On coming home from Guatemala

Last Saturday our Guatemala mission team visited La Merced, a Catholic church near the center of Antigua.

In the church to the right of the chancel is a shrine to Mary. The photo I took shows her sad-eyed, attired in a long white dress, with the hilt of a sword appearing above the neckline. Below the shrine is an ascription that reads simply “MD”.

A fellow traveller asked me “What does 'MD' mean?” “Why is that sword there?”

It took me a minute, but I then recognized the imagery. The “MD” means “Madre Dolorosa”, or in English “Mother of Sorrows”, and the sword was a reminder of the story told in Luke's Gospel when Jesus' parents presented him in the Temple as their firstborn son. At that time the old prophet Simeon blessed the child and addressed Mary with these words:

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon's words describe Jesus was a prophet. Prophets, because they tell the truth, suffer the consequences. We don't always like it when our innermost thoughts and commitments are laid bare for all to see.

The tears on the face of his mother Mary are because she fully realizes that it could come to this. The sword of grief pierces her heart because her son's faithfulness to God would bring him suffering.

The faithfulness of Jesus is described in our first reading today from Isaiah. No one clearly knows who the prophet was first describing, but Christians have always found in Isaiah's words a description of our Lord:

The Lord God has given me the
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious.

Jesus listened for God. And for Jesus, as for the Servant, obedience to God leads directly to a contest with the world. The result is this:

“I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from shame and spitting.”

If Jesus is willing to suffer on behalf of others, what about us? This is an uncomfortable question, but a necessary question to ask if we profess to be united to Jesus in the Sacrament of Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

In an interview about her recent book based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, Kenda Dean reflects on its findings, one of which is that while three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, only half consider it very important, and fewer than half actually practice their faith as a regular part of their lives.

Dean, who is a professor at Princeton Seminary in the field of youth ministry, writes:

“...What many parents really want most from youth ministers is to keep their children safe, keep them off drugs, out of trouble and out of bed with another person. As long as youth are not doing those things, then youth ministry has succeeded. Obviously what's missing from that is any sense of identity that has to do with the Christian story.”

The findings of this study don't reflect well on the job the Church has done in telling a story about a God worth knowing. Teens in general, according to its findings, see Christian religion as something to help you feel good and do some good, but God is pretty much out of the picture until you need God for something. If teens believe this, it is because many adults believe this.

On our trip, I think we all had an opportunity to hear God intruding on our consciousness, making a claim on our lives.

When our youth reached Antigua after a week high in a mountain town peopled by the descendants of the ancient Mayans, we visited La Merced, as all previous St. Paul's youth mission trips have done. This is the church with the statue of Mary I just described.

In the Church, we became silent. People were there kneeling, pouring out their hearts in silent prayer. We toured the graphic statuary there, typical of Latin American Catholic Churches in it's frank portrayal of suffering. Our presence there was reverent and quiet.

We talked about the experience later that day in our daily briefing. Some later said they were taken with the graphic statuary in the church; which illustrates Jesus on the road to Calvary - suffering and bleeding – and Mary, sorrowful of countenance.One girl's comment stayed with me:

“If St. Paul's had this kind of statues, I'd come every Sunday!”

I was told second-hand that another youth had a different kind of response. He didn't care for the church building or it's iconography; he thought that the effort put to building churches and erecting statuary would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor more directly.

In Santiago de Atilán we adults and youth together came face to face with people in poverty; a people who had suffered for generations at the hands of oppression. We came face-to-face with people like Nino, who lovingly gave from his poverty to nurture a new generation of children in his little nursery school. We played with the children of Cerro de Oro and Panajab. We witnessed the quiet dignity of a people who had very little but who had each other. We heard stories of heroism and martyrdom from the recent history of the town; stories of their own government coming to their town and leaving terror behind; stories of heroic self-sacrifice on to protect one another during this time of terror. We saw a village and a people rising from these experiences to a hopeful future.

The comments from our teen travelers at the end of our trip led me to believe that in some way the story of Jesus' suffering and Passion had connected with real everyday experience. In some way, we'd been able to listen for God and hear God speaking through the people we went to visit.

In a very real sense, then, the trip provoked something of a crisis in us. Is the Christian church a place to be safe and hide out from the world? Or is the Christian church a community in which we commit to risk ourselves for the mission and ministry of Jesus?

What happened to us in Guatemala is aptly described by Kenda Dean in her interview as having your heart broken open:

“...what makes the heart break open is the sense of being removed from our previous self-definitions and allowing ourselves to be claimed by another human being, another perspective on the world....I actually think that it's this encounter with the other which is the non-negotiable part of the way we live our lives. By other I mean both the “little o” (the other human being), and the big “O,” God. So yes, in going across a boundary to encounter people who see the world differently than we do – it might be on a mission trip, or it might be in the cafeteria – the other makes a claim on us, not because we have something to give them, but because they have something to give us.”

The National Study on Youth and Religion betrays the fact that much of the Church has propagated a passionless Christianity; a powerless Christianity; a form of Christian faith that cannot commend itself to our youth, because it is pretty much deaf to the voice of God calling us to risk.

That need not be the case.

Jesus comes to us today as the one who listens to God's voice, and who risks everything to bring God's love to a suffering world.

He's calling us to listen with him, to risk with him, to fall in love with the world the way he fell in love with it. We go to the altar in order that he may dwell in us, and we in him.