Returning to New York this past weekend, I was, like you, heartbroken by the recent events that took place in Washington, D.C. No decent human being, certainly no American, could be anything but ashamed by the spectacle. Violence is simply incompatible with our inalienable rights as citizens of this great nation (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and the values we hold dear (equality, peace). Indeed, it is an attack on the very soul of America, because it brings to a standstill the very mechanisms by which a just society corrects injustice. It is a tragic culmination of what we have experienced this past year, what some call the “banality of evil.”
Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil. (Hannah Arendt)
As Catholics enter Ordinary Time, we accept our responsibility to pray for our world, to love friend and foe, and yes, to think; but we do so as Catholics. Too much is at stake for us to allow forces within our world—those who do not look at the world through the eyes of Christ—to dictate the terms of the conversation.
This week we behold the work of the Roman painter Placido Costanzi (1702-59), entitled Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God”). According to the J. Paul Getty Museum website, Costanzi blended the Baroque artistic sensibility—dramatic, intense, colorful—with the influence of Raphael. He was apparently given to the use of allegory: the depiction of highly symbolic objects, colors, gestures, etc. to refer to spiritual realities. Curiously, the center of the painting is not Christ, but rather the Baptist, who directs our attention away from himself, to the Lamb of God, standing at a distance. Indeed, if not for John pointing to our Lord dramatically, we might altogether miss him. Notice, too, that John is a massive presence in the painting, at least ten times the size of Jesus. Two chapters later in the Gospel (John 3:30) he will say of Jesus, “he must increase; I must decrease.” These two clues form the “lesson” of the painting. If not for the Christian who calls attention to the presence of the Son of God, the world whom he came to save might never notice him. But the way the Christian does this entails something modern culture finds quite onerous. One can only make room for the grace of God through what the Church calls “self-abnegation,” that is, the extinction of one’s own interests for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This always, always, stings. Yet when the ego’s obsession with itself is brought under control, only then do we find true joy. (This occurs by God’s grace: not by positive thinking, or yoga, or self-empowerment, or a “healthy lifestyle.”)
Consider one more symbol: Jesus is standing across the Jordan River, among palm trees. These trees are an ancient figure for paradise. To be with Christ is by definition to be in heaven: eternal fullness of life. But notice what lies between one side of the river and the other: water, or death to sin. The peacefulness of the palm trees belies the action going on beneath the surface. Pope Benedict remarks that Jesus’ suffering
turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss…This struggle is the ‘conversion’ of being that brings it into a new condition, that prepares a new heaven and a new earth.
Friends, you and I are part of God’s solution to the mystery of evil in our world today. We embrace neither a naïve “I’d like to teach the world to sing” attitude, nor the arrogance of thinking we can “build” the Kingdom of Heaven by our own feats of spiritual engineering. Both are destined for failure. Instead, we are called to follow Jesus humbly, and love our neighbor without demand.