Twenty years ago, having decided it would be fun to hike across Alabama, I found myself, with the friend I’d cajoled into joining me, in a bus station in Montgomery waiting for the midnight ride to Selma.
On the bench across from us sat the stereotypical Southern church lady: plump, hair-sprayed and well-dressed with a gold cross prominently around her neck. When she suddenly clutched her purse closer and curled her lip up in abject disgust, I turned around to see what had gone wrong. A young mother had come in, dirt poor and on the run with two unwashed children under 5 in tow (with no shoes, only dirty-bottom socks) and a trash bag full of clothes.
Before I could even take it all in, my buddy was by her side making sure she had enough for a ticket. When she told him she already had one he dug a blanket from his pack and offered it. When she declined, he flat-out forced her to take his money.
I’ve been thinking about that scene, as Christmas has started its approach, as a good metaphor for the pre- and post-Christian eras. What was Jesus’ key contribution? Clearly, what he taught about God has been valuable to religious people for thousands of years. But did he teach us anything about ourselves that can resonate even with the nonreligious?
In the church of Jesus’ time the strict adherence to the Mosaic Law had become for many people the very fulfillment of religious life: “The more precisely I follow the rules and rituals, the better person I am.” Jesus told them they had managed to turn the whole thing on its head. Of course the rules matter — he confirmed he had no interest in changing a single letter of the law — but they are only the beginning, not the end.
The shrimpiest Little Leaguer knows and can follow the rules of baseball, but fans don’t pack Fenway out of love for the Infield Fly Rule or the precise height of the pitcher’s mound.
In New Testament times, many had been at it so vigorously for so long they had become egotistical hypocrites. Witness the perfect rule-adhering Pharisee who encountered a sloppy sinner and made what he thought was a terrific prayer (which I now call the Bus Station Lady Prayer): “Thank you, God, that I’m not like him!”
But in page after page, Jesus favors those who may not yet have mastered, or have lost their way from, the particulars of the law but are ready to open their hearts over those whose ritual observance is impeccable. As Barry McGuire sang about such people in “Eve of Destruction”: “Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”
Pope Francis’ just-released exhortation echoes the same chord. He takes a dim view of “customs not directly related to the heart of the Gospel” and a church tangled in a “web of obsessions and procedures.” Interestingly, talk like this has elicited howls from uber-orthodox latter-day Pharisees.
But it is impossible not to hear Jesus’ message: Going through the motions, getting caught up in the trappings on the surface, is not enough. For people to fulfill the law “written in their hearts” — that is, to live their highest purpose — going ever further for one’s neighbor is required. And yes, this leads outside the controllable boundaries of our comfort zones into frighteningly unpredictable difficulty.
Thomas Merton called this the “discovery that man cannot find himself in himself alone, but that he must find himself in and through others.” The Gospel puts it more ominously: Want to save your life? You must lose it.
It is certainly easier to celebrate, as Ricky Bobby in the film “Talledega Nights” puts it, the “eight pound, six ounce newborn infant Jesus … just a little infant, so cuddly.” A genuine “Christmas” gift, however, is not a wrapped box from the mall. It is ourselves, given completely, all comforts and excuses unwrapped. It is daunting and can feel like struggle.
Pope Francis wants the faithful “at the periphery, bruised and dirty.” Monk and writer Thomas a Kempis wrote that far from shying away, we should put this great challenge at the top of our Christmas list. Because if we want the victory we have to welcome the battle.
Paul Tormey lives in Orrington.