My intention with this column was to share some musings on the words of Pontius Pilate as he presented the tortured Jesus—the icon of “extreme humility”—to the crowd: “ Ecce homo”; behold the man.
They have become my Holy Week lectio divina, those two words, prompting me again and again to see the people I observe through a broader lens, one that curves through the light-filled wounds of Christ. The tired mother impatiently tugging the hand of the even more tired little girl? Ecce homo: the put-upon Jesus, wondering where he can lay his head. The India-born priest struggling to make the love of God understood in his homily, then continuing with mass? Ecce homo: the Christ, still misunderstood by his own friends, offering a blessing and feeding a multitude. The teenage boy who slinks sullenly into the pew but ends up entering into the mass in a moving way? Ecce homo: Jesus in Gethsemane, preferring the cup to pass yet surrendering to God’s plan.
Ecce homo: Christ enjoying ecstatic welcome as he enters Jerusalem, only to be rejected, scorned, debased, and destroyed just a week later. Ecce all of us, for all of our triumphs contain the threat of annihilation, particularly if we cling to them too dearly, or believe that they will somehow exempt us from the great challenges and crucibles stationed along all of our roads, like so many sinkholes. Grasping too tightly to illusions of our own specialness can render us ill-equipped to withstand a sudden reversal of fortune, but then”if we can find the strength to consent to the unfathomable will of God” ecce homo, again: there is glory beyond our imaginings.
A pretty tidy lectio, no doubt. If all of our musings on Christ and human life could be so straight-forward and consoling, we would call contemplation a cakewalk.
But true contemplation is a challenge; its sweet allures eventually lead us deeper, forcing us to confront ever more difficult ideas, and to struggle through them, always with the goal of conformity to the mind and will of God, as much as it may be known.
One great challenge to Christian understanding—a matter that will force us into contemplative depths whether we want to swim them or not—is going to be unavoidable in 2012 and beyond: the issue of un-closeted homosexuals living with the church, working with the church, praying with the church, and ministering to the church in a manner so reconciled as to be unimaginable at the moment.
The Catholic church in Vienna is currently something of a hotbed of dissent; this week its Cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, overturned the decision of a priest who tried to unseat from his parish council a homosexual man living in civil union with another man. It is reported that Schönborn initially planned to support the priest but changed his mind, saying, “I ask myself in these situations: How did Jesus act? He first saw the human being.”
Noting the story, canon lawyer Edward Peters writes, “In the present case, cries of Götterdämmerung from the Right (and for that matter, triumphalist shouts from the Left) are premature.”
He is correct. We only just begun this walk. Christianity, particularly in America, is struggling with balance as it becomes ever more embroiled (willingly or not) in secular matters, but this will be a defining question: how do we follow the Christ’s example to “first see the human being” (ecce homo) while reconciling it with Matthew 19:3-5 and 11-12—words Jesus did not utter by accident?
No thinking Christian can claim perfect wisdom, especially on this emotion-tipping issue, here, but in his soon-to-be-released Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offers a worthy inkling:
The Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitably seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases”on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists. The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry . . . . I have no easy answers to the question of how churches should minister to gays and lesbians in a post-closet age, and great sympathy for same-sex-attracted Christians who regard the traditional teaching as impossible. But it’s worth emphasizing that one reason the Christian insistence on chastity for homosexuals seems particularly cruel and unreasonable is that the Christian churches no longer successfully hold up heterosexual chastity as a clearly defined, successfully lived-out ideal.
Douthat’s thoughts here are a kind of dual prompting: a Christianity struggling to reconcile belief with inclusion will have to “get rid of the beam” in its own eye before it will clearly see how to deal with the splinters of human people seeking Christ. And to do that, the church will have to go back to the basics, re-learn them and then re-teach them, but this time not as narrow, fundamentalist do’s and dont’s that excuse us from thinking, but as the fundamentally sophisticated and paradoxical means toward true freedom that they really are.
We are heading into what Pope Benedict has declared will be a dedicated “Year of Faith,” a year meant to deepen our understanding of what the life of faith entails through a rediscovery of our earliest resources. Reorienting ourselves to these first-principles, we will be forced to prayerfully re-think how we may impart eternal, and often difficult-to-embrace truths about life, sex and love to an age whose instincts are inclined toward disposability, instant gratification and me-ism.
It is going to require our best efforts at contemplative awareness, prayer, and reason. And if you find that an unsettling thought for Holy Week, then contemplate this: all things are difficult, before they are easy, and there ain’t no resurrection at all, without the crucifixion, first.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress . Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Icon of Extreme Humility
Cardinal Schönborn in Vienna
A Canon Lawyer’s Take
Jesus on Marriage and Divorce
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.