of the "true apostles of the end times," i.e. of all Christians, for every Christian must be an apostle. This great week requires going further in faith, hope, and love; it requires going further as regards gift. It will be as a new Pentecost of Love, bringing about a new springtime in the Church, a springtime that will make blossom what is noblest in Christian grace. It, therefore, does not encourage laziness. It will be a time requiring a more personal commitment, one made more in the direct light of Christ.
Confusing Faith and Politics
It is always interesting to see the tactics of the devil, inasmuch as one can discern them. What is the major temptation in today's world? Is it not the confusion between faith and politics, a confusion that ultimately reduces divine hope to temporal messianism, to purely human hope? This was the great temptation of the people of Israel, especially towards the end of the Old Covenant. We must not forget that what was lived in the Old Testament announces what the Church must live. At the end of the Old Covenant, we see a great temptation of temporal messianism, one growing stronger as power escapes the high priests. It is a well-known psychological given: when one loses power and cannot accept true poverty, one pursues power and tries to recapture it by any and all means. We all have similar reactions when frustrated, especially in the area of power, for this is the deepest frustration. Is the Church not currently in a similar state? There was a time when the Church was in the forefront of culture and had great alliances with political powers, starting with the emperor. Whereas now, behold, the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to greater poverty, to accept that modern culture, in a sense, "ranks ahead" of her.
Becoming The Church of the Poor
There is an undeniable fact that some people have difficulty admitting: the Church is no longer in the forefront of culture. Today’s culture is scientific and technological. In the Middle Ages, she was at the forefront of culture, at the forefront of the arts. She no longer holds this position. We could make analogous remarks with respect to modern politics. The Church is under "Roman yoke," under the yoke of "a modern Caesar," in many ways, for the modern "Caesar" takes on different forms in its anonymity. Consider all the ideologies born outside of the Church which dominate and are in the air we breathe, in the culture that surrounds us. A priest today, unlike one in bygone days, is no longer someone who has authority, who is consulted; a bishop no longer possesses an authority linked to temporal power, as before. This is no longer the case at all....
The Church must become the Church of the poor. What does this mean? It refers to the Church entering into evangelical poverty so that Christians may live eschatological hope, which involves uprooting. Poverty always uproots. It thereby enables us to be flexible, to be docile to the Holy Spirit—not so that we can rest, but so that we can be, more than ever, witnesses to the light, messengers of the Father, reminding humankind of the great mystery of Jesus. The Church of the poor is the Church of the underprivileged, the Church of those whom humanity (which judges according to efficiency) considers as having no further role to play, as inefficient. Many members of the Church, especially those who possess greater spiritual riches, have difficulty accepting this poverty, this loss of the extraordinary treasures accumulated by the Church over the centuries. The theology and culture that belonged to the Church in the past are a great treasure indeed. The Church must accept becoming the Church of the poor, in her members, especially in her priests. Her priests must become servants, servants of their fellow Christians, servants of humankind, to enlighten and help. The bishops must become, as the Council has asked, fathers to priests. They must accept paternity, paternal authority, authority in love, and understand that the Church must be God’s family in the world of today. It is difficult to understand—and especially to live—for it requires entering into something new. It is a question of entering the final week.
Entering the Final Week
During the final week, when Jesus consented to having his hands bound by Judas, Peter, who had a sense of authority and power took out his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear. He defended himself... and Jesus told him to put his sword back into its scabbard. That was the end of that. Peter could not enter this final phase of the life of Jesus while he was dreaming of power.
Dreams of power are varied. It is easy these days to find those who refuse to "put their sword back in its scabbard" and accompany Jesus as did John. They are ready for battle, for a crusade, but not to accept that the Holy Spirit may have a new approach. This is manifest. It is like a tradition that people seek to perpetuate.
Others, on the contrary, "baptize" modern ideologies, and consider that they have hitherto remained outside of the Church because the latter was a ghetto. They consider it now time to follow these ideologies wholeheartedly, to interpret them, to introduce them into the heart of the Church by means of a new theology. This standpoint is more subtle, for it appears to accept the turning point of the Second Vatican Council. It is, in fact, not an acceptance. It is rather running after the powers-that-be. Society is Marxist? Let us be Marxist. Society is purely scientific and positivist? Let us become positivists and take our color from it. This is a more subtle temptation, for it seems to invite "fully accepting the turning point." In reality, it does not. It does not enter into the perspective opened by Vatican II; rather it interprets Vatican II from a sociological and/or psychological point of view.
