The first Sunday of Advent’s Gospel reading (December 2, 2018) tells us that the end of time will be so dramatic that some people will die of fright in anticipation of Christ’s return (Luke 21:26). “For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth” (Luke 21:35). Assault, which is associated with a physical attack, is a strong word, is it not?
On that day, all Catholics, whether conservative, liberal, traditional or progressive, will stand together before the Son of Man to be judged (Luke 21:36) and all of the labels we give ourselves in this life will be meaningless. Then we shall be reminded, “‘Vanity of vanities… . All things are vanity!’” (Eccl 1:2).
Christ will pierce through the vain labels we have adopted for ourselves and peer into our hearts. Then the sheep will be placed on his right side and the goats will be placed on his left side (Matthew 25:31-46). He will tell those on his right “‘Well done, my good and faithful servant’” (Matthew 25:23). And he will say to those on his left “‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:23). The labels of this life will be weighed only with regard to how they may have caused us to make peace within the Body of Christ or to divide it.
I do not believe all distinctions or differences are bad. In fact, it is diversity which makes the universal Church so beautiful. Neither am I saying that the truths of the faith should be ignored or that we should accept heresies. However, too much distinction within the Church results in divisions and the failure to be at peace with the paradoxes of Christianity lead some of us to stake out rigid positions within the Church.
Why are we so quick to label ourselves?
We want to fit in. People are social creatures. We want to be part of a group because it gives us comfort.
We want a shortcut. Each day we are faced with too many decisions. What to wear, what to eat, which Catholic blog to read. People are tired of making decisions, so when an issue arises that requires us to think, we might prefer to fall back on the conservative view or the liberal view or whichever view we associate ourselves with to save brain power.
We are afraid. People are afraid of making mistakes. We live in a time when public shaming and character assassination, especially on social media, is a sport. People are afraid of the PC police. We play it safe by repeating what other people say and if we are challenged then we refer our opponents to our group rather than developing our own understanding of the issues and arguments to defend our beliefs.
What happens when we label ourselves?
We enslave ourselves. When God gave Adam the authority to name the animals, he also gave him dominion over them. Naming something implies ownership by the one who names. When you adopt a label for yourself, you are giving someone (a person or group) or something (an ideology) a kind of dominion over you. You are enslaving yourself, a child of God and an heir to his Kingdom, for no good reason.
We separate from the Body of Christ. The whole purpose of this life is to love and serve God and neighbor so we can spend eternity in the Beatific Vision. We do that by becoming more like Christ in our Church community. Christ isn’t a conservative on marriage and a liberal on taking care of the poor. He transcends labels, so if we are becoming more like Christ, then it should be harder for us to label ourselves. If we too easily identify ourselves as liberals or conservatives or anything in between, then maybe we need to consider whether we are fulfilling our role within the Body of Christ or simply interfering with its proper function.
We cheapen the mystery of self. God is a person, three persons in fact, and each person is a deep and beautiful mystery. Who you are as a person is also a deep and beautiful mystery. By attaching unnecessary labels to ourselves we cheapen and trivialize the mystery of who we are, what Thomas Merton called the “transcendent self” or “true self.”
Every Advent, we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as a helpless infant born of a Virgin and as the risen and almighty Judge of the world. We are a Church of sinners and saints. We always have been. This is our faith. This is a paradox.
My challenge to you this Advent is to remember that we are all part of one Body. Stop labeling yourself. Conform yourself to Christ. Embrace the mystery of your true self. Don’t enslave yourself to vanities. Be comfortable with the Catholicity (Universality) of the Church. Be at peace with the paradoxes of the faith. Use words like Catholic, Christian and, perhaps if you are in a playful mood, priest, prophet, or king to describe yourself and drop all of the vain labels. They are not the least bit worthy of describing who God knows you to be.
On the last day, you and I will stand side by side and we will either be judged a sheep or a goat. We will either be recognized as a faithful servant or as an evildoer. On that day I hope we can share a peaceful glance as we enter into the Beatific Vision to be in his presence for eternity.
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