Pointing the Finger

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), John the Baptist, oil on panel, c1513/16, The Louvre, Paris

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.

While we stand around pointing fingers on what is an important but not the all-important issue, are we missing another, more urgent mandate—the mandate we have as Church to bring the world to God?

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) (1483-1520), St John the Baptist, oil on canvas, c1516, The Louvre, Paris

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.

Mathias Grunewald (c1480-1528), John the Baptist, oil on panel (part of the Isenheim Altarpiece), 1510-1515, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

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.

  • Jenkins Minor

    A bit off topic, Beloved Friend, but I admit that sometimes I go to your blog as much as anything to enjoy the pictures. In that spirit/Spirit– I really, really like that last one. Please, might you caption them?

    • joannemcportland

      Thank you, Jminor! I meant to do that. If only so readers did not think there were images of John the Baptist produced by two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

      • Jenkins Minor

        Also relevant, albeit from Canterbury:
        Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance; Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
        – Collect for the Nativity of John Baptist (Anglican Communion)

  • ace

    I want a line item issue ballot rather than the 2 apparent candidates this November. (And, for those who either need a reminder or don’t know, you only have to vote on one candidate or issue for your ballot to be valid.) Where’s our contemporary Harry, Ike, John, LBJ, or even Gerry when we need them?

    Contraceptive care may be important, but how is it “essential” when compared to even routine vision care? Does pregnancy prevent you from driving, operating machinery, or viewing a computer screen? Is contraceptive care “essential” when compared to dental care for diabetics? Is it “essential” when compared to chronic home health care for individuals with severe disabilities who are certified eligible for nursing home care (but regular health insurance doesn’t routinely cover)?

    When it comes to abortion, who holds the condemned baby’s hand during the procedure? Vagina = a woman’s DNA (from her mom & dad). Fetus = a woman’s DNA (from her mom & dad) + a man’s DNA (from his mom & dad). I think it’s the dark ages when people’s science is dependent on their lifestyle choices. Before the Nazi began the extermination of Jews, disabled people were the 1st systematically exterminated by physicians in Germany in gas chambers set up in the institutions (read hospitals) where they went for treatment. And yes, it’s horribly tragic when a woman is raped or sexually assaulted, but frequently, the criminal is left off the hook and may even be enabled by getting away with it (this has been the hardest piece of the whole debate for me to come to terms with)…

    “Wisdom comes by disillusionment” – George Santayana

    “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end” Sonny in the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

    I think that God challenges us to trust that he’s in charge of the big picture, of how the election will affect future appointments to the Supremes, and where his people who are hurting will find employment and housing and have their other needs met. Lord have mercy!

  • Melody

    Good one, Joanne. I think this is the best commentary I have read yet on the F4F.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    “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.”

    That may be true, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Perhaps you don’t see the severity of what is being placed on the Catholic Church, and by extension all religions. If government gets away with this now – now that secularism is being enforced with such severity and society is gravitatiing more and more toward atheism – then religious freedom will be a thing of the past. I don’t always agree with Mark Shea but his recent blog (I don’t have the link handy, but it’s from yesterday or today) about Chesterton being seventeen years early is right on. Actually if this anti religious mandate goes through, the seventeen years from today might be a perfect prediction.

    • joannemcportland

      Manny, I don’t think we should do nothing. And I do think the mandate is unconstitutional, and should be pursued that way, through the courts, as many have done. I also believe that Catholics should be—no, MUST be—involved as individuals in the political process. But if the Church wants to claim violation of US law in the administration’s actions, she cannot then turn around and violate US law (by outright institutional politicking) in return. That’s what happens when the Church as institution lobbies for one party or candidate over another by name. Also, involvement in the politics of this world is important, but not important enough to lose sight of the larger goal, which has to do with winning souls, not elections.

      • http://jscafenette.com Manny

        Well it’s a careful balance. I think the Church has not crossed the line into politicing. Remember it was Obama who for his political gain shoved this mandate down on us in an election year. And it was Obama who directly lied to Card. Dolan. The timing was beyond our control. If you ask me, the Catholic Church has historically been the least political of all religions in this country.

      • Jo Ann

        Now see, my take on this has always been that the bishops have fallen all over themselves in the past few decades to keep from appearing that they are leaning toward one particular party over another. Often I felt that it was a wimpy move. Kind of like a physician telling a very sick and almost non-coherent patient what their treatment options are rather than prescribe the best one under the circumstances. Why do those with the expertise we are looking for, deny us their recommendation? Lately, I have come to realize that it is because we Catholics are also not in one particular party. Frankly, I think the Bishops are still mourning the days when the democrat party was the party of the underdog Catholic immigrant. Too bad that party sold us out to the cheerleaders of Roe vs. Wade. Now we all have to sell our soul in one way or another. If we believe in social justice and look to the government to change structures that keep people poor, we sell out the millions of unborn children whose lives were terminated unjustly. If we work for life and feel that private institutions do a better job than the government at helping the sick, the poor, and the vulnerable, we sell out those who are executed by the state and those who have no safety net because the help they need is more than any one charitable organization can give them. Still, I have always thought that the Bishops as a whole wish that they could persuade the government to do our job — the one Jesus gave us of taking care of our neighbor. After all, it is easier to collect taxes than to fundraise. It may be easier, but it doesn’t help the rest of us become better people by living out our vocation as Christians.