Recently, a man vacationing in this area told me about some challenges facing his parish at home. For the last few decades, parish membership has been declining and, most distressing to the man, parish outreach activities to the surrounding community have been declining. Faced with declining membership and declining vigor, the parish leadership has looked back to its past accomplishments for guidance. Despite strenuous attempts to recapture its past, however, the parish’s health continues to decline.
Looking backward to successful strategies and a more successful time might seem like an obvious choice, but there is an obvious flaw in this logic. The logical flaw is that time moves only forward. It is not possible to go back (or stand still) in time; neither is it possible to recapture an idealized past event or situation. Looking backward for solutions to present-day problems is a guarantee of failure unless one looks with a keenly critical eye.
The first reading in today’s Liturgy of the Word summarizes a monumental turning point in the life of the nascent Church. Jesus’ first disciples, and their first converts, were Jews who knew Jesus to be the fulfillment of Jewish hopes for a Messiah. They assumed that the reform movement begun by Jesus would continue as a reform movement composed of devout Jews. When Paul brought to the attention of the Church’s leadership the fact that increasing numbers of gentiles were converting to the teachings of Jesus, a crisis ensued. Some disciples claimed that the new gentile converts would have to become Jews before they could be baptized. Paul disagreed, saying that this would impose an unnecessary burden on the gentiles.
The disagreement caused a great deal of confusion. How could the integrity of Jesus’ teachings be preserved while, at the same time, acknowledging that it was obviously God’s will for non-Jews to live according to those teachings? The Church’s leadership relied on what they knew about faithful religion, but chose to make room in their practices, their theories, and, most importantly, their communities for a new group of people. Specifically, in this case, the Church’s leadership knew that gentiles had been permitted to reside in ancient Israel as long as they were willing to follow the basic rules of ritual purity as outlined in the latter half of the book of Leviticus. The decision that it was sufficient for gentile converts “to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage” was taken from that body of teachings. (Acts 15:29)
This application of a precedent from Israel’s past was not an uncritical attempt to return to a former time. Rather, it was a new interpretation of religious law and practice for a completely new situation. This new interpretation was effective for the same reason that it was faithful to Jesus’ teachings. It was based on the Church leaders’ desire to discern God’s will anew for their own lives as well as for the lives of the new converts.
Science tells us that time moves relentlessly in one direction. Grace moves in one direction, as well. The direction of Grace’s movement is always toward God, greater holiness, more profound repentance, and more certain faith. In order to be moved by God’s Grace, however, we must be willing to leave behind the comfort and familiarity of the past. The Church’s first generation of leaders knew that God is not to be found in the past because the past no longer exists. Neither is God to be found in the future because the future doesn’t exist yet. God is to be found in the present and, specifically, in the process of discerning the will of God for present circumstances.
The vacationer’s parish could resolve its current problems easily if it followed the example described in today’s first reading. When faced with an unforeseen conflict, the Church’s first leaders looked honestly at their present circumstances and sought a way to accomplish God’s will in an entirely new situation. If church communities in our era look honestly at their present circumstances rather than looking back to their past, they will be able to discern both God’s will and effective ways to revitalize their faith and mission. This same renewal is possible in the lives of individual believers.
There was a time when Eucharistic Liturgy was viewed as an occasion to pray silently and privately. Congregations filled local churches, but every person said her or his own personal prayers about her or his own personal issues. This privatized version of Eucharistic Liturgy served only to starve people’s spirituality on two levels. Privatizing communal prayer prevents the possibility of participating in communal prayer and it relieves one of the responsibility of fostering a habit of daily personal prayer. It’s not surprising that those who treated the celebration of Eucharist as a private devotion often felt as if they didn’t get much out of Mass; Eucharistic Liturgy practiced as private prayer starves the soul of both communal and personal prayer. If you find that Sunday Liturgy doesn’t do much for you, this is a clear indication that you need to reexamine your motives and goals.
As time moves only forward, it is occasionally necessary to discern God’s will anew for the changing circumstances of the present. This discernment is possible and fruitful only if one is willing to look honestly at one’s present circumstances. Lacking this honesty, one lives in fantasy rather than in faith.