Several years ago, I was visiting friends during the Christmas holidays; their adult children and young grandson were present in the home. When I arrived, the pre-school aged grandson was playing with a toy fire truck and making fire engine siren noises. When I sat down and began to converse with my friends, the fire truck siren noises increased in volume; the siren was accompanied by lots of banging of the toy fire truck against the floor and furniture.
At first, I wondered why the youngster was making so much noise; then, it became clear to me. The child was an only child and an only grandchild. He was unaccustomed to sharing attention with others. My arrival at the home had changed the social dynamic; he was no longer the center of his grandparents’ attention. Further, I had committed a mortal sin (in his mind); I had not acknowledged his presence in the room. This type of attention-getting behavior is normal and benign in young children; it is less so in adults.
Over past few weeks, there have been some truly tragic events worldwide: the church bombings in Sri Lanka, a synagogue shooting in California, and another school shooting in Denver. These, and all similar events, are attention-getting behaviors. In every case, the perpetrators acted violently because they felt that their point-of-view, or personal needs, or personal commitments had not been given sufficient attention by wider society. Additionally, in every case, their actions have added to the evil in the world. I don’t know if I want to say that it’s incomprehensible or that it’s inexcusable that the people who complain about evil in the world are also the ones who add to evil in the world. Either way, evil remains a mystery.
Today’s second reading is taken from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, a Scriptural book that attempts to elucidate the mystery of evil. The section of the book from which today’s reading is taken is a description of the Liturgy in heaven. The Apocalypticist writes that he had a prophetic vision of a vast crowd of people standing before God’s throne to “worship him day and night in his temple.” (Rv. 7:15)
The crowd was not a random assembly of people; it was the assembly of martyrs who had been persecuted and killed because of their faith. The angel accompanying the Apocalypticist during his vision said about the crowd, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rv. 7:14) The heavenly Liturgy, by which the vast crowd worshiped God, is depicted as a faith-filled perspective on evil: those who remain faithful to God during persecution or suffering will receive consolation directly from God at the end of their trials.
This image of the heavenly Liturgy is a lesson about faithful coping skills. According to the Apocalypticist’s vision, Liturgy intends to focus our attention beyond ourselves. By doing so, it helps us to remain faithful to God, even when we suffer unjustly. This prophetic vision is intended to provide both consolation and hope to those who suffer; it promises Divine healing and eternal solace for God’s faithful People. Although the prophetic vision doesn’t offer a complete and satisfying explanation of why evil exists, it might point to a partial explanation.
If faithful worship is the antidote and remedy for suffering, then faithlessness might be the cause of suffering, at least in some instances. Faithful worship focuses our attention beyond ourselves. It is reasonable to extrapolate, therefore, that inappropriate attention given to (or demanded for) oneself and one’s personal issues is a sign of faithlessness. It is obvious, though not always acknowledged, that adults who demand chronically to be the center of others’ attention cause a great deal of injustice by their selfish, childish behavior.
This is an interesting observation about suffering and evil, but does it provide us with any course of action? What can we do about events in other parts of the country or world? What can a few, faithful people do about the faithless and destructive actions of others? There are at least two actions that we are obliged to pursue.
The first, and most obvious, response to evil in the world is to avoid adding to its destructive effects. We are obliged not to imitate those who perpetrate evil on others. Specifically, we are obliged not to demand that all other people give their complete attention to our thoughts, feelings, wants, and desires. It is a requirement of faith that we realize that the attention-getting behavior that is normal in childhood is not normal in adulthood.
Secondly, belief in God requires that our worship be directed toward God alone. The second reading describes the heavenly Liturgy as one in which everyone standing before the Throne of God focuses their attention solely on God. Our earthly worship will always be an imperfect imitation of the heavenly Liturgy, but it ought to be the best imitation that can be offered in an imperfect universe. Our Sunday worship will never be perfect, but we can avoid the things that will make it false worship. The purpose of Sunday Liturgy is not to get things from God; rather, the purpose of Sunday Liturgy is to give God our full attention and to give our fellow worshipers an example of faith.
The vision of heavenly worship depicted in today’s second reading proclaims a redeeming message of hope. It says that God offers the possibility of an eternal remedy for evil; this remedy can be a reality in the life of anyone who is willing to put their full faith in God. In this life, there is no perfect remedy for evil, but there is a partial one: it is to focus our full attention on God and on the example that we give to other people.