Yesterday I celebrated Sunday mass for the first time at St. Mary Mother of God in DC. It was a great day… with WAY too much to unpack in one blog post, but I’ll offer one reflection. It my first Sunday celebrating mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF)… that is, the mass as experienced before the Second Vatican Council. Donning the vestments, whispering the Latin prayers, inhabiting ageless silence, I was reminded of a line from Fellini’s Dolce Vita, when a church musician speaks of the “ancient voice that we’ve forgotten.” What follows are some thoughts integrating readings from both the EF and Ordinary Form (OF) masses I celebrated.
In this week’s OF Sunday readings, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “power is made perfect in weakness.” He’s referring to the experience of suffering under a constant “thorn in the flesh.” All of us have them; sometimes they are easily removed, sometimes these problems become constant life challenges… But Paul discovers what we are all called to: acceptance of our mortality. Be it a habit hard to break, or an annoying neighbor, or the ultimate thorn, death itself, Christians are called to live in the real world… to embrace their weak humanity and hand it all over to Jesus for resurrection grace.
In the EF readings, Paul speaks to the Romans of slavery to sin… which may free us from the rigors of justice, but gains us only pain and death… vs. slavery to justice, whose fruits are eternal life. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to propose that Paul’s words can also refer to the things we love/value. When we are immature, we want freedom from rules and constraints. We love the easy win, instant gratification. Over time, however, we find that these fruits quickly spoil in our hands. Hopefully, our taste develops such that we appreciate the fruits of hard work and self-sacrifice instead of easy gains and self-service. The more we love those quality fruits, the more happily we will enslave ourselves to their prerequisites, including justice. Power, happiness, true satisfaction is made perfect in weakness, self-gift, sacrifice.
With regards to practice, we can look at this lesson at a few levels, global, local and individual.
Globally, the “power is made perfect in weakness,” argument played itself out beautifully in the history of ancient Rome, the history of the Church. Rome was a great power, to be sure. The cry we all remember from Gladiator, “Roma victa!” (Victory for Rome!) is appealing. Who could fail to be impressed: in her might, Rome unified the entire Mediterranean world (and more) for nearly a thousand years. No one’s managed it since. But impressed by her own achievements, Rome changed over time. Victories once driven by commitment to philosophy, public service and divine worship became self-serving and self-referential. By the Imperial period (44BC – AD476), every Roman town had at its center a statue of Divine Rome. The city had become so self-referential that she deified herself! This is the Rome that ultimately fell. Her only currencies were power and earthly achievement, each only as strong as the mortal beings wielding them. But a new Rome would rise, Christian Rome whose motto would not be “Rome Victorious,” but “Rome crucified” because her builders recognized that “power is made perfect in weakness.”
Today, I’m aware that the Church observes the Memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions, martyred by another Empire, China, in 1815. Today, like Rome, China has become very self-impressed… and perhaps reasonably so, but can the achievements of atheistic communism – ironically now fused with capitalist consumerism – stand up to death? They can only last as long as coercive strength is applied to the human spirit… and that can’t last forever.
More locally, I look down 5th Street NW to the dome of the National Gallery, and across the rooftops to Judiciary Square. DC’s Classically inspired architecture strives to make her a new Rome. It’s worth noting that the Founders were huge fans of the literature of the Republic… the great legends of communal service set to paper by Livy, Virgil and Cicero… Merging those ideals of civic identity and service to their own Christian background they built Washington, and by extension the U.S. But are those still our guiding principles? On the right, slogans like “Make American Great Again,” tempt us toward self-aggrandizement and selfishness. On the left hyper-individualism, and the exaltation of personal pleasure over all else likewise threatens to pull us apart. Nations rise and fall, personal pleasures fade and sour over time… By their fruits you will know them: the fruits of slavery to sin are death, the fruits of slavery to justice are eternal life… Power is made perfect in weakness.
At an individual level, I’d obviously say that I want to be like St. Paul, I want to be part of Rome crucified instead of Rome victorious… I prefer paradise! But living it… that’s another very mixed matter…
Lord, I want to give you all! But what if you ask for more than I was expecting? To further complicate things, Lord, which would you prefer: a brief blaze of sacrificial glory? Or a lifelong slow burn? Your saints seem to fall on both sides… Lord, I know you want me to carefully discern spirits, to live and love prudently… or am I using virtues like prudence as an excuse for my own cowardice and selfishness? As so often seems to be the case, Lord… help! Whatever my own limits, Jesus I trust in you. Amen.”