A couple of days ago, I gave a short homily at our weekly staff mass talking about what it means for the Church to engage the world around us.
I described a scene from the movie, The Last Emperor, in which Emperor Puyi runs toward the gates of the Forbidden City trying to see out and understand what is happening in the world all around him and instead the doors are slammed shut before he can reach them. He is held in the building by the force of tradition and the weight of an empire changing all about him. Society is collapsing and he is reduced from being its head to being at best a bystander and then a pawn and prisoner in its turmoil.
There was elaborate ceremonial, rich symbolism, and a powerful narrative and yet, the emperor had lost a critical thing in imperial dynastic history – the Mandate of Heaven.
The Mandate of Heaven, for an emperor, was his right to rule. It was his connection between the people he ruled and the Heavens. The understanding was that so long as he was connected to the dreams and aspirations of the people and ruled justly he continued to have Heaven’s blessing to guide the nation and the people.
A blog on Asian history puts it like this, “Although the Mandate of Heaven sounds superficially similar to the European concept of the ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ in fact it operated quite differently. In the European model, God granted a particular family the right to rule a country for all time, regardless of the rulers’ behavior. The Divine Right was an assertion that God essentially forbade rebellions – it was a sin to oppose the king. In contrast, the Mandate of Heaven justified rebellion against an unjust, tyrannical, or incompetent ruler.”
I wonder if the Incarnation has given the Church not a Divine Right but a Heavenly Mandate?
Many of our buildings and ceremonial look like Forbidden Cities in their own right. Those on the outside look in and think them a place that could never be for them. Those on the inside too often wonder how they can protect them and keep the wrong people away. More and more energy is put into maintaining the structures and the hierarchies and the real animating strength of the body is subsumed in the pettiness of squabbling and court intrigue.
We cannot claim to be the Church without a clear understanding that Christ’s connection to his people is our model for connection to the world. That is our Heavenly Mandate. We are to be reconciled to one another and God, we are to preach, heal, and baptize, we are to feed, clothe, and comfort, we are to worship, praise, and pray, we are to serve, bless, and forgive.
All of this work requires our determined and passionate engagement with the world around us. It requires that we make of our churches not places to retreat from the world, content with decorative charity, but are throwing ourselves into engagement with the world all around us – a world that is heaving with spiritual turmoil and questioning our right to say anything of value or meaning. We should be questioned. We should be doubted. We have let charlatans preach health and wealth and hypocrites judge even as they prey on the weakest among their flock.
The Church does not have a Divine Right. We have a Heavenly Mandate to remain connected and deeply involved in the day to day struggles of so many in our communities. One of the reasons the new Pope is so attractive is that he seems so ready to leave behind the palace to walk with paupers.
Our buildings and the institution of the Church are huge assets – they are a gift. But their maintenance is not the heart of our message. They are the places where we offer thanks to God, are drawn to Him in the Sacraments, and find newness of life and wholeness of purpose such that we can go and make Christ known. We are not to leave them behind or let them decay.
The Church is the incubator of life in Christ though. It is the waystation for our journey deeper into the world’s need – which is Christ’s own mission – for the world’s greatest need is word of God’s love. When our mission and ministry become the maintenance of the body within the church rather than the upbuilding of the Body all about the Church – we will have doomed ourselves to irrelevancy. This is the great urgency of our day. How do we reconnect the hope of the Church with the need of the world?
The need of the Church is not to look more like the world. We don’t need blander liturgy, to use corporate language, to look cooler, or the like. The Church needs to look realer – to look more connected to actual struggles. We also must look be a bit surreal – so connected to the depths of tradition that we offer a stables place of refuge and strength. We need to be connected to the suffering of the world and yet offer a glimpse of Christ transforming that suffering and calling our attention to the Kingdom just beyond. This is the heart of an already-not-yet Church. We hold the hand of those who suffer and in that great compassion offer a glimpse of wholeness.
If our people don’t see both their priests and fellow lay people at both the Altar and on the Street – we will have little to offer them. If they don’t see in every Christian and in every Christian leader some measure of how Christ is calling both to the Confessional and to the Homeless shelter then we will lose them. If they only see us praying at the font and not grieving at the bedside then we will be lost ourselves. The Church doesn’t have a Divine Right – we have a Heavenly Mandate.
This is the Mandate of Heaven – that we remain connected to our people in the deepest ways possible so that we can offer word of Christ’s love in manifold ways. There is a link between the glory of Christ and the glory of the Church but it is a link that rests only on the foundation of the Cross. Therein is the heart of the Mandate. We, the Church, have right to bear witness only so long as we share in his willingness to suffer alongside his people.
Any future for the Church will require evangelism and mission – they are at the heart of any real engagement with the world. Our future will also require listening so that we can hear the needs of the hurting and find ways to walk with integrity alongside them.
The doors of the Church are too quickly shut by those who would protect those within from the turmoil all about us – it is human and natural to look for a safe space in the midst of life’s challenges. But it is not the mandate and model of the Incarnation. We are in the world not over it even as we offer a glimpse of another way.
It really is time for us to pray for God to remove the barriers in our hearts and souls so that we can go out carrying with us word of Christ’s welcome. The charge of the Incarnation is our Mandate and we are to seek, with all that we have, a deep and abiding connection to the world around us such that we can together be reconciled and transformed.