“Ah, the good old days!”
I was talking with someone recently about what it used to be like… once upon a time. She said several things that resonated with me, that triggered a memory or two, and which made me reminisce. Her comments are ones I’ve heard many times before… about how full our churches used to be and how everyone we knew prioritized going to Mass on Sunday, how there was no shortage of priests, no need for collaboratives or consolidations, and about how good things seemed back then. It was nice to reminisce.
I myself remember as a child of the 1960s and ’70s going to the 10:30 Sunday morning Mass at my parish, which had an upper cathedral style church and a lower, more modest chapel that was, by chapel standards, quite big. If you got there even just a few minutes late, it was standing room only as both churches were completely packed. My guess is that there had to be 600 people there for the combined 10:30 Masses. There were five other Masses going on each weekend as well, some offered simultaneously in both the main and chapel churches. How many people were in and out of that place in a typical weekend? It had to be in the thousands.
But things have changed.
By many standards, this should be a sad thing, a sorry state of affairs. So many have fallen away from the practice of the faith. And that is sad. Since we are called to evangelize, we need to get the good word out and the way we measure our success is in our numbers.
Because bigger is better.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we hear that “the people were filled with expectation.” So, what exactly were they expecting? It seems, they were expecting something big.
Because bigger is better, right?
We know how this story turned out. A baby was born to migrant parents who were displaced and then who had to live on the lam for a while. Jesus’ experiences, his home life, his eventual ministry were not what you would call big. I think it’s more accurate to say that they were small. With some exceptions, like feeding a big crowd or preaching in front of a big audience, most of what Jesus did was quite small. One on one. Oftentimes, when something remarkable happened, he instructed the person experiencing the miracle to go and tell no one. He mostly went to small villages, spoke to small crowds, traveled a relatively small distance from home.
There was a smallness about this messiah.
I think about our contemplation of his kingship as we turned from the ordinary to expectation at the outset of Advent a few weeks ago. There is the fascinating and quite famous exchange between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate, a symbol of human power and authority. Jesus, a symbol of human fragility and humility. Pilate, a man who in his time experienced great stature but who would be long, long forgotten if not for his brief encounter with the savior of the world.
I like to translate, to paraphrase, that exchange between the two of them as:
Pilate: “We’ve got rules here and you’re not following them.”
Jesus: “I don’t think very much of your rules.”
Pilate: “Well you had better pay attention to our rules, otherwise you’ll be dead!”
Jesus: “Death? Is that all you got? Death? Please…”
It was a small exchange with a big reveal.
Instead of calling an army of angels to free him, Jesus… through his seeming indifference to his own plight in that moment of truth… revealed a profound affirmation that his big accuser, this great big world, the big culture, the big society, and this big life… had no true power over him. And… the same can be said of us if we’re willing to go where he goes.
It was this way from the very beginning. He did not favor going big… he favored going small. With his powers of persuasion, why didn’t he call together twelve disciples of some influence, with greater cachet or prominence? Why didn’t he go and gather up the twelve most powerful senators of Rome to join his efforts? Instead, he called common fishermen. A zealot. A tax collector. A thief.
And after his speech about bread of life, when a whole big group basically said: “this is weird and hard” and then left, he didn’t say: “Wait, I was just talking symbolically! It’s cool. Come back… we can work this out.” No, he just let them go. But, in return, he was left with a smaller, stronger, more committed, more emboldened group who would continue to walk the path with him. From the start, it seems that Jesus favored quality over quantity.
So, to my reminiscing friend… I would ask whether things really were better back in the day? Whether the 600 people packed into upper and lower church Masses at one time really represents the prize, the goal? I for one would take everyone who is in this church right now over those 600 because I would bet that the number here who are present out of habit, guilt, or to conform to some social norm is a tiny fraction of what it was back then. And I don’t need to remind you that our Church back in the 1960s and 1970s was, as we have all painfully learned, not exactly perfect.
I recently watched the movie, Paul, the Apostle of Christ, which chronicled the final days of Paul and his friendship with Luke, who were contemporaries and who supported each other, right up to the end of Paul’s life. Together, Luke and Paul wrote over half of the New Testament and so it was interesting to see the filmmaker’s depiction of their friendship. It was also striking to see how the early Christians were brutally persecuted in Rome. The visuals in the movie make that point very dramatically. Yet the film also shows a small community of believers, the community Paul ultimately inspired in his crowning achievement, his Letter to the Romans. The contrast between the small, strong, committed, emboldened group of Christians against the backdrop of a big, hostile, dangerous culture was powerful.
And it was also inspiring. And instructive.
I have been wondering whether our best course, as modern day evangelists, is to go big? To embark into the town square. To influence policies and laws and to promote our views in all the big ways that dictate how our culture is organized and governed. Or… I wonder… might we go smaller?
Smaller communities of faith that support and strengthen each other, like this one.
Smaller aspirations, like reaching out to just one person we know and trying to bring them back to Mass with us.
Smaller conversations, like talking to the co-worker or family member who is convinced that there is no God or, if there is one, that he is indifferent to us. Or indifferent to the plight of the least among us, the weakest, the most vulnerable, and those who have no voice at all.
Smaller ministries, like finding that one person who is lonely or isolated and then befriending them.
Smaller moments of light, like carving out some time every week to sit in a chapel in silence in front of the Eucharist.
Smaller fields of view, where we aim to touch the heart of just one person who really could use that touch instead of trying to win it up big in the town square.
Christianity is built up every time a single heart is touched. That’s the way it works. And that’s the way it worked from the very start.
Going smaller. Touching hearts. Jesus understood that smaller, stronger, more committed, and emboldened followers can do great things.
Jesus is coming! So… let’s go do some great things.