Epiphany +4

If it seems to you that the whole world is going mad, you’re probably right. Doan mentioned to me yesterday that all six of the top stories on the New York Times website were about the general implosion of Egypt. There’s so much going on there that it’s impossible to report it all; I doubt Egyptian Christians are doing well right now. The situation in Egypt has taken the news cycle away from the nation two doors down, Tunisia, which is about as unstable a place the world can offer. A few Ugandan thugs took a hammer to David Kato because he had the audacity to oppose a proposed law that would allow Ugandan authorities to string up gays and lesbians. Closer to home, a Philadelphia abortionist has been charged with only eight of the countless murders he has committed, reopening the debate on what the difference is between a six month old fetus killed in the womb and a six month old fetus chopped up on the floor. The benefit of knowing some history is that we can say that things aren’t really any worse now than they’ve ever been, but sometimes it does seem that the whole world’s gone mad. Madder still is the only answer to all of this madness: the crucified Christ.

Back on the feast of All Saints, we talked about the Beatitudes; it seems we hear them at least twice a year, not counting marriages and funerals, and there’s a reason for it. The Beatitudes represent everything we are not taught by experience during recess in Kindergarten. We need to hear the Beatitudes because eight-grade boys exist and Lord of the Flies might as well have been a documentary. We need to hear the Beatitudes because of all the madness that clogs the evening news can drive us mad as well, and nothing counters worldly madness like heavenly madness.

St. Paul gave us some heavenly madness this week too. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” Paul wrote. He could have added “And Americans demand both,” but his was a different time. “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” said Paul, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Foolishness! Madness! Give me a sign, the Jews said, and Jesus told them no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Don’t you remember, Jesus said, Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days; I’ll be in the belly of the earth for three days too, just you wait. It wasn’t the sign they were looking for. Give me wisdom the Greeks said, and Jesus told them to take up a cross and follow Him, and yes, there is a reason a cross was mentioned. That definitely wasn’t the wisdom they were looking for.

Christ crucified. God on a cross. Paul called it a stumbling block; the Greek word he used was skandalon, scandal, a word which originally referred to part of a trap to which the bait is attached. Nothing makes a man look like a fool than falling into a trap, especially a trap as seemingly ill-conceived as the notion of the living God hanging on a cheap piece of wood.

Paul tells us that the message of the cross is folly, it’s foolishness, to those who are perishing, to those who hear the Gospel and reject it to their own damnation. I can understand the logic of someone who rejects Jesus. I can see how an up-and-coming young man in Bordentown can skip church through his teens and 20’s and accidentally hear the Beatitudes at a pal’s wedding and think them stupid. I pity him, but I can see him measuring out his Anthony Robbins Personal Power tape set against the Cross and Beatitudes and choosing the former. I can understand the Egyptian with a Molotov Cocktail in his hand, and I can understand the Palestinian weighing the his last rock before he hurls it over the barricade where his grandfather’s house once stood. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to love their enemies, why they wouldn’t feel blessed while they mourn, why mercy might look like the bait in an ill-conceived trap.

I can understand it, how the madness of the world can make the madness of heaven look suspicious. The Cross is rarely a rallying point for those trying to save their own skin. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” In other words, even when all seemed lost, when He who breathes life into us was breathing His last, it was at that moment that He was most powerful. For in that moment, God took all the madness of the world, all the greed and self-concern, all the violence and hatred, all the sin and even death itself, He took all that madness and hung it on the Cross with Him. The power of death is never clearer than in the sight of the Cross, and yet all life comes from gazing upon the God who hung upon it. We can look at that Cross, that foolishness of God, that madness of heaven, and still we can choose ourselves, we can choose death, we can choose the madness of the world. Or we can gaze upon that Cross and see Jesus, the very wisdom and life of God given for us, and choose to be poor for His sake, we can choose mercy and peace, we can choose life. Blessed are those who choose the good, Jesus said; Blessed are those who choose Him.

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