Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
— Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, 4:30-5:2
IT’s a no-brainer, right? There can be no greater good than establishing the Kingdom of God on earth along the tenets described above in Sunday’s Mass reading from Saint Paul’s Epistle to Christians in Ephesus, the seaside town in present-day southwest Turkey where the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have happened.
Who wouldn’t want a world with no bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and slander? Why wouldn’t anyone wish that everyone be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving?
By such godliness, we open our lives and souls to God and move closer and closer to oneness with Him, the goal of humanity, as expounded in last Sunday’s column.
Unfortunately, there is, in fact, much hatred, violence, oppression, exploitation, deception, and discord all around since Neanderthal times.
At this point in the reflection, the rhetorical question usually breaks in with much sighing, head-shaking, and throwing up of hands: Why can’t we live in harmony and kindness?
The answer, of course, is that not everyone is caring, patient, and forgiving. All creation is flawed: creatures are not the Creator, and therefore not perfect, infinite, all-knowing, and almightly like Him.
So many things about everything and everyone on earth disappoint, vex, hurt, threaten, or otherwise displease or harm others and even himself, herself or itself. Those failings cause much bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, and slander, not to mention conflict, destruction, and war, which in turn provoke more of the same scourges over and over.
In the Second World War, the bloodiest conflict in history, more than 40 million souls died, with countless millions more maimed, bloodied, starved, impoverished, displaced, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise distressed. Yet men have not stopped killing one another in spite — or perhaps because — of that most harrowing of history lessons.
Can we ever build God’s Kingdom?
Which brings up the most challenging, if not discouraging of rhetorical questions: Can we ever build the Kingdom of God in our world or even just in our own soul?
Looking at ourselves and the millennia of humankind, it’s hard to answer yes.
We repeatedly fall in our lifelong quest to do good and shun evil. The cardinal sins of pride, anger, avarice, envy, sloth, lust, and gluttony not only well up within us, but also surround us in the lifestyles of today.
Across the globe, moreover, from age-old castes to high-tech financial markets, from murderous despots and terrorists to wealth- and power-hungry ruling classes, pernicious structures, policies, practices and potentates shackle hundreds of millions in oppression and destitution, while elites wallow in privilege and extravagance.
Sure, civilization has progressed immensely since cavemen. Rule of law, social reform, and economic and scientific advances have diminished might-makes-right ways, as well as slavery, racism, disease, poverty, conflict, and other scourges. War deaths have drastically declined since 1945, that some call the last 70 years “The Long Peace.”
Yet with the trebling of world population since 1900, more people live in abject poverty than ever, despite the unprecedented hundreds of millions freed from want in the past century.
And huge swathes of humanity and nature face new threats, from escalating crime and drug abuse, to global warming, pollution, species extinction, deforestation, and other ecological enormities. Corruption and immorality are also at appalling levels, even gaining public acceptance in culture and law.
In sum, for all our progress, sin and evil remain widespread and entrenched, with the threat of global annihilation made all too real by weapons of mass destruction able to depopulate the earth many times over. Not to mention calamities looming from climate change, super germs, cyber attacks, and other 21st Century ills.
From Transfiguration to Crucifixion
What to do? There is no shortage of great endeavors and rightful exhortations to establish divine justice, charity and morality in our world and ourselves.
Scientists, academics and engineers have analyzed problems and devised solutions. Political leaders and reform advocates have espoused just and progressive policies. And believers striving for goodness and holiness have both Scripture and saintly lives to teach the way to heaven.
Well and good. But we need something even more crucial. Like the Apostle Peter keen to pitch tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration celebrated on Thursday, often we are caught up in good works that we forget the source, sustenance, center and sole end of our godly efforts: God.
That can be fatal to our striving. Absent faith in our Lord, hope in His triumph, and undying love for His Kingdom of morality, charity and sanctity, we may lose heart suffering the pains and failures of any struggle, especially the hardest imperative of all: denying the old self and letting it die.
As Christ Crucified declares, establishing God’s reign demands total sacrifice even in the face of utter defeat and destruction, as many just and holy endeavors have suffered, from the martyrdom of early Christians to our own repeated sins despite perseverance, prayers and penances. Indeed, these trials affirm and firm up our faith, hope and love.
“From the mount of the Transfiguration to the mount of Calvary,” summed up Fr. Omi Intia in his Thursday morning Mass homily at Santuario de San Jose Church in Greenhills. “No glory without sacrifice.”
Only by embracing the Cross, rising from every fall and bleeding our all, can we bring the Kingdom of God to our unworthy selves and our fallen world. Amen.