Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-
Our world has always valued celebrity status and encouraged everyone to run after it, seeing it as the thing to be highly valued. In the ancient Greek world, some 5 centuries or more before Christ those who won at the games at Olympia or Corinth would be feted by their cities, given prizes of huge value and their names inscribed on stone which still to this day extol their triumph. Similarly, in the Roman world its Generals, Consuls and even gladiators achieved lasting fame and celebrity. It reached its height with the deifying of Emperors, making gods of mere mortals who ruled the empire almost regardless of their real effect. For our society too being ‘somebody’, a name; appearing on TV or achieving even notoriety in the Press or ones local gang is the all important thing, the acme of success.
The significant thing about Christians, in contrast is the ordinariness, even invisibility of most of its members. Those of us fortunate to worship on the site of the famous Eynsham Abbey know that most of those whose faith was fostered here for the 500 years of its power were those whose names and deeds are unknown to us – with the exception of Abbot Adam who sounds to have been rather a villain! Yet we today owe our faith to all those innumerable Christians who have gone before us. True, we can celebrate a St Paul, a St Alban, an Aelfric; an Augustine and we give great thanks to God for the heroic witness and martyrdom of the Catholics of the Reformation period who died for their faith; but fundamentally our faith is the product of ordinary nameless Christians whose persistence carried on the work of the Paul’s, the Thomas Aquinas’ and so on.
Jesus recognised the work and faith of all these myriads of faithful as we see in Matthew (5:13-16) You are the salt of the earth….the light of the world and encouraged them and us to continue as loyal, faithful witnesses to the truth, for on our quiet and unheralded commitment rests the continuance of the Christian Church. True, we need the gems of the faith and the great teachers, but without the common faceless faithful their work would simply be turning to dust in ancient libraries.
Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians (2:1-5) hits out at precisely the kind of glorification of the individual, the idolatry of the human being which so clearly bedevilled the crass and pushy Corinthian society and, influencing the Church, threatened to damage its life. True, Paul will mention a few names in his letters of persons fit for praise, among them Erastus of Corinth, the City treasurer and responsible for the staging of the world renowned games but he will even call on named figures to work to be reconciled, exposing them as an threat to the entire community. But by-en-large Paul will write to the nameless faithful and express his solidarity with them as we see in his warm hearted letter to the Thessalonians or his sharp reprimand to the Galatians, but clearly celebrity status was a thing to be avoided, as the start of his letter to Corinth shows since it led to their dividing up into factions at odds with each other. A quite different ethos and attitude is called for: When I came to you, brothers, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy…..I came among you in great fear and trembling. His only reliance Paul says was on the power of the Spirit. Time and again he will write to encourage quiet persistence and perseverance in the faith, knowing that that is what will in the end guarantee its continuance and life in vivid contrast to those flashy ‘stars’ here today and gone tomorrow.
For the prophet Isaiah (58:7-10) too it is the rather ordinary and unremarkable acts of human genuineness, the things which come from ordinary, mundane lives well lived which are truly important. Sharing our bread with the hungry; sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked; concern for justice and the common good which in the end make the difference. Most of us give regularly to charity in various forms and pay our taxes so that those in need can get their needs provided by the NHS or Social Security and probably don’t give a great deal of thought to these things. And yet Isaiah remarks that through these ordinary acts of humanity your light will shine like the dawn….your integrity will go before you…..your light will rise in the darkness. It appears then that what defines us as human – and therefore worthy of divinity will not be the power we wield, the wealth or the fame we may or may not achieve but rather the daily and unremarkable facts of our lives lived as decent human beings.
Being a faithful Christian, attending Mass and other ceremonies regularly and working on our faith may not be very exciting by worldly standards Jesus says, but it is what matters and to find our selves and make of them a praise song to the Lord God is in the end what we are invited to do. The simple fact is, we cannot be godlike in this world unless we emulate Jesus and much of his time must have been spent footsore and dog tired as he traipsed around Galilee and Judaea making the unremarkable remarkable by his healing presence and grace. As the New Testament shows, most of those touched by Jesus would have carried on with their ordinary lives, sharing their experiences of that extraordinary man with friends and neighbours; their part in changing the world would have been real and significant but they would never have known about it. The role of the witness is simply and precisely as witness, no less and no more.