Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

When the Essentials Come Back into Focus

Fr. John Chagnon

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It looks like its going to be a tight Nativity this year.

Already the stores are starting to advertise merchandise at deep discounts but people watching the markets dive and spin are holding on to whatever money they have left. The next few months might be some of the best in years to buy a TV but I doubt you'll be going elbow to elbow with other shoppers at Best Buy, let alone the now bankrupt Circuit City. Some of the fancy people are even swallowing their pride and taking that first big step into WalMart or the local thrift store.

This is all new to us, or at least to some of us, this insecurity, this sense of limits, this realization that there's a ceiling above us and that times can take a sudden turn. Of course, what we feel now is business as usual in most of the world, in fact its better then the day to day life of many who live with fluctuating politics, uncertain economies, and what we would consider deprivation as a matter of course. But we've been cocooned in our prosperity, wrapped up in a same warm blanket that, until now, has largely kept us out of the cold. Perhaps there is someone now, in some forgotten part of the third world who's looking in on all of this and saying "Perhaps now you'll understand..."

With this sudden and new feeling of vulnerability coursing through our souls we've called out to our leaders to save us but the truth is that ones departing and the ones arriving are basically helpless and somehow deep inside we know it. They're helpless because the whole thing is a house of cards, an illusion, a scheme where we can borrow, beg, or steal our way to ever increasing prosperity and leave the bill for someone else. Well the repo man is here, now, and he's not taking "The check's in the mail" for an answer. And in the face of this uncertainty we might even shake our fists, as it were, at the sky and ask "Why, God? Why this turmoil and why now? Why this disturbance in the quiet comfort of my life? Why these foreboding times?" The answer may have two parts.

First, we're going to rediscover that the god we worship, the god of suburban comforts, the giant ATM in the sky who loves America, and has his name on money is not the God who actually exists. That god is an idol, always was, a projection of ourselves and our culture on the skies above and our prayers to such a god echo in an empty room. The God that exists is a fire, powerful, awesome merely at the mention of his name, and calls us both to account and to salvation for the sake of a love that defies our attempts to measure. The life he calls us to is a life completely alive, completely human, a life where we are transfigured by divinity and called to shine with perfect light even in a world darkness often seems to rule. And second, this God loves us so much that he may even allow our money, our security, and our earthly stability, to be taken away from us so that we discover, again, those things that are eternal, those things that last, those things which make us human, those things which can never be taken away. In short, to rediscover God. We may have to lose the whole world, as Jesus tells us, to save our own soul.

So now the fast is upon us, not a fast as a ritual exercise or a convenience, but a fast we cannot escape brought on by forces beyond our control but not God's. In times past we cut back, we shared, we gave to others and prayed for ourselves and each other from the scraps of our table, from the excess of our abundance. As the times unfold and the larger bills come due we may find every day to be a kind of fast, a disciplining of ourselves because we cannot afford anymore to live in excess. But in this time devout hearts will also discover again the true meaning of things; the clinging to that which lasts and the discarding of that which does not matter, the reality that in giving to others we provide for ourselves, the truth that our ultimate hope is not in those who would lead us for a time but rather in our Lord Jesus Christ who has overcome all the world.

If we come to understand this the days ahead may be, for us the holiest times of our lives, the days when we as the comfortable Christians of America awoke from our dream and saw, again, the truth of Bethlehem's star.

Fr. John Chagnon is the priest at St. Elias Orthodox Church in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and editor of the Traveling Priest blog.

Posted: 21-Nov-2008

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