Tuesday, October 25, 2011

11-10-23: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 22:20-26 / Psalm 18 / 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 / Matthew 22:34-40

Exodus speaks loud and clear today: leave those aliens alone, don’t touch those widows and orphans! The Lord God really seems to get worked up about molesting and oppressing aliens and widows and orphans – especially since the Israelites were themselves considered aliens, oppressed and molested, before they made their way back to the Promised Land. It’s not a long leap from ancient Israel to modern America where the undocumented are also called aliens, readily encountered offering a manicure or mowing your lawn. Or to modern Ireland where unwed mothers (until 1996!), many deigned Magdalenes, spent their lives in convent laundries and were buried in unmarked graves; and where not a few vulnerable orphans found themselves oppressed and molested. For those blessed with a vivid imagination we might even understand aliens to refer to the extra-terrestrial sort. It’s not just a matter of science fiction but a deep theological conundrum, this possibility of intelligent life existing somewhere else in this vast universe. C.S. Lewis tried to tackle the Christological implications of such a scenario in his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945).

The problem of extra-terrestrial intelligent life for Christians rests on the doctrine that Christ is the Incarnate Word of God through whom the universe was created and by whom it is saved. There is no other Savior. So, if there are other intelligent life forms, are they created in the image and likeness of God; are they in need of salvation; and, most importantly, how have they come to know God if not through his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth? The question isn’t just hypothetical. It was raised in other ways during the Age of Discovery when Europeans encountered Native Americans. Those “aliens,” together with black African slaves, were long judged not to possess an immortal soul – not to be considered human (making the molesting and oppressing that much easier). It was a long hard fight before those in authority accepted that Blacks and Indians were indeed human beings, created in God’s image, destined for salvation. Meanwhile, in Asia, Christian missionaries wrestled with the other side of the Christological question: the necessity of Christ, and Christ alone, for salvation. That’s still an open question for many (though, unfortunately for Catholic theologians, not a permissible one to ask).

And, of course, there is another possibility: that history did not play out the same way out there as it did here vis-à-vis Original Sin – a seeming prerequisite for the incarnation of Jesus to have occurred and for salvation to be wrought. C.S. Lewis raises this possibility and suggests that, regardless of sin or lack of it, God would have found a yet more humble way to make himself known: he is filled with surprises.

Raising such far-out questions, of course, can be engaging – like a game of chess. But it can also raise awareness, by analogy, that the same questions can be asked of our lives here on this earth in our own day. Are the vulnerable, like the undocumented, the widow, the orphan, deserving of salvation - not only in the afterlife but here and now? In today’s gospel when Jesus is asked, which is the greatest commandment, he echoes what the rabbis had already said: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But who is my neighbor, where do I encounter him? When culture or language or life-circumstance renders someone “alien” to us, unrecognizable as neighbor, an extra-terrestrial if you will – it’s precisely then we need to step back and take another look. The gospel guarantees that if we look long and hard enough, despite the green skin, the three eyes, the strange smell and the undecipherable polyphony of sounds he calls his language, we will glimpse a reflection, be it ever so dim, of our very selves. Then, and only then it seems, is the alien recognized as neighbor. And, even more astoundingly, all that we dislike most about ourselves, our widowed and orphaned self – the alien within – can now be embraced as neighbor as well. In our very depths we are extra-terrestrial. The self, Chesterton wisely observed, is more distant than any star. The command to love God, neighbor, and self, is the great adventure of life – a star trek – taking us on an odyssey of light years, at warp speed – into inner space.

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