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29th Ordinary Sunday (A), Mission Sunday, 18.10.20: Christ-conscious

In common parlance, it’s refreshing to hear someone being described as “on a mission.” It points to purpose and resolve. Someone is determined to get something done, be it anything from finding the exact degree of “medium rare” in frying a steak to clearing the name of a son accused of a crime. When you are on such a mission, all your skills and energies, and even time, are directed purposefully to attain your set goal.

Maybe we could say that the opposite of being on a mission is being in demission. To live in demission means to live in passive resignation or even in a state of dejection. It can lead to, or come from, low self-esteem, or to living a life of self-centredness. It can also lead to apathy and indifference and even to an angry defensiveness, refusing to do anything. It’s marked by laziness and a lowering of expectations. What’s the point? Who cares? Nobody else is bothering. Let’s just sit and watch life go by. Someone once described this state of mind to me as being like that of a sheep-dog with its ears down because it has nothing to do, and so feels useless. The difference is that a sheep-dog would jump at the chance to herd some sheep. Someone in demission is more likely to roll over and die.

Christ has given us all a mission. Getting that steak right and clearing your son’s name and other similar things are good as far as they go. But our mission from God is something with a much higher aim and a much broader horizon. For every human being is created to share in nothing less than the mission of the Son of God himself. That mission was at first only his own, when he became man, suffered, died and rose again. But its purpose was to draw us all actively into his mission and to work with him to extend it throughout the course of history. That is the mission of the Church and therefore of each of us in it. Christ’s mission is the salvation of all people and the reconciliation of all things in himself, making peace by the blood of his Cross.

Sadly, though, we who have received a share in Christ’s mission to live through, with and in him so as to attract others to him, can so easily lose our awareness of it. We can become like the foolish virgins in the parable who, despite an initial enthusiasm for the bridegroom, not only fall asleep but bring no oil to keep our lamps burning. This happens not so much because we deliberately set our mission aside, but is more the result of neglect and distraction. We lower our sights from the supernatural values of Christ to much lesser values of this world. And so, instead of using our freedom and love to engage with Christ and his mission, we diminish the lustre of that freedom and love by settling for much less.

What I am not saying here is that we must somehow ignore the duties of our state in life as regards family, work and all the other fundamental demands of our human condition. What I am saying is that so many no longer perform those duties consciously for Christ, we no longer perceive them as part of Christ’s mission to us. Two men can perform a heroic task, one for personal satisfaction and the other to prove his love for his beloved. They both do the same thing, but the motive is far different, indeed contrary: one does it for his private and personal glory, the other for the glory of love. In a similar way, we can perform all our duties in life to perfection, but if we do so only to fulfil our own ideas and preferences and decisions, then the quality of our observance is focused on self. If it is done for others, that is much better but that, too, can often only remain at the level of their temporal good.

This means that many no longer do what they do, or even love who and what they love, for the sake of Christ. We don’t see Christ in our duties and loves, nor do we see them in Christ. There’s no question that, especially today, to live consciously and deliberately each day in the company and love of Christ, and to let our decisions and reactions be dictated by his values and priorities, is a big challenge. There are many reasons for it. For example, we no longer have a society which explicitly supports religious faith, least of all the Catholic faith. On the contrary, the values which reign supreme, and are almost idolatrous in the sense of a secular religion, promote and encourage us to look at life in a purely secular perspective. Things that are patently abhorrent to Christ are today exalted in so many circles and ways as expressions of human freedom and emancipation from a domineering deity. God is set up as the straw man of all that is hostile to humanity and is systematically debunked by slogans of a supposed freedom which in fact only leads to the humiliation of the human being.

The values which our Western society promotes are essentially inner worldly, or immanent. Money, health, safety, pleasure, helping others, being nice, human rights and so on. Are any of these things bad? Not at all. They are all good and right to pursue in proper measure and in the proper way. But that’s the problem. The proper measure and proper way are now determined by man alone, either as an individual or as society. But in them there is no openness or reference to God, to the other-worldly, or transcendent. Take, for example, the laudable and rightful concern for social justice. It is pursued with zeal and even with a vengeance but it remains devoid of any reference to God as the source of human equality and dignity. It’s as if humanity has become its own god because of the progress and development human beings have achieved. In technology and science, we are more and more reaching the point when the decision is taken to do things simply because we can do them, but without asking the question “should we do them? Is it morally right to do them? Is it for man’s true good and lasting benefit?” Even less do we ask the question, “is it God’s will that we do them?”

The truth is that the human conscience and the human project cannot attain their full potential without God. God is our earth and our sun, our wind and our rain. We are planted in God, and only in and through and with God can each person and the human race as a whole attain the fulfilment of its deepest yearnings. To contrive a permanent man-made eclipse of the sun who is God, be it as an individual or as a society, we become like the earth without the sun: dark, ice-cold and an infertile and eventually lifeless waste. To exclude God from our personal everyday lives dulls our conscience and weakens our awareness of the moral, spiritual and religious dimensions of human life and activity. It is no wonder, then, that when a Catholic Christian who has been hoodwinked by the temptation to live without God does turn for some reason to faith and worship, to the teaching of Christ and the Church, he finds it largely out of sync with the modern scientific and humanitarian outlook. He experiences a disconnect, and sadly, more often than not, the tension between the values of his faith and the values of the world is resolved in favour of the easier option, the world. The more that happens, the more the voice of the Church and even of Christ, is like a cry in the wilderness. No-one is there and no-one hears it, never mind listens to it. And when such a Catholic does for some occasion come to Mass, he doesn’t know what to say, how to pray, whether to stand or to sit, or what to make of the mumbo jumbo he perceives going on in the sanctuary.

