Elie Weisel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, once said that “God made [us] because God loves stories.” We are the only ones of God’s creatures who have been blessed with memory and the ability to communicate the fruits of those memories. We can remember. We can tell our stories.
All cultures treasure their memories, whether captured in creative narratives or veiled in legal prescriptions or ancient rubrics. They are told and retold, forming the very fabric of a people. These memories tell the story of relationships, often beginning with a divine relationship and winding through the complexities of human relationships.
It should not surprise us that this reality is as true of our own heritage as a Catholic Christian people as it is for our brothers and sisters of Islam, Judaism, Native American, Buddhists, or any of the world’s great religions. Truth be told, we would do better first to study a people’s memories if we were to attempt to change their minds and hearts. Truth be told, we would better study our own story if we are to understand our own heritage as Catholic Christians.
Our story begins, as it does in so many faiths, with the creation story. From the very beginning we have attempted to understand who we are and why we are here. Genesis tells us. Though the story has a number of tellings, the one that fits the pattern of the entire story is in Genesis 1:1, 26-27, 31a.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
Now the earth was a formless void; there was darkness over the deep,
with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.
God said, "Let us make human beings in our image,
in the likeness of ourselves, let them be masters of the fish of the sea,
the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals
and all the creatures that crawl along the ground."
God created human beings in the image of God's Self,
in the divine image they were created, male and female God created them.
God saw all that was made and indeed it was very good.
If we are ever going be able to understand our story—the story God so loves—we will have to begin at the beginning. There is an eternal truth to this first of all stories and that truth should be the consistent pattern for our entire story. Creation, the original sacrament of God, is a creation that God saw as good. This oldest story also embodies a story of covenant made and covenant broken.
But even when sin entered the world and wounded all of creation, there were not only inevitable repercussions; there was also always a renewed promise. Even when we actively or unwittingly participated in that evil, the beginning truth of that original story always triumphed. Sin clearly diverts the vision God set forth; it violates the promise; but the very nature of the promise is the hope of liberation. Ultimately and undeniably we were created and destined for “goodness.”
The continuing story of our relationship with God in the Sacred Scriptures, and indeed in our own personal stories, testifies to this reality. From Abraham and Sarah and their overwhelmingly simple faith in the pledge of an incredible destiny, through Moses and a wayward people of often fickle faith who nonetheless won the promised land, through David and his misdeeds, to the prophets’ attempts to keep the story in the minds and hearts of a vacillating people, the story’s central theme comes through.
“I will make you a great nation.” “I will be your God, you will be my people.” “You are my chosen one.” “With a strong hand and outstretched arm.” “A people who were no people” are transformed into “a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen race.”
It is often hard for us to understand God’s constancy. But if we examine our own story we will likely find parallels.
I must have been in fifth or sixth grade at our little Catholic grade school
on the ethnically rich eastside of Cleveland. Whenever it rained we were
kept in the lunchroom during the lunch hour. Having just been fueled with
peanut butter sandwiches, twinkies, and sugar rich chocolate milk, there
was not much to prevent the eruption of preadolescent energy.
It was on such a day that I was up to some particularly reprehensible
mischief. Before too long the clicking of rosary beads announced the
approach of one of our Adrian Dominican Sisters. I felt Sister Roche’s
firm but gentle hand on my shoulder from behind. I quickly searched for
an excuse that would mask whatever guilt I felt, divert her attention to
some unwitting classmate, and thus blunt whatever was to come.
As I looked up at this gentle and lovely woman, she said, “Louis, you know,
you really should think about becoming a priest.”
Now isn’t that just the like our God? We expect a reprimand and instead we receive an invitation.
Such unconditional love is a central theme of the Scriptures and strikes a profoundly dramatic tone in the Incarnation. God’s continuing vision of a people loved beyond human understanding is made manifest in the very person of God’s only son. At the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the story tells us again that the one who is like us is as beloved as we are.
Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordon
by John. And at once, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the
heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a
voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on
you. Mark 1:9-11
The most revealing response to this Scripture story is the profound realization that at our baptisms the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit in the form of dove come down upon us, and a voice from heaven proclaimed; “You are my beloved; my favor rests on you.” It is a reality that we, in our often guilt-ridden state, all too quickly reject as preposterous.
If God did not treasure each and every one of us what was the purpose of creation and Christ’s supreme sacrificial act of re-creation?
These sacred memories are the foundation of who we are as a people of faith. They help us identify who we are. Though we were created good, we falter. But we are still loved, still chosen, still “my beloved.” This is the consistent message of Sacred Scripture. This is the connection to our own stories. That connection is central to who we are as Catholic Christians.
I had been invited to dinner at a parishioner’s home one Christmas season.
In addition to the host couple, their daughter, son-in-law and their two children
were present. Little Sarah was all of three and Benjamin was an energetic six.
They found great delight in showing off their many Christmas gifts to the
priest-guest. Sarah returned several times with her new doll to make sure
I appreciated its beauty as much as she did. Benjamin, too, paraded a
host of creative games.
Their enthusiasm never waned as the returned again and again to make sure
I understood just how many gifts they had received. Finally, in an effort to get
the conversation to move on, I acknowledged the inevitable conclusion of the
parade of gifts. I said to Benjamin and Sarah, “You must have really been
very good to have received so many wonderful gifts.” Their father, who was
seated next to me on the sofa, leaned over and whispered in my ear,
“They got the gifts because they are loved.”
This priest stood corrected. That very wise father was teaching his children a truth that would serve them well. Yet our culture continues to impose its values on our faith “You better not pout, you better not cry….” I had been trapped, as so many of us often are, into thinking that the gifts we have been given were somehow earned. They are not. They are freely given because we are so loved. Just how we approach our relationship with God and with one another should be rooted in that reality. It can make all the difference in the world.