Hope Places Us Beyond Polemics
When faced with these things, we must be filled with true Christian hope. What is the great error in these two standpoints, standpoints which do not really accept the Council as a council? The great error is that Christ no longer comes first. What matters is order or disorder. There is a primacy of order or, with dialectical reasoning, a primacy of negation. But in what does true Christian hope consist? Christian hope consists in reliance upon a person. This reliance is what is proper to Christian hope. It gives us the certainty that Christ is in our midst more than ever: for the more intense the battle, the more Christ is present. And how can we exercise discernment of spirits in what we see around us? What is the Holy Spirit’s "signature"? If there is true adoration, if the Virgin Mary is acknowledged for what she is, if one feeds on the Eucharist, if the word of God is respected as a living word: these are the criteria that cannot be changed. Changing them proves that one has not understood the call of the Holy Spirit, and has not fully accepted his current demands.
Today the Holy Spirit has great demands as regards love, demands similar to those for the first Christians. This does not mean, however, that we ought to return to the time of the first Christians and copy the Acts of the Apostles. There may be a nostalgia for this from time to time. It was so nice... no need for airplanes; we could be caught up and transported by the Holy Spirit, as happened with the deacon Philip. We may wish to ask the Holy Spirit to do the same for us, but we must not try to imitate the past too literally. The end of the Church is very close to her starting point; yet it is entirely different from it, entirely other. One must understand what is new in today’s Church and what the Holy Spirit is asking of us.
Today’s Demand: Return to the Gospel
One of the most manifest demands today is a return to the Gospel. Vatican II asks that we return to the sources. We have great flexibility for we adhere to a person, to a living person. We adhere to Christ more than we adhere to doctrine. Doctrine is preserved in adhering to Christ, but it is secondary - whereas fifty years ago, doctrine came first for many Christians. The Catholic Church was equated with doctrine; she possessed the truth. She is indeed the repository of truth, the guardian of doctrine, but we must go further and understand that, much more profoundly, she is fidelity to Christ: fidelity to Christ in his gift of the Eucharist, of Mary, and of Peter; fidelity to this covenant.
I stress this to avoid ambiguity. When we speak of eschatological hope, it is not to encourage withdrawal. On the contrary, it is to recall that it is time to give everything, that we must be Christians who are entirely given, responding wholeheartedly to what Christ expects of us. Each of us is intelligent (in his or her own way) and so each must give that intellect to Christ. Each of us is generous and so must give his or her whole heart to Christ. Each of us has a tremendous amount of energy that must be given to Christ, and become directly bound to Jesus. The Church does not stand in the way of this. Today’s Christian must have this deep-rooted strength that comes from a personal relationship with Christ.
The Church is the milieu that enables us to be more closely united with Christ, but she is not an end. We must keep this in mind. The Second Vatican Council recalled this and the Holy Father reminded us of this during the Council. He emphatically stressed that, in faith, we are bound to Christ, through the Church. The Church is the fertile soil which keeps the word of God. The Church is the fertile soil which keeps the will of the Father. She is the vital milieu that enables us to find verdant pastures. But the Church is not an end. One must never stop at the Church. The Church is unintelligible in and of herself. She can only be understood in the light of Christ. Her grandeur consists in this: she leads us to Jesus. She must, therefore, increasingly live this eschatological hope, the hope which makes us poor.
The poor have no resources; they keep nothing. They give themselves. One must not have reservations. One must give oneself entirely, to the degree God indicates how one must give. One must not, of course, waste the capital of energy, health, and intellect that God has given. It is a matter of putting to good use or, more precisely, cultivating it as well as possible, so as to persevere to the end. Eschatological hope instills an ardent desire to use the time given in the most "efficient" way possible. Eschatological hope also gives us, in the current struggle, divine patience - the "patience of the saints." For we know that the battle will be fiercest in the final moments, and that the angel of darkness will disguise himself as an angel of light.
Is this not what we are seeing today? Is not the angel of darkness in the process of disguising himself as an angel of light so as to seduce us?
Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., was born in 1912 in France and ordained as a Dominican priest in 1936. Author of numerous books on Thomistic metaphysics, spiritual theology and philosophy (including Retracing Reality, from T&T Clark), Father Philippe is the founder of a flourishing religious community called the Community of St John, which now has 41 houses on five continents. The above texts by Fr Philippe are taken with permission from Wherever He Goes: A Retreat on the Gospel of John, translated by Br Dominique Peridans, the Prior of the Community’s house in Laredo, Texas. (This book is also available in the UK from T&T Clark.) It appeared in the ‘Second Spring’ section of Catholic World Report in April 1998.