“The Gift & The Riddle” © by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in the day, at this end-time of both the calendar year and the liturgical cycle, Parish Missions took place in many local Catholic churches. Those of a certain age will remember the preachers coming to their parish to spend a week of evening talks and morning reflections that were intended to increase faith and bring people to repentance and the confessional. It was a cultural event that lasted well into the mid 20th century in which Catholics became familiar with the preaching bands of various religious communities, the Passionists, the Redemptorists, the Capuchins, the Paulists, etc.
The point of this preaching and why it was this time of year that increased the occurrences of the Parish Mission had to do with focusing on what was referred to as the Final Things, namely Redemption and Damnation, Heaven and Hell, Death and Resurrection, Sin and Punishment. Name your favorite topic to stir the heart and conscience, to feel the guilt and the discomfort. As the songwriter wrote, “Those were the days, my friend.”
These days it is still the end of the calendar year and the liturgical cycle. We are still inclined to consider and reflect upon those realities of our physical and spiritual life that draw us ultimately to some pretty fundamental questions, in short, The Final Things. This Sunday’s Readings do us the favor of keeping right on the mark.
In particular, the Gospel tells us the familiar story of Jesus observing the generosity of the poor widow. As she drops her coins into the temple treasury he points out to his disciples, “She has put in everything she possessed from the little she had – all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)
As I think about this woman who gives from her substance this question comes to mind, “What motivates a person to do such a thing?” How is it possible for someone to decide that the physical means of keeping life going are expendable? What occurs to me is that such a person must have a deep-seated and entirely compelling notion of being gifted. It has to do with a sense of giftedness whenever a person, for example this widow, lives in this way. And giftedness, or givenness, is this power behind such a decision. Because such a person must surely also have the gift of hope that more will be given.
A sense of givenness reflects the understanding that just when we appreciate the gifts in one’s life we open our minds and hearts to even more. There is an abundance that is revealed when the openness to the gifts of one’s life is truly open and not “grabby” in the sense of I will keep all that is given me. The former revelation, at its best, leads us to questions of worthiness, gratitude, urgency to respond. Of course, not all of us live by such a sense of being given and responding in kind. But even the glimmer of our giving back bring us closer to the One who is the source of all gifts. This glimmer is accompanied by the sense of the Final Thing that is called eternity, as in forever life.
One ought not ask these questions about the abundance of givenness, though, without also asking about what is not given, what is a deprivation, what is instead the tragedy of evil. This is the question not of hope and openness. Rather, it is the question of, “Why, O God, is there all this evil?” This is the balancing question, the recognition that there are also those among us who have been cheated of the gifts of abundant life, of long life, of fulfilled life. Who are we to blame for this evil – the Gift Giver? the One who Hopes? the source of unmerited grace?
Paul Tillich, the pastor, theologian and committed socialist, who uprooted his family and career in the face of the evil of Nazi Germany asks this question in his sermon, “The Riddle of Inequality” (The Eternal Now). We must not avoid this side of life which reminds us often enough that as much is given, so much may be also taken away. And too often this is not a balance but rather some people have too large a share in what has been taken away.
The unsolvable Riddle, according to Tillich, is how to approach the giving and the taking away, which occurs seemingly, willy-nilly. The appearing of both abundant givenness with its partner of hope and tragic deprivation with its partner of despair is a puzzle.
While it is no answer, Tillich offers this thought:
“It is the greatness and heart of the Christin message that God, as manifest in the Christ on the Cross, totally participates in the dying of a child, in the condemnation of the criminal, in the disintegration of a mind, in starvation and famine, and even in the human rejection of Christ. There is no human condition into which the divine presence does not penetrate. The riddle of inequality cannot be solved on the level of our separation from each other. It is eternally solved through the divine participation in the life of all of us and every being. The certainty of divine participation gives us the courage to endure the riddle of inequality, although our finite minds cannot solve it.” (p.46)
As it turns out, both the gift and the tragedy participate in a faith which says, “Remember, this life is not the life to come.” And the life to come is very definitely one that is a shared participation in the life of the divine Giver. We do not solve the riddle as riddle, but we are invited to acknowledge that the Final Thing at work here, namely eternal life is truly New Life. Nothing we do in this earthly life even sparks a glimmer into such life. After all, we live by faith, not by sight.
With Jesus, we observe the widow, too, and maybe we live a life of recognition of givenness. Maybe we, too, have hope that what we give away will be returned in multiples. Or maybe we experience tragedy, deprivation, disregard and disrespect. The Christ message for both, remember, is that he, too, shared in abundance and in tragedy. What we make of either or both experiences – and Christ, as we know, is well versed in both – benefits from our connectedness with each other through Christ’s message of love – a love that is Gift to each other and a promise of New Life in face of the Riddle.
A Prayer by Diane Ackerman, “Prayers for a Thousand Years”
In the name of the daybreak and the eyelids of morning,
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it,
and the cloud veils drawn over it,
and the uttermost night,
and the male and the female,
and the seeds bursting with seed,
and the crowning seasons, of the firefly and the apple.
I will honor all life – wherever and in whatever form it may
dwell – on Earth my home,
and in the mansion of the stars.
May it be so – Amen!