Wednesday, October 29, 2014

City of God

All Saints 2014

‘In one city the whole world perished,’ so wrote the 5th c. Doctor of the Church, St Jerome. In the year 410 AD, the Visigoths sacked Rome. For the people of late antiquity, August 24 of that year was even more traumatic than September 11 was for us. Rome, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known, was plundered by barbarians, the subjugated uncivilised hordes of the north had now turned on their masters. The Eternal City, which until then was thought to be impregnable had fallen to “unorganised” forces which were considered inferior to the legendary imperial forces, and this sent out ripples of panic and despair throughout the entire empire. Many Romans fled to North Africa for safety. There, in Hippo, an important coastal town in what is now Algeria, the local bishop, Saint Augustine, was inspired to write one of his seminal works, The City of God. Augustine, just like Jerome, felt he had lost his bearings with news of the collapse of Rome. Once Rome had gone, what sense was to be made of the world? In the reflections that he would record in his book, he would find the answer – the fall of the City of Man does not mean the end of the City of God.

According to St Augustine, the City of Man, which went beyond Rome but encompasses our earthly existence, is shaped by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; whereas the City of God is shaped by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. In describing the two cities, St Augustine reiterated Jesus' teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to the City of Man. Their presence in the earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country. We are to enjoy the blessings the City of Man has to offer, including its rights, its protection, and its preservation of order, but we are always ready to move on. The City of Man is not our true home. No, our true home is in the City of God. And it is to that city that we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty.

The Feast which we celebrate today invites us to cast our vision on the City of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, therein dwells the Saints, the rightful citizens of Heaven, who in this earthly life lived the Beatitudes, and now in the next, enjoy beatific vision of the Almighty. The gospel that we read at every Solemnity of All Saints points to the heavenly lenses by which we are to view this earth. The Beatitudes provide us indeed with a paradoxical inversion of how things are normally perceived. How could poverty, loss, suffering, meekness, persecution be deemed blessings and cause for supreme happiness? Again, the great Doctor of the Church St Augustine provides us the answer, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” When we are busy clutching the diamonds, treasures and baubles of the City of Man, our earthly and temporary existence, we may have no place to receive the far greater treasures which God wishes to give to us out of the coffers of his Heavenly Kingdom. What is considered despicable and offensive in the City of Man, is revealed to be truly beautiful in the City of God.

So where is the blessedness that comes from the Beatitudes? In all honesty, the claim by Jesus is counter-intuitive for us humans, because every one of the statements at least implies, if not asserts, some kind of hardship, heavy load, or deep self-discipline. But these are the kinds of things in which one engages when one enters that narrow gate and the straight and narrow road which leads to life rather than the broad highway which leads to destruction.

Whereas the City of Man preaches that you have to be rich in order to be happy, Jesus counsels poverty of spirit, profound humility in trusting the Providence of God, and thus truly become heirs of the treasures of the City of God.
Whereas the City of Man sells us the lie that happiness means not having a care in the world, Jesus speaks of the blessedness of those who “mourn”, those who are not insulated from the pains and sufferings of this world, for they would truly know and come to appreciate the consolation and comfort from the next. Again, St Augustine in the City of God writes, “What grace is meant to do is to help good people, not to escape their sufferings, but to bear them with a stout heart, with a fortitude that finds its strength in faith.”
Whereas the world promotes strength, power and self-absorption as conditions for happiness, Jesus provides us the Kingdom paradigm of meekness and purity.
Whereas the City of Man often advocates watching our backs, the City of God is filled with denizens who watch each other’s back, as they thirst and hunger for righteousness and justice.
Whereas the City of Man functions on the basic principle of retributive justice, getting even with those who hurt us, the City of God abides by the twin principles of mercy and peace.
Finally, where the City of Man provides us with the narcissistic platform for self-expression, where popularity is the most coveted commodity, the City of God promises blessings to those who readily accept the cross and are persecuted for righteousness’ and Christ’s sake.

Don’t ever mistake that the Beatitudes are just an abstract code of behavior. In the end, Jesus does not merely speak the Beatitudes. He lives the Beatitudes. He is the Beatitudes. Looking at him you will see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. He is the new "code of holiness" that must be imprinted on hearts, and that must be contemplated through the action of the Holy Spirit. His Passion and Death are the crowning of his holiness. We’re called, too, not just to hear the beatitudes, not just to live the beatitudes, but to be the beatitudes. The beatitudes describe both the face of Christ and the face of a Christian, the face of one striving with God’s help to become a saint.

His life therefore becomes a constant invitation to share in the life of holiness. The Saints remind us that there is always a choice to be made, a choice between two voices competing for our hearts even now, the choice between good and evil, between life and death. Whenever we choose to live a life of holiness in union with Christ, whenever we are called to live the Beatitudes, we are choosing to reject the claims of evil, no matter how sensible or attractive they may seem. Therefore, holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavor, but rather a continuous choice that requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives. We are indeed children of the City of God!

This does not mean that we can isolate ourselves from the City of Man. We can never retreat into our sanctuaries and neglect our civic responsibility to help set the moral tone of our culture. Leaving your neighbor in ignorance of his folly is inconsistent with the command to love him, and so political and cultural engagement are required for faithful believers. We are to bring the influence of the City of God into the City of Man, working for justice and righteousness. Getting this right starts with the paradox Augustine taught: The best citizens of the City of Man are those who remember that their true citizen ship is in the City of God.

As we picture the glorious capital of the Empire, the Eternal City, Rome, going up in smoke, its magnificent monuments being reduced to rubble by the invading marauders, we once again hear the call of St Augustine cast our vision upon a greater city, the Heavenly City, the true Eternal City, “The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”

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