There are many reasons of many sorts for which the Catholic Church is fading in Western civilization, but one of the main reasons is the loss of the awareness of God, and therefore the loss of God’s outlook on the great dramas and challenges of our time. People only want to hear the Church when she rubber-stamps what they already think. They like the warm religious stories about Bethlehem, the prodigal son and the lost sheep. But they want to hear nothing of the Cross and of the absolute demands which Christ makes on us to prefer him to absolutely nothing and no-one else. A sign of the infiltration of a secular mentality in a Catholic is when he can only look on the Church as a human institution, judge it in terms of historical or scientific method and explain to himself its inner workings purely in terms of politics. For such a person, the Church is no longer the Bride of Christ, the Mystical Body of the Lord. It has no soul or transcendent mission. The Church is cut down to size to fit into the illusory and self-proclaimed broad- and open-mindedness of secular ideology. If that is so, then the person in question is suffering a serious crisis of faith, if he has not in fact lost it. And that gives no satisfaction to anyone, least of all Christ and his Church.

This is why mission Sunday is so important. It is heartening and inspiring to hear the stories and anecdotes of missionary work and adventures, and it does a great deal of good, too. But more radically, mission Sunday is about challenging ourselves to revive our awareness of the presence and action of Jesus Christ in our own personal lives and in present-day history. It is about awakening not just our conscience but our consciousness, our lived awareness, of Christ as the principal and exclusive source and purpose of our lives and of the destiny of humanity.

Because the human-centred mentality of our current society seeps into every facet of our lives, a Christ-centred revolution demands a great deal of us. To choose Christ in the world, to live for Christ as the Head of the Mystical Body, to witness to his crucified and risen love in our families, workplaces and other personal and social circumstances, requires of us a clear, considered, suffered, prayed-over, grace-assisted, deliberate and determined decision of the will: “Lord Jesus, you have chosen me, so I now choose You in return. I choose to live for You. I choose to embrace all that You teach, ask and command of me. I will arrange my life around You. I will let go of all that impedes my coming to You and Your entrance into my deepest heart and soul. I choose to be Yours. I will suffer for You as I love You. I will conform my life to Your dispositions for me. I will love Your Bride the Church. I will live in her as my Mother as the free and secure and expansive space in which to breathe your Spirit of Truth, your Sacraments of Grace. I will come to Her to be fed by You, to be strengthened and comforted by You. I will love all in You, my family, my friends and my enemies. I will love and serve You in them. As I live for You, and suffer for You because I love You, so I will die for You. I will die to my sin and to all that leads me to sin. My last breath will be Yours as You gave me my first breath. For who or what am I without You? Whence do I come and whither do I go if not to You?”

You hear people speak of being body-conscious, or money-conscious or career-conscious. Mission Sunday is certainly about being mission-conscious, but we will only ever be mission-conscious if we are first clearly and deeply and pervasively Christ-conscious. Think of St. Paul. It is hard to consider anyone who was more of a missionary than he. But where did he get the strength and endurance for his mission? From knowing that Christ lived in him. The only way we can go out of ourselves truly for the sake of others is if we consciously let Christ come into us, repeatedly, with the daily effort of asking him to come in through the door of our hearts, minds and souls. And the thing is that this is not some far-fetched miracle beyond our ken. This is the meaning of our baptism. Christ is already within us, but, if I can put it this way, we so often have not yet let him into us, we have not yet fully engaged with him. It’s like someone being present with you in the same room: you know they are there, but you neither look at nor talk to them, never mind begin a relationship with them. Christ has not come to us in baptism to remain as a stranger or a statue or a piece of furniture in our souls. He has come to love us, to fill and fulfil us with himself. He has come to have a life in union with us far superior to married life itself. But we must engage with him, not just look askance at him from time to time. St. Patrick was steeped in Christ-consciousness as we learn from his breastplate: “Christ be beside me, before me, behind me ….”

Our society, and yes, our towns here where we live, our immediate and wider families need us to be Christ-conscious. Not to go shouting the odds about the Gospel; not to shove anything down anyone’s throat; not to start arguments or shouting matches. But simply to witness quietly yet powerfully the deep-seated, gracious and gentle majesty of his presence within us. We need to keep asking him for this grace, keep knocking at his door, keep seeking him out. He will respond. He will emerge from the quiet background of your spirit to the conscious foreground of your mind, heart, memory and imagination. Christ will make his presence felt through you to others. Without necessarily saying anything, you will be the means through which Christ communicates himself around you. What is that if not mission?

Today would normally have been the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The Spirit of God endowed Luke with the gift of making Christ present in the written word to countless generations of Christian men and women, saints and martyrs and ordinary people. Well, Christ desires that each of us be a living Gospel, imbued with his Spirit, our actions and attitudes and words being the living text through which the Spirit makes Christ accessible, readable, to others. That is every Christian’s mission. It is a mission of coming to be who you are in Christ before doing anything for him. I invite you, as I invite myself, today to make or renew your conscious and deliberate decision to choose Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, before and above all and everyone else. Be yourself a mission of Jesus.