Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: America, Suffering, and the Mystery of Evil

by Father Richard G. Cipolla 

From the second chapter of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinithians.

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of man but in the power of God”.

The contrast is quite stark.  There is the beautifully tanned news anchor with the most beautifully coiffed white hair to be seen anywhere, opening the mainstream news with his solemn face.  There are various faces:  the smiley face that introduces some heartwarming story, the knowing face that introduces a story that only a non-thinking person would believe, the serious yet knowing face that introduces a story that only he really understands and pity the poor slobs who do not understand what this is really about.  But Thursday evening there was the solemn face in Dallas. The solemnity is enhanced by the anchor’s being there at the scene, as if the first class flight to this place had anything to do with the reality of his being there at all.  But the alternative is no better.  The strident so called conservative who thinks that shouting is proof of the truth of what he or she is saying, the women in lacquered hair so stiff that a hurricane would not bend this cement. 

But back to the contrast.  The tanned, oh so cool anchor—why are they called anchors, because they belong at the bottom of the sea?—What a week!  What a week indeed.  The killing in Baton Rouge, sigh, to be expected, the South is a different place.  But the killing in Minnesota, so different a scene up there, no whiff of the Southern thing, too cold, too Midwestern.  But once again, and this time with a video that captured what is called the incident but in fact was a killing: someone died because of what happened, he was not gathered, he did not go quietly into that good night, he was shot four times and died in sight of his girlfriend and her daughter, and she captured that moment and posted it, the moment was posted, on that invention that is the mark of our age, the invention of a skinny guy who dropped out of Harvard, and the world saw on Facebook what happened.  But they saw what happened in the context of a medium that is the apotheosis of the self-reference that marks our time, where any sense of objectivity is at best blurred and at worst blotted out by the medium of chatter. The medium is the message.  But even Facebook cannot mitigate, distort, deny the reality of a man’s death.

But why was the anchor in Dallas, not so far from Baton Rouge, but very far from Minnesota?  Because of the killing, again killing, of the killing of five police officers assigned to keep the peace at a rally to protest the killings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota.  Dallas, in many ways the quintessential American city, the venue, as they now say, of another horrific killing many years ago of a President of the United States.  Too much, everyone says, with that solemn face.  And yet, between the solemnity, there were ads, there were advertisements. Let us pause for a few minutes, take off the solemn face, and talk about drugs.  Oh, no, not heroin or cocaine or marijuana. But drugs that can enhance one’s life in ways that one cannot even dream about. Drugs that can help cure diseases whose names very few have ever heard of, with the disclaimer, said very rapidly, that taking this drug may cause headache, nausea or death.  But in these breaks also drugs that can enhance one’s sexual prowess and happiness even at an age when great minds of the past thought that one’s main pursuits at a certain age should be more philosophical.  What kind of a culture puts advertisements between matters of life and death, advertisements for drugs and worse between scenes of inexpressible grief and sorrow? 

Then the news returns and the solemn anchor is speaking to a father of one of the dead policemen.  And this guy has no tan, he is not sleek, he is not cool, but he is talking about his son in a way that dares to border on reality whose foundation is love, without a shred of sentimentality(his son was shot only the day before), exhorting, understanding, and with an absence of any recrimination and hatred, a regular guy, who loved his son deeply, someone you would never notice in the supermarket or in the bank or anywhere., but someone who recognized deep inside himself the tears of things, the valley of tears, and somehow all this as a real, oh, so real part of what human existence is all about.

The President is said to have said after the killings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota:  this is an American issue.  And he is right—at least on one level.  But he thinks that it is just the result of race prejudice that is somehow still ingrained in the American scene. On this he is right in a real sense. Of course there is racial prejudice. But he also thinks that somehow we will outgrow it as we advance to the golden age of toleration for all things.  But he does not understand that what this is-- is poison.  This is the result of the poison of the terrible sin of slavery in this country’s past that cannot be washed away by any natural means, certainly not by some liberal notion of finally putting it to rest by getting beyond it.  The poison of sin in any form is deep and its noxious effects are all pervading.  But this is why all of this that is happening is a mystery to the anchor and to the president and to the editorial page of the New York Times, and, mirabile dictu, to many of our bishops.  Because they all live in a world in which sin is not really present, in which the power of sin is not real, in which the power of sin to kill is not admitted.  They cannot admit that there are good black people and bad black people, good white people and bad white people, good cops and bad cops, and everything in between and that the answer is not to demonize anyone or any group in the name of a cause but rather to face together the reality of the human condition and ask whether there is any way out of this cycle of sin and death.

