We Will Do and We Will Hear
December 29, 2010
Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:3-11; Luke 2:22-35
One of my favorite poets is the 19th century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he says in one of his poems.
Hopkins was also a Jesuit priest and served in the slums of Liverpool. Once when he was asked how we can better understand Christian doctrine, how we can get a better idea of faith, he said: give alms.
Serve the poor.
To believe isn’t a matter of ideas, Hopkins was saying. It’s a matter of action. And I think that’s what the first letter of John is telling us today, too. We can say “we know him,” but we don’t really know him if we don’t keep his commandments, if we don’t do what he says. And there’s a sequence implied here: not that we think and then act on our belief, but that we first act, we first do what we’re supposed to do, and then, through those actions, come to understand. The truths of faith are the sort of truths we can only understand through experience over time.
I’ve been reading this lovely little book over Christmas break, Jewish Spirituality: An Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It’s really been nourishing for me, and there’s a fascinating chapter in the book centered on a verse in Exodus. When God gives the people of Israel the Torah, they say in response, “we will do and we will hear.” That’s Exodus 24:7. Again, the sequence. Not, we will hear and then we will do—we will understand first, in our heads; we will get this all figured out first, in the abstract. No. The opposite. In Jewish spirituality dogma isn’t the key. In a way belief doesn’t matter. For the Jews it’s not about what’s in your head but about the life you lead here and now. “Some actions simply cannot be understood,” Kushner says, “until they are performed. By doing, we understand.”
But this is Christianity, too. What Simeon takes into his arms isn’t a theological treatise. It’s a child. He doesn’t exclaim, now I get it, now I understand. He says, “my own eyes have seen.” It’s all about what can be known in the body, in time. It’s all about what no one can finally explain to anybody else. It’s not an idea that saves us, it’s a person.
At Christmas Eve mass I was looking out at the congregation and thinking how many good people there are in this parish. I know so many of the stories: husbands taking care of their wives, wives taking care of their husbands, children taking care of their parents, all kinds of people doing all kinds of selfless things, when no one is looking. They are the models for the rest of us. If we want to understand, we should do what they do, because they are walking the way that Jesus walked (to get back to the letter of John).
And for those selfless people. I know they despair. I know they sometimes feel desolate and empty. But I think the readings today are saying: rejoice. Be of good cheer. For you are with the Lord, even on those days when you can’t think straight, even when you no longer have any idea what’s going on. Yes. Now you’re there. You’re doing the work of the Lord, and therefore, in this, and only in this, the Lord is with you.