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Pope Francis’ unscripted homily on Palm Sunday was like a meditation from the third week of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. He invites us to ask one basic question: “Who am I before my Lord?” and takes us through the cast of characters of the Passion story. Which one matches our attitude? Where do we fit on the continuum between Judas and Caiaphas and St. John and Our Lady?
Ignatian spirituality is all about bringing our will in line with God’s will for us. It thrives where such first-person questions are asked. In fact, the ideal situation for the Exercises (though St. Ignatius himself knew it was rarely practical) was one priest giving the 30-day retreat to one retreatant. But the varied cast of characters of the Passion underlines a more fundamental aspect of our faith. We only come to know Jesus and live our faith within a community of persons.
No doubt you have heard about the need to have a “personal relationship with Jesus.” You have heard it from TV preachers, you have heard it from parish priests and popes. And it is good to hear because it is true. But I would wager that TV preachers and popes don’t always mean the same thing by it.
If by “personal” in “personal relationship” you mean that it is exclusive (as in “personal property”) belonging to you and no one else, you are not getting the root meaning of the phrase. You can have a personal, exclusive relationship with your own car or your own bed if you’re the only one to drive it or sleep in it. But “personal” here should not be read as a synonym of “individualistic.”
A “personal relationship” means a relationship between persons. It is a special kind of relationship, one that transcends other relationships. Two inanimate objects can have very limited interactions. Their “relationships” are little else than juxtaposition, rock on top and rock on the bottom. Their relations are physical and chemical. Beings endowed with senses can have relationships of seer and seen. As beings endowed with knowledge, we can relate to things and ideas as knowers to things known.
But a “personal relationship” is one of lover and beloved. Do we relate to Jesus this way? Do we relate to Him as one person to another? Not “what” is Jesus to me, but “who.” And not “what” am I before Him, but “who.” And there is more: to be a person also means to learn to love within a community.
During the Liturgy of Light at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the Paschal Proclamation sings about bees. It seems a bit “random,” (my kids’ word for anything they don’t immediately understand) but I assure you it is quite intentional. Yes, there are bees carved into the columns of the baldachin of St. Peter’s, but that is a nod to the crest of the Barberini family of Pope Urban VIII. While blessing a candle, it makes sense to speak of bees, but the bees in the liturgy are even more meaningful.
There is a classical trope (Francis Bacon’s use of it comes to mind) comparing spiders and bees (ants, too, but let’s leave them out for brevity’s sake.) Spiders pull everything from themselves. They are self-sufficient, it seems. Most live as loners. But bees live in community, and help each other find the pollen, and then transform what they receive into something amazing, and produce it in quantities that allow for them to survive and also to give the sweetness of honey to others.
That is a metaphor for the Christian community. We are not to live our faith individualistically, pulling from our own minds what and how we are to believe. Our faith is something we must learn, and learn by listening to others who can tell us where we can find the truth of Christ. And then we bring that back and labor on it. And together (with the all-important grace of the Holy Spirit) something beautiful is produced. And that should be an overabundance that enriches the whole world.
The Paschal Proclamation also speaks of the apis mater, the mother (queen) bee. In the hive, she alone is fertile. She alone is mother of all. The Church, as the Bride of Christ, plays this role for us. We find Christ in his Church, we live the faith as sons and daughters of the Church. And the Church nurtures us and helps us live abundantly, enriching others.
If our relationship with Jesus were “personal” in the individualistic sense, our culture would be correct in telling us to mind our own beeswax and stay out of the public square. But our relationship with Jesus is one of lover and beloved, two persons whose love for each other grows within a community. Even a bee can’t mind his own beeswax, since there is none that is his own. It is from and for and with his community. His labor is lost in the hum of the hive.
This Holy Week, take time to meditate on the Pope’s question: Who am I before the Lord? Is my relationship with Jesus a relationship between two persons? Do I love Him as a person and respond to Him with my whole personhood? Do I do that within the community of persons of the Church?
Do I help my parish hum with fruitful living of the faith? People will tell you to mind your own beeswax. Don’t even bother telling them it’s not possible. Just offer them some honey.