And these people have never read and accepted the terrible book of Job, terrible in its refusal to back down before the inscrutability of God.  Job is a good man and he suffers.  That is it. His friends who try to explain his situation are wrong. There is no explanation that can explain or mitigate the situation. The arguments of Job’s friends are logical and persuasive,--you must have done something wrong in the eyes of God-- but they are absolutely wrong, for they refuse to accept that they cannot figure out the ways of God, especially within the context of suffering and evil. 

And the same is true in our own time. But in a different way. We always assume that human tragedy of any sort can be ultimately explained by man’s refusal to let the other "be", by man’s refusal to accept the other as he is without any moral judgment, to adopt the new golden rule:  let others be as they want to be and be happy about yourself and about them.  But closer to home:  how can the contemporary Catholic confront Baton Rouge or Minnesota or Dallas or 9/11 or Newtown?  Or how can they confront physical disasters that cause suffering and death? They are powerless before human tragedy because they have forgotten what is the heart of the matter, what is the heart of the Mass, which is the terrible sacrifice of the God in the flesh to his Father.  They are the product of years of the reduction of the Mass as a dialogue between Father as Sister Mary Principal and the smiling flock, the priest who lulls them to sleep by avoiding the terrible challenges of the very gospel readings that he reads at Mass, those readings, those words of Christ that tear apart any attempt to tame the terrible force of sin and death. Father helps them to forget, to forget Jesus’ terrible shudder at the tomb of Lazarus, and instead indulges in sanctimonious and sentimental feelings, slipping into the role of the sleek anchor:   why, oh why, why?.. there is no explanation for this, for this carnage, for this hatred, for this death, all we can do is to somehow hug each other and move on.  All this because they have forgotten the terrible reality of the Cross of Jesus Christ, the God-man who suffered infinitely and who died a terrible death on that Cross precisely because of the human condition that is held in bondage by the power of sin that leads to death.

It is there that we encounter the heart of human reality; there is the deepest heart of the darkness of the human condition, and it is the Cross that is the only answer to the tragedy of the human condition, but it is an answer that the world has always and will always reject, because the mystery of evil and the mystery of love cannot be separated, and it is only love, even and especially within the darkness of evil, that can make sense of the human condition, from the garden of Eden to Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas.  And it is not love in general, it is not exhortations from well meaning people to love each other, it is not those in the Church who would deny the real tragedy of the human condition in the name of mercy:  it is only and singularly the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ that is the answer to the ultimate mystery of evil and death.  But this is not an easy answer.  It is does not give us a quick high.   But it gives us an access to a depth that is infinite and yet accessible.  And it is precisely here at this Mass that the ultimate mystery of the sacrifice and death of God and the offering of the Son to the Father within the inexpressible beauty of this Mass makes sense and touches us in places that we never even knew existed within us. 

For Catholics the first real step in the recovery of the meaning of the Mass took place just a few days ago when Cardinal Sarah gave a major address at a conference in England and exhorted all priests to return to the traditional posture at Mass, that is, facing liturgical East with and for his people.  He also spoke about the necessity of receiving Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue. He also spoke about the necessity for the Traditional Mass to be much more widespread in the Church.  Cardinal Sarah is the Prefect, the Head, of the Congregation for Divine Worship.  And he did not offer his remarks as mere suggestions but rather gave a timetable for catechesis during the summer and then the implementation of the eastward position beginning the First Sunday in Advent.  ....  I know I will be accused of bringing a sermon about the recent tragedies in this country and our problems down to speaking about the liturgy.  But I insist that they are linked in the deepest possible way.  Because to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to encounter the terrible reality of the human situation within the only answer to that situation:  which is the answer of the Cross. May we all have the courage to participate in this mystery and may that mystery encompass and change our lives so that we may be living examples of the great and infinite Yes of God in Jesus Christ.