The people of Nazareth thought of themselves as faithful Jews. But when Jesus tells them that their faith is lacking they get so angry that they want to lynch him. Why would Jesus appear to provoke them so? We perhaps get a clue from the remark made by one of the people who says, “this is Joseph’s son, surely?” With this phrase, someone seems to be saying “we know this boy, he belongs to us, he should use his miraculous powers to help us.” It suggests an attempt to domesticate Jesus, to dumb him down and fit him into their village mentality.
But Jesus was having none of that. Instead, he wants to stir, not their anger but their faith. He wants to open them up to true faith, faith in himself, in his mission, in his teaching. The reaction is, alas, rejection and anger that Jesus would dare tell them that foreigners Sidon and Syria had more faith than they had. As the famous Cardinal Archbishop of Milan once wrote of this episode, Jesus’ first time in preaching was a monumental failure, something which should give heart to all messengers of the Gospel.
Poor Jeremiah experienced the same in his prophetic ministry. He was warned by God, as the first reading shows, to make sure that he did not hold back in speaking “all” that he was commanded to say. God knew that he would be opposed – and he was, to the point of having a number of near misses at being murdered. The Jewish nation at his time had grown comfortable but at the price of a weakened faith; it was going through the motions, if you like, but not responding with any zeal or deep commitment to the covenant with God.
For this reason, God sent Jeremiah to try to help restore and stir once more their faith. If you read through the book of Jeremiah you can see how much trouble and suffering he had to endure. At one point he gets angry with God for forcing him to utter threats. He resolves at one point never to talk about God or in God’s name ever again. But God overpowers him and insists that he do as he is told.
The Church’s mission follows the same lines as Jeremiah and of Jesus. The Church does or should not set her own agenda or preach her own message. She is sent to preach the Gospel of Christ, to shine the light of his truth and to administer the love of his sacraments. She has no truth or miracles of her own devising. A look at the history of the Church shows that whenever she has deviated from the mission Christ gave her, she has only covered herself in shame and disgrace. The glory of the Church is not found in her human or worldly attributes. It is not found in her organisation, her institutions, her diplomatic prowess and least of all in her possessions.
The glory of the Church is found in her martyrs, her saints, the faithful daily slog of her members, her being persecuted when she proclaims or defends God’s truth about God, about man and about the world. If she is opposed for the reasons for which Jeremiah and Jesus were opposed, then, yes, that is her glory. There is of course entirely legitimate opposition to the Church on the part both of Church members themselves and of the world when other members of the Church sin. The Church’s collusion with the wealthy, with corrupt politics, the egregious and outright criminal failures of some of her bishops, cardinals and priests and the many other sins found among her members merit not just opposition but condemnation. There is no glory in being opposed for what is hateful in the sight of God.
But when the Church remains steadfast in saying all that God commands, as Jeremiah puts it, she will necessarily experience opposition on the part of some. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “The light has come into the world, but men preferred the darkness to the light because their deeds were evil.”
Plato tells the story of a cave where people have been imprisoned from birth. All they see are shadows. The shadows are reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else. Then, one prisoner is freed. Someone drags him by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and does not stop until he is dragged out into the light of the sun. The prisoner gets angry and is in pain, and it only worsens when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him. Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. First, he can only see shadows. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves. Eventually, he is able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally he can look upon the sun itself. Only after he can see the sun is he able to understand what it is. The prisoner understands that the world outside the cave is superior to the world he experienced in the cave; he blesses himself for the change, and pities the other prisoners and wants to bring his fellow cave dwellers out of the cave and into the sunlight.
So, he goes back to the cave. Because his eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, he is blinded when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. The prisoners infer from the returning man’s blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Plato concludes that the prisoners would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave.
Jesus was never a prisoner in any cave, but by his incarnation he took on our condition as a slave. He at first hid his divine light and then gradually began to reveal it, and it was precisely because he did that, and tried to bring people out of the darkness to the light, that the religious establishment and the political establishment of the time crucified him. They preferred the darkness. In the end, Christ’s light conquered not just the cave, but the grave, and it is the light which darkness can now not ever overcome.
That light of Christ is why the Church exists at all. The sins of sons and daughters of the Church cannot, in the end, overcome it. On the contrary, where that light shines out in the lives of faithful Christians it provides hope and comfort for anyone whose heart is open to God. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, not due to us, but due to Christ. He is our light, our truth and our freedom.