O God, who raised up Saint John the Baptist
to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord,
give your people, we pray,
the grace of spiritual joys
and direct the hearts of all the faithful
into the way of salvation and peace.
~ Collect for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
OK, I get that the foam finger is fun. And I can sort of understand the kind of jonesing for F4F swag that some of my Patheos Catholic Channel neighbors have expressed. I’ve got nothing against merch, usually, and the kitschier the better. But the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, coming as it does on this first Sunday of the Fortnight For Freedom (yes, Max Lindenman, yet one more non-ordinary Sunday this summer!), has me thinking about fingerpointing, foam and otherwise.
I’ve already expressed my discomfort with the tendency, among a good number of Catholics including some bishops, to make this two weeks of reflection on religious freedom a strictly political exercise, a kind of Stick-It-To-The-Man-In-The-White-House tent revival. The foam finger has a little too much in common with those Styrofoam boaters they give out at party conventions for my liking. Foam fingers, as a rule, are found in stadiums and arenas, where their message is OUR TEAM RULES, YOURS DROOLS. We’re Number #1, and you’re not. But who’s our team? Who’s #1? Who wins, who loses in this match?
If you think I’m exaggerating the competitive, partisan (in the sense of choosing one side over another) nature of the F4F foam finger Cardinal Dolan sported, you might want to think about the comment most often made on Catholic websites that featured the photo: “Wrong finger, Your Eminence.” (I don’t think anybody was suggesting it should have been the pinkie.)
Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori, Chair of the Bishops Committee on Religious Freedom, tend to use rhetoric that reminds me, sadly, of entirely too many Stephen Sondheim song lyrics (the Jets and the Sharks insisting “Well, they began it / No, they began it,” the besieged fairytale characters from Into the Woods chorusing “It was your fault / No, it was your fault”). “We didn’t pick the time. We didn’t pick the place,” Cardinal Dolan says, and you expect him to add, ” . . . for the Rumble.” Responding to charges that F4F is a dump-Obama campaign, Archbishop Lori blames Mr Obama for bringing it.
“It” of course, is the HHS mandate concerning contraceptive services, but if the Fortnight For Freedom is limited to marshaling support for voting the President out of office and therefore, supposedly, making the HHS mandate disappear, Catholics and others concerned with religious freedom in the United States and around the world will be sorely disappointed. No matter who’s in the White House, no matter what health care laws Planned Parenthood lobbies for, we will still be living in a world where true human freedom to live in the fullness of the divine image, to raise families in peace, to do good work for a just wage, to cooperate in building the reign of God will be seriously threatened—for lack of a clear vision of that freedom.
Today’s readings and prayers, along with some of the most familiar artistic images of John the Baptist, are pointed (pun intended) reminders of what we are called to be as Church and as individual Catholics. John, today’s offertory prayer says, did not just foretell the coming of Christ, as did the prophets of old, but “pointed him out when he came.” Paintings by Leonardo and Raphael, among others, depict John pointing the finger, either heavenward toward God or toward the Lamb. In everything he did, John practiced the rule of Christian humility: “I must decrease, that He may increase.” Even at his birth (one of only three Nativity feasts the Church celebrates), John turned the eyes and thoughts of the world beyond himself. “What, then, will this child be?” the people of the hill country ask themselves in today’s Gospel. For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. And it wasn’t wearing a foam finger.
Let’s not get so caught up in the GO TEAM GO spirit of the F4F fight that we end up pointing the finger at everyone but the One who saves us, or become so prideful that we think this is All About Us. Disciples of Zen Buddhism are always being reminded not to confuse the moon and the finger pointing at the moon, and we can fall into that trap ourselves if we think this is about the Church (supply Charlie Sheen voice here) WINNING.
We are called to do more than win one political battle in one country. We are called to live in such a way that the world sees the Light shining through us and is drawn to Him—not just for the rest of the fortnight, not just through the November elections, but for as long as time endures. Today’s First Reading, from Isaiah, gives us the charge:
It is too little, the Lord says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
~ Isaiah 49:5-6
A light to the nations. Lumen Gentium. As Church, we are John, we are the finger pointing at the Son. May God help us get the point.