NOTE: Our lectionary essay this week is written by Michael Fitzpatrick. Debie is on break, and will return on June 6th.
For Sunday June 6, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12–15), 16–20, (11:14–15)
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1
Growing up, Christmas was indisputably my favorite holiday. The sumptuous pies, the delectable eggnog, the freedom from schoolwork, and the fabulous decorations we’d put up fed the fires of my imagination to create a world of magic and anticipation. Unsurprisingly for a kid in elementary school, at the center of my excitement was the receiving of presents. The sleuth within me engaged in many clandestine maneuvers to survey those packages during the month of December, wondering what new toys or games or clothes might be shrouded within that glimmering paper. We were not a particularly well-off family — we usually had enough, but not much more — and so I rarely had the opportunity for getting things outside of my birthday and Christmas. The latter was far more exciting because, frankly, it offered a greater gift yield.
Our practice was that dad, being a December 23rd birth, received his birthday presents on the eve of Christmas Eve; we each opened one present on Christmas Eve; and the rest of the presents came after a large family breakfast Christmas morning. Soon I’d be sitting in a debris field of paper, surrounded by action figures, books, and if it was a really lucky year, a Game Boy game or two. For me, my flourishing as a child was located in these material goods, these things I could see and touch and that had price tags on them.
Then one Christmas, that all changed.
My parents and I had gone in together on a particularly desirable doll set for my sister, in which each of us would give her a different piece to the set (one gave the clothes, another the doll, another accompanying utensils). For the first time, my anticipation of Christmas morning wasn’t what I would get, but the feeling of surprise and joy my sister would feel when she saw how good our gift was. It was unbelievably thrilling to delight another person.
Next Christmas, I appointed myself the distributor of the gifts, a hilarious role my dad has preserved on many family Christmas VHS tapes. I would organize the gifts based on how significant I guessed they were, and then make sure each person got a gift before each received their next gift, in order from least to most significant. I would spend months planning my own gifts for my parents and my sister. By the time I reached high school, what I would get for Christmas ceased to concern me much; what mattered was to relish in the joy of my family by blessing them.
My young naivety had been to believe that what is seen is most important. That life is measured in material goods. Living the past few years in Silicon Valley has impressed upon me how many people never leave this perspective behind, measuring their worth in terms of salaries, property, job titles, and success. What I learned in those family Christmases is that true worth lies in relationships, not things. And this value is not something we can see or touch (though we can express our value of relationships with things we can see or touch), but something we primarily feel or experience in our spirits.
Jesus taught this. Through gracious acts of healing and exorcism, he had been communicating to the people of Galilee that their worth and hope as people lies in their relationship to the Living God, not human accomplishments; in what is unseen, not what is seen. When Jesus speaks of the ‘eternal,’ he means that our worth is not set on what “rust and moth destroy,” as he teaches elsewhere, but on things above, on what lasts, what will not be lost. Yet his contemporaries found this as difficult to comprehend as we do today. They tried to explain Jesus away, by saying he was mentally ill, or that he was possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus swiftly rebukes any such notions, giving the utterly lucid observation that since he has opposed evil spirits, he cannot be empowered by them. Defaming the work of God as the work of Satan is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, an “eternal sin,” damaging not that which passes away, but that which lasts forever.
His family heard the local gossip that Jesus was stark raving mad, and they came to collect him up and take him home, get him away from the public eye. When they arrived, the crowd told Jesus his mother and siblings had arrived. His reply at first glance seems downright offensive. If relationships, not things, are where value lies, why does he seem to disregard his relationship to his family? After all, this is Mary, Mother of God, whose divine motherhood has been so beautifully represented down through the ages, as seen in the fresco of her and Jesus in the Dečani monastery in Kosovo. Yet Jesus waves this aside with the teaching, “Here are my mother and my siblings! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Human relationships matter, but we cannot have their eternal worth without involving the Eternal One. I discovered one Christmas the unseen joy of giving; Jesus was proclaiming the unseen joy of doing the will of God. Jesus would not let go of what is unseen and eternal to try and save his earthly reputation by “getting a hold of himself” or letting his family stage an intervention.
As we root ourselves in the eternal value of our relationship with our Creator, the eternal flows into the whole of our lives. This is the “weight of glory” St. Paul proclaims in our epistle this Sunday. God has raised this Jesus from the dead and given us immeasurable grace (meaning, it can’t be given a price tag) extending outward from ourselves to “more and more people,” to do … what? Increase material wealth? Ensure everybody has a living wage? Gain each person a promotion at work? Isn’t that what we hope for, that the Lord will make us more successful in daily living if we put our trust in this grace? Yet for none of that was Jesus raised, but simply “to increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.”
But we need these material improvements to our lives to survive! If we don’t have all of these material blessings, our bodies will waste away and our lives will have suffering and hardship! Yes, St. Paul says, it is so. But because of eternal grace, “we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
I’ve quoted St. Paul at length because frankly I don’t know how to comment on this better than what he has written. When my Christmas mornings changed from anticipation of material goods to joy in giving to others, I left aside what is temporary (toys, clothes, job titles, money, success, etc.) and embraced the eternal. Grace flowed through each of us on Christmas morning, granting joy in the gift, expressing that eternal grace that holds us all and will never let go. For we will all die, and our earthly tent, whether our bodies or our material goods, will eventually perish, but our relationship with our Redeemer, living the will of God in our relationships with each other, becoming to one another mothers and sisters and brothers, has lasting worth.
C. S. Lewis, in his eponymous essay, suggests that one way to carry the “weight of glory” in a practical application is to hold in one’s mind regularly the eternal worth of one’s neighbor. As he puts it, “there are no ordinary people,” for everyone has eternal significance. “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself,” Lewis writes, “Your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Just as we blaspheme the Holy Spirit if we ascribe the works of God as deeds of the Devil, so we blaspheme the grace of the Most High given for all people when we treat them as means and not as precious creatures in the Lord’s sight. Christmas became for me a sacramental act of discovering the eternal in my family, of bearing the weight of glory in my love for them and their love for me.
Let us spend the coming weeks reflecting on where “an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” appears in our lives. The notion of being “beyond all measure” is crucial; if you can measure it, it’s not eternal. It won’t be found in what you can see (for you can measure anything you see), nor will it be found in what is temporary (for time is a measurement also). Nor is the eternal weight of glory something we can earn or build with our own hands, for it is “a building from God, a house not made with human hands.” Yet for the Christian, this weight of glory has more weight than the heaviest earthly objects, and this unseen has more reality than all the visible universe put together. This weight of glory gives eternal worth to all our relationships. Let us pray together in this season of ordinary time that we will experience the unseen, the eternal in our midst, that we will become people of whom Jesus says, “Here are my mother and siblings!”
Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via firstname.lastname@example.org