Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Authority under the Cover of Charity

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We all know the expression, “Clothes make the man.”  But what does it really mean. Is this about creating an external reality via the perceptions of others? Or do the outer garments we wear affect us on an internal level, which then creates a new external reality? As a priest, I would go with the second. If clothes make the man, then surely vestments makes the priest! This may seem to be an outrageous claim coming from a man of God who is expected to shy away from all displays of vain-glory. But it expresses a sacramental truth about the vestments of a priest.  The vestments of a priest do actually reveal the mystery of who he is – the priest acts and stands in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.  

Of great significance and yet something which is seldom noticed since it is often not visible to the congregation, is the stole – a long narrow band of material worn around the neck of priests.  The stole has ancient origin.  Rabbis wore prayer shawls with tassels as a sign of their authority.  The crisscrossing of the stole also was symbolic of the crisscrossed belts the Roman soldiers wore.  In this sense, the stole reminds the priest not only of his authority and dignity as a priest, but also of his duty to preach the Word of God with courage and conviction. Though, the stole is a sign of a priest’s authority, it is properly worn underneath, indeed hidden beneath the chasuble, the outer garment of the priest. The chasuble is a symbol of the charity or love of Christ. Taken together, the stole beneath the chasuble reminds the priest that authority is never to be flaunted but always exercised under the cover of charity.  

But the common perception of authority is anything but charitable. One tragedy of our time is that “authority” has become almost a dirty word in the Western world, while opposition to authority in schools, families and society generally is cheerfully applauded. “Authority” is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission. Authority in all its incarnation is often regarded as the denial or suppression of our personal freedom. Many hate the very idea that anyone or any power could ever tell them what to do. The problem that we face today is not that we attempt to hide authority under the cover charity, but that we choose to bury it altogether!

Perhaps, the real reason for this widespread dislike and suspicion of authority is that we often equate it with power. Yes, authority is related to power, but they are two entirely different concepts. Power is the ability to influence the outcome of events. Power may be correctly used power, when it is tied to authority; or it may be incorrectly used power; it may be power exerted by sheer force and coercion. Authority, on the other hand is rightful or legitimate power. Therefore, someone with authority does not only have power, but can legitimately and rightfully wield that power. It is power without authority that spells trouble. If authority speaks about our dependence on and relation to the one who confers it, blind power often suggests independence from any source. This is the crux of the problem today – we want power but have little regard for real authority.

Scripture, by using two Greek words, makes a distinction between power and authority.  Dunamis” is usually translated as “power,” from which we get our word ‘dynamite.’ “Dunamis” implies power, strength or even violence. In the New Testament, this is often associated with the ability to do miraculous things. Whereas, the Greek word “exousia” is usually translated as “authority” and suggests jurisdiction, right, and strength. Jesus indeed had dunamis, but more importantly He had exousia, the authority of the Son of God. Indeed, as the Gospel of St Matthew attests, “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus Christ. And that very same authority has been entrusted to the apostles and to the Church. Without such God-given authority, the exercise of power would be ruinous. Instead of being a gift, power can become a great source of temptation.

In today’s gospel, Jesus exhibits power in driving out a demonic spirit but more significantly his teaching was recognised by the people as one “with authority.” But they do not fully understand that authority. At this stage of the gospel, only the demon is able to recognise him, for the power of evil knows its adversary, it knows that the time of its defeat and destruction has come. The demon understands that Jesus comes with the authority of God. The story reflects the great cosmic battle between the power of God and that of evil, where God proves to be triumphant. At the very same time, this story helps us understand how the Greek word “exousia” can also mean freedom and liberty. The authority of Christ is one which frees man from enslavement to sin and evil.

But not all exercise of power is liberating. When power is separated from authority, it descends into authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is authority corrupted, twisted. Authoritarianism appears when the submission that is demanded cannot be justified in terms of truth or morality. Authoritarianism betrays an imperious mentality that thinks that one’s actions must always be without constraint. Authoritarianism often involves a greasy, sneaky and even manipulative abuse of power. But perhaps the most insidious distortion of authoritarianism is that it actually denies legitimate authority in order to hold that authority for oneself autonomously. All these examples show the problems that happen when authority is twisted. But true authority is sacrificial and giving. Such authority is a  matter of service rather than one which lords over others. It is an authority that liberates rather than one which subjugates and enslaves. And just as a priest wears his stole beneath his chasuble, there can be no true exercise of authority unless it is exercised with charity. And when true authority is abdicated, so is love abandoned.

Today, modern man fails to recognise the irony of his predicament. He believes that the rejection of any external authority, especially in the area of moral authority, will guarantee his personal liberty and freedom. On the contrary, the drift from the authority of Truth – indeed from acknowledging any external authority at all, whether it be the authority of God or of the Church, is producing disintegrated, distracted and self-absorbed individuals and a disordered and anarchic society. We are indeed possessed by demons of a different kind, waiting for emancipation that can only come when we recognise the authority of God. Real freedom is only ever found under authority — God’s authority in Christ and that same authority now exercised by the Church. It is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavour and relationship; not to exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them.

When the Church and its leaders exercises authority today, it does so at the service to Charity and Truth. When the Church and its leaders continue to teach, to sanctify and to govern with authority, they do so in the name of Christ, Our Teacher, High Priest and Shepherd. When they act with authority, they make present the voice of Christ who continues to proclaim the timeless gospel message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and Believe in the good news.” And so when these leaders abdicate their authority in the name of misplaced democracy or as a cultural compromise, they set aside more than just their own personal power. They act not under their own authority but that of another, of Christ. This is the reason why their stoles are worn under their chasubles. It is no simple fashion statement, but a reminder that the hallmark of the priesthood, in fact the hallmark of all authority is pastoral charity.

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