About two weeks ago the US Congress passed a law that codifies the modern understanding of marriage as being between any two people that want to declare themselves married. In the Congress there are about 140 publicly declared Catholic Congressman. Of those 140, only about 40 voted against this bill. So, something less than one-third of Catholics in that group were willing to defend their faith when it might cause them to be called radicals. The Catholic teaching on marriage is that it is the lifelong partnership between a man and a woman faithful to each other and open to life until death do them part. It is the sad reality these days that the Catholic definition of marriage is considered radical. Apparently it is too radical for two thirds of the Catholic Congressmen to defend.
Our faith is radical. If we are going to be truly Catholic Catholics, then we need to embrace the radical nature of what we claim. Today’s gospel includes one of the most radical claims that we make as Christians: that the eternal creator God humbled himself to come into his own creation and share our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, born in the manger in Bethlehem and then raised in the remote village of Nazareth. No other religion claims that God became fully human and dwelt among us.
We have the period of Advent to prepare us to receive this radical truth that God loves us so much that he became like us, so that we could love him unafraid. Who is afraid of a little baby?
There is another period of preparation on the church calendar, and we call that period Lent. Lent is a time to prepare us for the other radical claim that we make as Christians: that God, who became man for us so that we could love him, allowed himself to be sacrificed on the Cross for our sins so that we could have a chance to return to the state of life for which we were made. We were made for love. We were made by love itself. We were made for communion with love. We were made for heaven. And, through the Cross, we have a chance to go to that place for which we were made. So the joy of Christmas cannot be fully understood apart from the deeper joy of Good Friday and the Easter resurrection.
As Catholic Christians, we claim that God became man out of love for us, and then took on himself all of our sins and died for us because he loves us. As truly Catholic Catholics, we are challenged to embrace these radical claims of our faith. And we are challenged to fight against the constant efforts of the forces of evil to dilute our faith, to soften it and make it more conventional. Our God, because he loved us, came down to dwell among us. But he remains God, completely other. And we remain his creation, made by him and made for him. As radical Christians, we need to embrace that reality. He loves us, but he is not like us. He is greater than us, and we should follow and obey him.
In today’s epistle, St. Paul describes himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. How many of those 140 Catholic Congressmen described themselves as slaves, especially slaves of Jesus Christ? Maybe 40. St. Paul is the great Apostle to the Gentiles, explaining that it is not necessary to become a good Jew in order to become a good Christian. That was a radical claim when he made it in the first decades after the death of Christ. But he persisted in holding on to that truth, and it was confirmed in the first ecumenical Council of the church in Jerusalem just a few years after the death of Jesus.
Our challenge as Advent wraps up and the Christmas season truly begins is to embrace the radicalism of our faith. The English word “radical” has for its root the Latin word for root. We need to strip away what has grown up around the root and return to that pure faith of the apostles. That pure faith starts with faith that God became man in the Incarnation and was born at Christmas. That pure faith continues with the claim that the God-man accepted death on the Cross to save us from sin and eternal death.
If we are willing to own and to defend these two root or radical claims of our faith, then we should have no problem with the secondary, or derivative, claims like the true definition of marriage. And in just a few minutes, we are going to make another radical claim of our faith: the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Polling suggests that about the same percentage of Catholics believe in the Real Presence as Congressmen defend the sanctity of Holy Matrimony. We must all commit ourselves to being faithful radicals, willing to endure confrontation and even persecution in defense of the truth of our faith.