Friday, May 29, 2009

5-24-2009: 7th Easter (B)

Acts of the Apostles 1:15-17,20-26/Psalm 103/1 John 4:11-16/John 17:11-19
If asked, most of us would probably claim to prefer youthful idealists to aged bureaucrats no matter what issues either might espouse (isn’t that why Obama beat McCain - really). Yet youth and inexperience must ultimately give way to lived-experience if spontaneous movements and charismatic ideas are going to survive through time. And when they do manage to survive more than a generation, we then call them institutions. Institutions get a bad name largely from the fact that their survival depends on politics. And politics is often perceived as the activity of jaded, conspiring individuals in some smoke-filled back room. The Church, as institution, is not immune to such. Those more cynical toward the Church might cite the machinations of papal elections through the centuries (the conclave as the most smoke-filled back room of them all). But there’s precedent for perceiving politics as an essential part of religion and faith, as seen in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a remarkable passage precisely because it suggests that the apostles were thinking long-range as opposed to expecting Jesus’ quick return and the imminent end of the world, as they sought to replace Judas who, in modern parlance, had gone over to the dark side. The eleven remaining apostles had to choose between two candidates. An odd number of electors would have guaranteed a clear-cut majority vote, but the scripture tells us they decided to draw lots instead. What kind of fierce politicking, deals proffered, and the inevitable impasse led them to forego the vote and just throw the dice, leaving the result to either chance or providence – we’ll never know.

Ron Howard’s new movie, Angels & Demons, takes place against the backdrop of a papal election filled with ambitious cardinals, youthful idealists, intrigue and murder. Despite William Donohue and his Catholic League’s harangue against the movie because it exploited this scenario, I didn’t find the movie to be especially anti-Catholic. In fact, as I found myself rooting for the agnostic Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as he tries to save the Catholic Church from deadly attack, I found myself inevitably rooting for the Church as well.

Granted the story-line is far-fetched and historically inaccurate (it is fiction after all) it is much more entertaining than Ron Howard’s previous DaVinci Code. And with the suspenseful twist at the end, it makes you think twice about the necessary role and the inevitable value of cynical, jaded old men over against the headiness of youthful idealism when it comes to preserving an idea or, in the case of the Church, preserving the encounter with the divine. There’s a poignant scene at the end of the movie when Robert Langdon is thanked by the ambitious old cardinal-elector. “Thanks be to God he sent you to save the church,” Cardinal Strauss tells Langdon. Langdon responds with an almost imperceptible smirk: “Your eminence, I don’t believe God sent me.” And the jaded old cardinal offers a wisp of spontaneous objection and evinces, perhaps, some genuine faith: “Oh, my son, but he did.”

And we are left wondering might it be true that there is indeed a guiding hand behind our lives; believing in the possibility that destiny trumps chance. Something personal, which enabled the eleven apostles looking for that successor to Judas, to ultimately trust the throw of the dice because that something personal desires our good. Something beneficent, underlying both our faith and our doubt, guiding us beyond our youthful idealism and our jaded cynicism, precisely because it is something beneficent. Might God be using even those we would least expect him to choose, to help achieve good – like Bill Donohue and the Catholic League for instance?

At least Ron Howard might be wondering such as Bill Donohue’s obnoxious objections and protestations of bigotry have helped Angels & Demons achieve outstanding success at the box office. For the more cynical among us, however, we might imagine Bill and Ron sharing a drink in some really smoke-filled back room; somewhere just east of Hollywood, I suspect. Being a resident of that no man’s land between blind faith and dark doubt - I wonder.

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