Synod Reflection, Sunday afternoon
Family life can me messy. As it turns out, so can synod discussions of family life.
Sometimes in church we downplay the difficulties and the messiness. For example, the Swanson image of “Flight to Egypt” on our worship aid. I don’t know about all of you mothers out there, but after I gave birth—after the stitches and the hemorrhoids and the sore nipples—all the stuff we aren’t supposed to discuss in polite company—after that experience of the concrete reality of childbirth, I can’t imagine sitting serenely on a donkey for a cross-country journey.
If you’ve ever baked a cake with a three year old, or cleaned up after a teenager’s slumber party, you know that kids are good at making messes.
I think we need to resist any urge to “tidy up” our Synod experience too much.
My first reflection, then, is that God blesses our messes. We heard proclaimed yesterday the infancy narrative from the gospel of Matthew. Luke’s version of the story is no tidier.
Anyone who has given birth—or witnessed it --knows that the serene nativity scenes we often contemplate to remember the incarnation are a little too neat and tidy. Luke’s gospel tells the story of a pregnant teenager and her betrothed who journeyed a long distance only to find that there was “no room in the inn.” You know the story-- As her labor pains began, they found shelter in a stable, and that’s where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The first witnesses were barnyard animals, whose hay became the bed linens for the child. As we heard Bishop remind us yesterday, Matthew’s account of the story has Mary and Joseph on a journey to Egypt—refugees—trusting in God, step by step, gradually, making their way towards safety.
There is nothing easy or serene or tidy or silent about the way God entered our world in the incarnation. As I reflect on this, it strikes me that this is a story about God’s vulnerability. God entered into the chaos of everyday life. And what is God’s answer? Does God “fix it” and make everything tidy and neat? No, God blesses the messiness. God comes in the midst of family life, messy though it is.
Jesus’s ministry to the marginalized in his own day was treated with suspicion. His table fellowship, his welcoming of the other, his willingness to talk to and befriend women. There was nothing “neat and tidy” about Jesus’s ministry and the “unschooled, ordinary” disciples with whom he kept company (Acts 4). And of course, when we consider the way Jesus died, we are challenged to ask ourselves what it means to enter into solidarity with those suffering today, knowing how God redeems us through brokenness. Jesus’s death was messy. We have faith that God transforms humiliation and suffering, that new life can come after grief and death. But that doesn’t make it easy.
I am filled with gratitude that Bishop McElroy thought it was a good idea to invite the laity to participate alongside our clergy in this experience of synod. As church, as people of God, we are all in this together, discerning the call of the Spirit to animate our discipleship.
So many of us have felt God’s presence in our ordinary family life experiences, and here we are trying to figure out how to strengthen that awareness. Pope Francis tells us to focus on “concrete realities” of family life and to be “humble and realistic.” (31, 35).
God comes into our midst through the stuff of life—through people who don’t have all the answers but listen to our questions, through friends who encourage us when we feel overwhelmed, and pastors who offer words of wisdom in dark days. Another lesson I see is that one does not have to overcome one’s imperfections to be in union with God. Even imperfect people experience God’s grace. “Jesus never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery, says the pope” (38). God is with me even as I struggle. God is with me in all my woundedness, messiness, forgetfulness, and sin. Indeed, God works through the vulnerable. God depends on everyday heroes like Mary and Joseph—people of faith who are willing to take risks to be faithful to God’s call. But God does not force or compel us. God invites.
How is God inviting us, nudging us, calling us, at this Synod? Where are those places of staleness that need refreshment? What is boring and needs more life? Where are we overwhelmed and in need of hope? Where are we falling and in need of rescue?
We celebrate the God who is present in the ordinary, frightening, messy, beautiful everyday moments of our lives. But that doesn’t mean that God is satisfied with the status quo. God invites us to be partners in the transformation of the world—to shine a light in a land of gloom, to bear one another’s burdens, to work for justice, to be peacemakers.
We don’t all have to do this in the same way. Remember when Pope Francis visited the US Congress, he raised up Abe Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, and Thomas Merton. Each had a different way of approaching discipleship. Each of us has to discern in conscience how to live out our deeply held values, and we might understand those and live those differently in light of our unique circumstances and unique gifts. This weekend we have come together as church—to seek unity in our diversity—knowing that our diversity is a strength, but we may experience it as messiness. But let us remember that being church has never been simple.
In our last meetings together of this synod, may we open our hearts to the God of surprises, inviting God in all the ways you want to come to us and live through us. And as we leave here later today, let us remember to celebrate love—wherever it is found—and to encourage growth, even in small gradual steps. Let us return to our lives more confident of the ways in which God is already there with us, any time we are mending broken relationships, comforting the grieving, standing up against abuse or indignity, bearing one another’s burdens. We ask God to Help us to say "yes" to your birthing within us. Even as we trust that God blesses our messes.
d McBrien, National Catholic Reporter Ad advent reflections by Dorothy Day linked on Catholic Worker webpage.