The difficult part in this growth is that it means to allow ourselves to be humbled by our mistakes and faults. Something that most of us don’t like doing. In allowing ourselves to be humbled by our inadequacies, we learn the lesson in life that we are blind to, when parading in confidence and pride, from our successes. This fact is everywhere in Scripture.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a clear example. The crucifixion of Jesus is a tragedy – a tragedy into which Jesus consciously entered. The long-awaited Messiah’s dramatic mission seemed to end as a colossal catastrophe – a failure (Acts 7:52) Jesus met the tragedy of the cross by letting go and choosing to trust the Spirit to accompany him into death. As a result, Jesus freely abandoned his fears, his anxious weighing of the variables, and trusted the Spirit, even in death.
Jesus did not need to be anxious about his mission being successful because he depended on the Spirit for its success. His willingness to submit to death led to an unforeseen victory, the expansion of God’s kingdom and the inclusion of the Gentiles.
In this reflection I turn to the Scripture from the time of the construction of the Temple in the Old Testament. The temple was completed around 960 BC and stood until destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. This is the period where Israel is ruled by Kings and the great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah to name a few who are at work. All that was expected of the people was to remain loyal to the covenant. “You will love God, with your whole heart, your whole soul.” Love for God, an interior attitude, is worth more than worship. (Hosea 6:6) True love comes from knowledge of God (Is 1:3). And to know God is to recognise his actions in events. (Is. 1: 1- 6) Love and knowledge of God will be the fruits of the New Covenant, two profound gifts of God. (Jer:31:31)
The new covenant will reach out to the humble and poor of Spirit. God, Just, Holy demands of his people social justice. That the people of the new covenant will return to a society of equality and fraternity.( Jer: 34: 8 – 19.) God wants to see an end of the rich being the oppressor as inequality breeds violence. (Is 5:7) and eventually unjust laws. God detests the pride that is coming from money (Is. 2:6 -22) as well as the pride from power. (Is.14: 5 – 21.)
The Prophet Zephaniah points out in 3: 13 – 20 it is expected that the covenant will turn into a real marriage. Israel will be the bride of Yahweh. (Is:54: 5) Yet Israel turns out to be the unfaithful bride (Hosea 2: )(Jer. 2 – 3) There is no sign of love and fidelity in this marriage. God then prepares a destructive Judgement, called the Day of Yahweh. (Is. 1: 24 – 28. A judgement which will re-establish justice (Is 2; 1 -5) and bring about a final peace.
An observation of this period leading up to the destruction of the temple and carrying off of the people into exile is that Israel learned more about God in the rubble of the temple destroyed by the Babylonians than in the time of glory of the Temple under Solomon. The lesson was learnt in a time of failure not success.
Just prior to being conquered by the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, Israel had just experienced, what to all outward appearances was the highpoint of her history. She was in possession of the promised land; had subdued her enemies; had great kings ruling over her, and had the magnificent temple in Jerusalem as a place of worship and a centre to hold all the people together. However, abiding inside that apparent strength, Israel had become complacent about her faith and increasingly lax in being faithful to it. That complacency and laxity led to the nations downfall. In 587 BC she was overrun by a foreign nation which after taking the land, deported most of the people to Babylon, killed the king, and knocked the temple down to its last stone. Israel had to accept in humility for close to half a century life without a Temple, struggling to reconcile this loss with her belief that God loved her.
This failure, in terms of the bigger picture, turns out to be positive. The pain of being exiled and the doubts of faith that arose seeing the Temple destroyed were to be counter balanced by what she learned through this humiliation and crisis, namely, that God is faithful even when we are not, that our failures open our eyes to our own complacency and blindness, and that what looks like success is often its opposite, just as what looks like failure is often its opposite.
The crushing defeat those in exile suffered at the hands of their enemy, the personal tragedy of the loss of family and friends in the siege of Jerusalem, the loss of home and income, all of this caused great suffering. Being exiled from their homeland was itself a humiliation and degradation. Mourning for the dead, home sickness and the pain of defeat was shared by all. In the first years of Exile there were those who were sure the Exile would only last a short while. God would very soon take them back to their land. (Jer. 29: 24 – 26. Their hope proved groundless. As the years passed and it became clear that the Exile would not end soon, a feeling of depression bordering on despair came upon many of the exiles.
The ones who had great trust in the belief that Jerusalem could never be destroyed and that the temple was inviolable, had their faith severely shaken by the destruction of both in 587.
The Book of Lamentations, written at the time of the Exile (between 586 BC – 575 BC), brings out that the message of the Prophets has been accepted. The writer of Lamentations accepted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as an act of God. While Lamentations is full of pain and sorrow, it does not show absolute despair. God is still present, even if the presence is in the act of punishment. Better his wrath than his absence. There is hope that he can renew his people.
The image of the destruction of the temple to rubble and the reaction of the people is a fitting image to understand what the Catholic Church is now undergoing with the humiliation thrust upon it through the clerical sexual abuse crisis within Catholicism. I was tempted to use the destruction caused by the fire a month ago of the prestigious Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The present failure in the Catholic Church with regards the abuse of minors is one that causes the membership great pain and sorrow. How could this have happened and not been addressed is a frequently asked question. As the Israelites learnt in the rubble of the destruction of the Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar, Catholics today have to learn from the “rubble” of sexual abuse that what is important is not to abandon God or Christ in the crisis.
In February of this year I was one of 200 bishops from around the world who joined Pope Francis in Rome addressing the issue of Abuse of Minors. It was most unpleasant, feeling the shame walking into the Vatican each day through the midst of victims. We have to acknowledge and take ownership that leadership has sinned by denying or trying to cover up what has taken place. Our temple in this incident has been damaged or destroyed. The churches of Australia and Guam to name two such churches in our area.
Now in “exile’ we have the chance to deepen our relationship with Christ and rediscover its core meaning.
Bishop. Paul Donoghue