Continuity and Change

LTC-brjohn-clean

No one sews a patch of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak; otherwise the piece that covers the hole will rip off, that is, the new from the old, and the tear will be even worse. Nor does anyone put new wine into old leather wineskins; otherwise the wine will split the skins, an both the wind and the skins will be destroyed; but new wine is for fresh wineskins.

Mark 2: 21-2

From the very beginning there has been a question about the teaching and revelation of Jesus:  To what degree is it in continuity with the Jewish tradition of his time and to what degree is it a radical break from that tradition? In our gospels his is clearly an unsettled question. In Matthew’s account, on the one hand, the emphasis is on continuity “and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9: 17). On the other hand, Luke emphasizes the radical incompatibility of the old an the new: “No one tears a piece from a new garment, and puts it on an old; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old” (Luke 5:36). (cf. John R. Donohue, SJ and Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Mark, p. 109) Whether we are considering personal or institutional change, we realize that change, for us, always occurs in a tension between continuity with what has gone before or who we have been, on the one hand, and the impulse of spirit (Spirit) to reform and renew on the other.

In the Doxology we glorify God and attest to the truth: “. . . as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be.” This is a reminder to us that it is God and God alone who is changeless. Yet, even as we say this, the Mystery of the Trinity reminds us that God’s changelessness is not static. It is ever dynamic, relational, and creative. The conflict for us between change and continuity results from our desire for a security based on an illusory changelessness of creation as we know it and our own personal and repetitive habits. The impermanence of all that we know is an affront to us. So we naturally seize on current forms of our own lives and the lives of the traditions and institutions we inhabit and tend to confuse their accidental aspects with their core identities. Mystery is a difficult milieu to inhabit, and so we reify our personal and communal/institutional habits as if they were “the absolute” truth of things.

On the other hand, especially in our secular western culture, we can fail to appreciate the truth that, as Adrian van Kaam puts it, “we are inherently traditional.” We and our cultures have been formed within traditions that carry within them the wisdom of the ages. Jesus comes to know himself and his call from the tradition into which he is born and by which he is formed. As spirit he, as we, are always a unique and transcendent manifestation of that tradition, but it is only in and through the tradition that we can come to realize and incarnate that spirit.

Thus, both Matthew and Luke are correct. Jesus marks both a continuity with and a radical break from his tradition. What does this mean for our own formation? What does this truth require of us? For one thing, it means that as we continue to live our lives traditionally we must also remain open to and in communion with the Mystery within and around us. God is in “our world” but God is also far beyond any way that we can perceive or understand. The Spirit of God is at work in ways that we can, because of the wisdom of our traditions, recognize, but that Spirit is also creating anew in ways that require our entering into a radical “unknowing.” To be an instrument of God is to submit ourselves to a work whose ultimate outcome will always remain unknown to us.

Persons and traditions clash because we all presume to know far more than we do. It is always difficult to trust that we can bear the changes, transitions, and diminishment that life and God will ask of us. This is true personally, communally, and traditionally. The “other” as other is a call beyond the limits of our self-definitions as well as a threat to the temporary security of our illusory certitudes. What Pope Francis terms “a spirituality of encounter” is a call to dare to dialogue with that which is foreign to us, trusting that God’s presence manifests in very different ways from our own. At both the personal and communal levels, ti requires of us to value who we currently are and what we have come to know and realize of our truth over time, but it also asks of us to remember that God, and our own true identity in God, is always far more than we already know or have realized.

 Paul VI invited us to deepen the call to renewal and to make it clear that renewal does not only concern individuals but the entire Church. Let us return to a memorable text which continues to challenge us. “The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself, ponder the mystery of her own being… This vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her and loved her as his holy and spotless bride (cf. Eph 5:27), and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today… This is the source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns”. The Second Vatican Council presented ecclesial conversion as openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling… Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth”.

There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective.

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 26-27

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