The Conflict is the Solution
The Church is a battleship, not a cruise ship. Disputes and friction marked the life of the Church from day one. As soon as the Holy Spirit fell on the Church, Christians began arguing with one another. ‘The apostles are not ministering enough to the widows.’ ‘The poor are not getting enough attention.’ ‘The ladies are gossiping.’ ‘The men are arm wrestling.’ It brings to mind that classic scene in “Lawrence of Arabia.” The Arabs have won their independence. They are free to rule themselves. Next scene: the Arab lords are fighting and shouting on the tabletops, each insisting on his own points-of-view. Life in the Church can sure feel the same way.
In fact, one can only imagine the frustration St. Paul felt. The Book of Acts describes Paul and Barnabus traveling through the cities, spreading the good news: “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith…appointing elders…praying with fasting, they commended them to the Lord” (14:22-23). Their travels sound so exciting and the religious fervor is contagious. Who can read these passages without wanting to sign up?
A few verses later, Paul and Barnabus return to Antioch. They want to follow up on everyone’s progress. Well, sure enough, new teachers have arrived. Very well. They were well studied. They loved the Lord. Then they heard it. These new preachers were requiring everyone to get circumcised (you can imagine the grumbling which followed that). It says, “Paul and Barnabus had no small dissension and dispute with them” (Acts 15:2). In other words, the church stunk with controversy. A lot of people were fighting, a lot got fed up and left, and no one was happy.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. This is one of the most profound feasts. In fact, of all holy days in the calendar, this is one of the most important for us in twentieth-century America. What is the worst part of being a Christian? Putting up with other Christians. What is the leading reason why people quit the faith? Hurt or disappointments over Christian quarreling. Moreover, it has never been so easy to quit.
For most of Christian history, if you had a dispute with a fellow Christian, you had two choices. You could walk away from church entirely and simply be a social outcast. Or you stuck it out in the church and learned to get along. For the most part, one town had one church and one local priest. The past was not like our times. Today, you can put the keys in the ignition and drive off. Church has become like the grocery market. If you get tired of Campbell soup, no worries, there are a hundred other off-brands. This possibility in Christian life is radically new, and radically opposed to Christianity.
Instability should be our modern insignia. St. Paul urges: “Be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind” (Eph. 4:14). “, “Be ye steadfast, unmovable” (1 Cor. 15:58). This is a far cry from our culture. A monsignor writes: “Instability is pandemic in our culture and it has harmed our families, our communities, our parishes, and likely our nation. Almost no one stays anywhere for long.” The Rev. Fr. Tryphon, abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Seattle, calls our age: “an age when people change addresses as often as those in past generations changed their socks, stability of place is almost unheard of.” We are an age plagued by, “Constant movement [that] allows us to hide from ourselves.” It is a wild ride, twentieth-century motion, marked with endless possibilities and incessant innovations. The only problem is, God is not in it.
Why is the Feast of the Holy Family so important? Our feast today emphasizes our Christian calling: to be family. Jesus Christ saved the world within family life. We work out our salvation within family life.
“‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’…Then he [Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-52).
Jesus is the Son of God. Why should he be obedient to flawed parents? God submits to family. The Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us: “Obey your spiritual leaders and submit to them” (Hb. 13:17). St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of Apostle John, emphasized: “Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too as you would [obey] the apostles.” Submission and authority are not about who rules over who. It is about family working together in harmony. We must all submit to one another, freely and lovingly. What does the Holy Family give us, a church, a parish? It gives us a vision: to be holy family.
But family life is hard. As we said, Christian community boxed it out from generation to generation. You could say, strife and stretching are at the core of Christianity, and so they should be. The conflict is the solution.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12-17).
The conflict is the solution. It is our opportunity to learn to forgive and love. God does not want a Church full of nice people. God wants a Church full of saints. So the conflict exists to let us grow.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. Today, we come back to the start. We are never saved alone. We are saved in becoming Holy Family. May God give us steadfastness in the New Year ahead that we may bear our crosses and learn to love.