One of the deeper issues underlying the tension between liberals and conservatives in the church is the tension between the kenotic and the triumphant Christ, the tension between the Christ who empties himself to become a slave and the Christ who rises triumph over death and rules the world.
I remember an incident at our Oblate General Chapter in Rome in 2004 that illustrates this. Our Chapter was concluding and we were trying to write a document for our missionaries around the world. There were people in the room from nearly 70 countries and so our experience was pretty varied. One of the delegates from Western Europe stood up and said something to this effect: “I live in a culture within which there is a lot of anti-clericalism and a lot of resentment towards the church, triggered not just by the sexual abuse crisis but by a history of ecclesial privilege. The only Christ I can preach right now is a kenotic one, a Christ who self-effaces, self-empties, who isn’t in anyone’s face!”
Before he could even sit down, a bevy of other voices, coming from different parts of the world objected, saying the opposite: “We need Christ to be more visible! What our culture needs right now is for us to proclaim the truth and the triumph of Christ! This is not a time to be timid and silent. We need to celebrate and proclaim our faith, proudly and publicly and with color!”
Both. Scripture gives us both versions of Christ.
On the one hand, scripture proclaims, at its center, the triumph of Christ. Thus our God, as Karl Barth famously used to say, doesn’t need to be apologized for, as if He were a product to be sold. The world does not judge God, God judges the world. God doesn’t need to be soft-soaked or even explained; He only needs to be proclaimed, announced.
Barth is a famous Protestant theologian, but that is also the Catholic tradition, with its long, proud history of educational and health institutions, of Corpus Christi processions, the Way of the Cross in public, ashes on our foreheads to begin lent, World Youth days, cathedrals and churches that dominate the landscape, and religious habits and clerical collars to publicly set aside certain persons. All of these speak of the triumphant Christ and suggest that the best response to the issues faced by the church in a secularized culture – indifference, belligerent challenge on sexual issues, anti-ecclesial and anti-clerical feelings fuelled by the sexual abuse crisis, opposition to religious discourse and religious symbols in the public arena, and anger at the church’s authority structure – is not that of disappearing into a self-effacing silence, privatizing even more our beliefs, apologizing for the fact that the world doesn’t understand us, and refusing ever to set our truth strongly in the face of the world.. The answer rather is precisely to publicly, proudly, and with color, celebrate and proclaim our faith.
But that’s half of it. On the other hand, scripture also tells us that God comes into this world as a helpless baby in the straw, unable to feed himself, and he grows into the Christ who refuses all earthly power, glory, trappings, religious dress, and anything else, other than a deep life of prayer and private integrity, that would set him apart from the rest of humanity. The God who is born into this world is also the God who self-effaces and empties himself to become a slave. This is not the God of earthquakes and storms but of gentle breezes, who is cognizant that atheism is always a parasite feeding off bad theism and ecclesial dis-privilege is invariably a reaction to ecclesial privilege. This is a God who, as Carlo Carretto once suggested, would prefer that we postpone all triumphant hand-clapping and victory speeches until much later in the Kingdom and who prefers, in the meantime, that we celebrate the Eucharist in cancer wards and mental hospitals and other places where the passion of Christ is actually being lived out.
Christ is both, a self-emptying and a triumphant God. We need to radiate both. There are times to shout our truth from the rooftops, to march publicly in processions, to proclaim a God who doesn’t need to be apologized for or soft-soaked and to celebrate publicly and colorfully our faith. And there are times too to be self-effacing, to not be in anyone’s face, to radiate a God who was born helpless, an anonymous baby in the straw, empty of all worldly recognition and power.
When should we do one and when the other? That answer has to be found in our own circumstances, in our own temperament, and in our own unique calling and vocation – and in sensible, practical judgement. There is a time to flash a religious symbol and there is a time not to.
But, in either season, it is always the time to be understanding and respectful of those who think differently than we do.