What is specifically Christian about mission work? What differentiates Christian service from any other type of humanitarian aid? Nowadays volunteerism has become chic, even in corporate America. Perhaps we are realizing that individualism is really bogus and that other humans (aka. neighbors) do matter and have real needs. So we see a flurry of activity and an application of our production-driven mindset to the needs of the poor and destitute.
And this is good. Really, it is natural.
Often behind this service-centered volunteerism, I hear this (perhaps mis-)quoted line from Ghandi sounding out as an anthem – “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” While I certainly agree that the world is hurting, and has been since almost the very beginning, I disagree with this philosophy. For one, it is just as individualistic as the selfish sin that got the world into this mess in the first place. Plus, how do I know that my “wish” is really what’s best for the world? Couldn’t my wish compete against your wish? Now we have a power-struggle and strongest man wins. What we really need is truth. Finally, this quote/anthem/rallying cry, pits man as savior.
I see much to commend in the secular humanist – there is a problem and a need to fix it. Great. But the Christian mission is not reducible to “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The Christian mission builds upon the innate desire that all would be united as one and live a decent life – just as grace builds upon nature.
So what is distinctly Christian about the Christian mission?
- It is a participation in the joint mission of the Son and the Spirit. “When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him” (CCC 689). “Jesus is Christ, ‘anointed,’ because the Spirit is his anointing, and everything that occurs from the Incarnation on derives from this fullness. When Christ is finally glorified, he can in turn send the Spirit from his place with the Father to those who believe in him: he communicates to them his glory, that is, the Holy Spirit who glorifies him. From that time on, this joint mission will be manifested in the children adopted by the Father in the Body of his Son: the mission of the Spirit of adoption is to unite them to Christ and make them live in him” (CCC 690). The Father sends Word and Breath, Son and Spirit, on a mission of redemption, sanctification, and unity (“that all may be one”), but we do not remain bystanders. We participate in the joint mission, which “will be manifested in the children adopted by the Father in the Body of his Son” (i.e. the baptized Christians in His Church). The mission is one of community, not individualism. Its aim is supernatural life in Christ; not merely a changed world. The mission does not abolish the need to care for physical and material needs, but fulfills it.
- The Christian mission does not begin from a position of power (over others) or pity (for others) but from a deep understanding of his need – from begging for supernatural help (i.e. the theological virtues). “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1). Faith in God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is an intensely personal event. It is a Trinitarian event; an encounter with Christ that changes the trajectory of life. Faith is a response to One who comes to me. He acts first. Faith, the grace of the theological virtue, comes first. Man begs for salvation. With regard to hope, the temptation is to place all of it in accomplishing “projects.” The Christian mission is not about using Christ as a starting point to accomplish our projects – projects that we place more hope in than Christ and find ourselves disappointed when our own ideals are not reached. Instead, Christian hope means begging at every moment, praying without ceasing, that Christ would be enough, that Christ would be everything (see CCC 2559-2560). Once, St. Louis de Montfort inspired a town of peasants to build a huge monument to the Passion of Christ. On the day it was to be dedicated, the government destroyed it. His response to the news was to say, “We had hoped to build a Calvary here. Let us build it in our hearts. Blessed be God.” Theological hope is hope in God’s plan, and a detachment from hope in mine. Finally, we beg for charity, for that self-emptying love of Christ. This love of Christ always comes first: “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19), “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain” (Jn. 15:16), “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (Jn. 15:4).
- Eucharist-centered. Jesus says that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you…For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:53, 55-56). Christ’s body and blood give life. The Eucharist, then, is the privileged place where true life can be found. It is the source, the place where we participate most in the joint mission of the Son and Spirit. The Eucharist is also the summit (see CCC 1324), the goal toward which all missionary/apostolic endeavors are directed. Why? Because the Christian mission is not a human project. It is a participation in the divine sacrifice (more on this in the next post). The Christian mission begins and ends with the Eucharist, because the intimate union with Christ must penetrate the whole of life and the whole of mission. We are not seeking to succeed in completing a “work camp,” “service project,” or “program.” We are responding to Love. We are always responding to Love. The Eucharist is the school of Love, the place where we learn to see the image of God in man (i.e. man’s truest dignity). “The ‘image of God’ in man is not, of course, something that we can photograph or see with a merely photographic kind of perception. We can indeed see it, but only with the new seeing of faith. We can see it, just as we can see the goodness in a man, his honesty, interior truth, humility, love – everything, in fact, that gives him a certain likeness to God. But if we are to do this, we must learn a new kind of seeing, and that is what the Eucharist is for” (The Spirit of the Liturgy 83).
- The Christian mission is not reducible to the “utopian community.” The Christian mission proclaims the Kingdom of God, which means “the defeat of Satan’s” (CCC 550). “The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us. It is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst” (CCC 2816). The Kingdom of God is not a political entity – it is Christ himself.
In the final analysis, we can see what is lacking in the “be the change” mentality. The Christian mission, which is not a me-mission, or a will-power mission, is a participation in the joint mission of the Son and Spirit. This mission is rooted in man’s position as a beggar, who is met by Christ who becomes the beggar for man in order to provide man with grace. The Christian mission flows from the Eucharist and moves towards the Eucharist, which is the place where the Kingdom of God is most perfectly manifest.
The Christian need not be concerned about creating a shangri-la. In fact, he need not get caught up in creating anything of his own power. He simply must receive and participate.
And that makes all of the difference.