In Dialogue With Father Dwight Longnecker on the Vatican Crèche

 

In fact, the good works in the nativity scene swamp the Nativity–over ride the Nativity and make it take second place. The good works are literally front and center. The nativity of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary is in the background.

Again, no. The good works are spread out; the figures we’re supposed to be revering are bunched in the middle. The eye is drawn to them. The ugly stonemasonry and that one disembodied putto head behind Saint Joseph are in the background. I don’t think you’re reading the work of art properly.

The biggest temptation in Christianity today is to make the church relevant by focusing on good works rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We quietly forget the message of a lost and sinful humanity alienated from God and in need of redemption, and we substitute a religion of helping people, and making the world a better place.

Is that really the BIGGEST temptation you can think of, Father? And why do you presume that good works are performed for the purpose of “making the Church relevant?” When I go downtown to see Molly and my friends at The Friendship Room, I don’t see them putting on a show to make the Church relevant. I see them helping people because people are Christ to them, and they want to serve Christ. The people putting on a show for relevancy’s sake aren’t the ones who perform the Works of Mercy. They’re hip youth pastors trying to sound cool,  prosperity preachers claiming that Christ will make you materially rich and healthy in this life, groveling cowards who publicly laud a secular political candidate as if that candidate were going to immanentize the eschaton and bring about a Christian paradise on earth. People who perform the works of mercy aren’t trying to be popular. The works of mercy are never popular. Placing your own personal comfort above your neighbor’s needs, now, that’s popular. People will flood your church and make you rich if you tell them that that’s okay. But if you insist upon the works of mercy, you’re not going to be a popular person.

The Works of Mercy aren’t some new, offbeat private devotion invented by sandal-wearing hippies to make the Church relevant. They’re a genuine, non-optional part of church teaching and have been from the beginning. They’re how we meet Christ. This is why, though I don’t particularly like the Vatican’s creche this year, I appreciate how the people performing the Works of Mercy are arranged around the Christ Child, drawing our eye in a circle that ends with Him. That’s how it works in real life as well. We seek Christ, and find Him hidden in the least of His brothers.

Churchmen substitute a religion of works for a religion of grace because they don’t believe any longer in the need for redemption and salvation, and they don’t believe in the need for repentance, redemption and salvation because they are universalists. They think everyone will go to heaven in the end.

What?

I don’t follow that at all.

If I’m truly a universalist who believes everyone is going to Heaven, why would I bother with that “neo-Pelagianism” of trying to earn Heaven through good works? Those are opposite errors. Pelagians think they can buy their way into Heaven by their actions. Universalists don’t think they have to bother to buy Heaven because everyone is going there. That doesn’t mean they don’t perform the works of mercy, of course; some very generous people are universalists. But to say they’re a form of Pelagianism is nonsense.

So follow the logic. If everyone is going to make it to heaven in the end, what’s the point of all that talk about sin, hell, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? None of that matters is everyone is going to heaven in the end.

And all that is left therefore of the Christian religion is to be kind, preach a sort of bland message that every cloud has a silver lining, look on the sunny side of life and let’s solve the problem of climate change if we can.

Father, why do you think that the works of mercy are bland? What’s all this about a silver lining?

You act like living the Gospel by performing the Works of Mercy is some kind of cheerful, easy way out.

The works of mercy are hard. They are deadly difficult. The works of mercy involve seeking the face of Christ in the face of the suffering, the vulnerable, the sick, the helpless. This isn’t something that looks nice on a Christmas card. Once you’ve dedicated yourself to the works of mercy, you may well never be comfortable again. Performing the works of mercy means holding the hand of a death row inmate while he sobs in terror. It means answering the phone at three o’clock in the morning to talk a terrified person out of suicide. It means providing refuge for abused women when you know their abusers might seek you out and retaliate against you. It means cutting your cloak in half to give to the naked beggar. It means moving in with lepers and catching leprosy yourself; ransoming captives and staying as a hostage in their place. When you choose to see Christ in the most vulnerable, Christ will throw up on you; He’ll smear you with dirt and blood; He’ll scream in pain and panic; He’ll traumatize you. But you must serve Him anyway, because this is the Gospel. This is what it is to be a Christian.

There is nothing universalist about Pelagianism or vice-versa. And there’s nothing of either of them to be found in the Works of Mercy. Nor is there blandness or “silver linings.”

That’s all well and good, and far be it from me to be a party pooper and be down on saving panda bears, but when are we going to recognize this false gospel for what it is, call it out, condemn it and remember the Christian faith and start preaching the need to repent of our sins and have faith in the incarnate Son of God who died to redeem the world?

Let’s do it right now. I invite all of my readers to repent with me this very night. We repent of having seen Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill or in prison, and not rushing to meet His need. We repent of every time we have failed to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. We repent of ridiculing the works of mercy as something wishy-washy and unimportant.  We beg pardon of the Inacarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, who died to redeem the world. We beg the saints who have given us such wondrous examples of charity to pray for us to the Lord our God. We firmly resolve, with the help of God’s grace apart from which we can do nothing, to serve Christ in whatever disguise He wears when He comes to us.

Amen.

(First image via Pixbay; second image via Wikimedia Commons) 

 

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