What We Cannot See

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, Texas on Sunday, January 10, 2021 – The Baptism of Our Lord

(Mark 1:7-11)

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1946 that argues strongly that people need to read old books. He didn’t believe all modern books were bad, but rather that old books have a corrective power that new books don’t have. Lewis said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He argues that even those who are sworn enemies in their own time are formed in the same cultural waters and therefore make the same errors that neither one of them can see, but which become glaringly obvious in the long arc of history.

Lewis is right that we never quite manage to see the errors of our own age. It’s the water we swim in. If you were a particularly intelligent fish, perhaps you could determine which side of the bowl you prefer to be on, the side that faces the wall or the side that faces the window. You might even be able to make a good argument to your fellow fish. “The window side is clearly superior! It’s warmer and there’s so much more light.” But would you even notice the water? Probably not anymore than as humans we notice the air we breathe. Of course, you’d probably notice if the water suddenly went from crystal clear to a murky brown. But would you notice if that change happened more gradually, with the water getting just a little bit dirtier and a little harder to swim in every year? Or would it be imperceptible to you until one day you look up and suddenly realize that you’ve been choking?

This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. Like so many Americans, I watched with shock and horror on Wednesday as protesters broke through a police line and attacked the U.S. Capitol building, threatening elected leaders and their staff, causing the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer, and in the words of President Trump in his statement on Friday, “defiling the seat of American democracy.” It was an unthinkable display, like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it seemed to shake a lot of people out of complacency, including some members of Congress who were huddled under their desks as the assault was carried out. How did we get here? How did we become so utterly divided as a nation that violence has become a legitimate means, in the eyes of some, for overturning an election and overthrowing the rule of law?

The situation we find ourselves in isn’t going to get fixed by debate. It’s not going to go away because of a new presentation of facts that’s going to change anybody’s mind. This isn’t actually about that. Yes, we have serious questions that need to be debated, and serious issues that pull us apart culturally and politically, but the reason we’re now at a place where we’re ready to tear out each other’s throats isn’t because we disagree about issues. It’s the stuff that we can’t see that’s killing us. It’s the water that we swim in. It didn’t get polluted all at once; it’s been happening slowly but steadily, over a long period of time. We’ve adopted, little by little, without even realizing it, a whole new moral structure, a whole new way of seeing the world that would be indecipherable to our ancestors. That new morality is shaped less by books, as in Lewis’ time, than by Twitter and YouTube and Tiktok and cable news, by technology that we were told would connect us and make our lives better but instead isolates us and transforms us from people into products. It’s a worldview that’s developed right along with time-saving appliances, televisions with Netflix subscriptions, and wristwatches that keep you connected to your work email even in the middle of the night. 

Whether or not you use any of that stuff, all of it has been shaping us and changing us for a long period of time. And I can’t tell you exactly how. I wish I could. I can’t see the whole board, because I’m on it. I’m not some impartial observer. I’m swimming in this dirty water, just like you. It’ll probably be many years before our great grandchildren look back at this period with the clarity of history and put together exactly what happened to us. But from where we sit today, none of us are going to be able to diagnose the problem fully. And yet, friends, there is an answer.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Baptism is an antidote to sin. It washes away the pollution of our hearts and minds. Jesus didn’t need any of that. There was no sin in Him that needed to be forgiven, no pollution that needed to be washed away. So why did He wade out into the waters of the Jordan and allow John to baptize Him? Because He came into the world to change the waters that we swim in. Throughout His life, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince anyone of anything. He made moral pronouncements that completely baffled the people of His day, but He refused to argue about them. When one group or another tried to bait Him into taking sides on a contentious issue, He would tell them a story that they didn’t understand that revealed the foolishness of the entire debate. The water didn’t change Jesus; Jesus changed the water. He doesn’t convince us to join Him by laying out the facts. He convinces us to join Him by joining us, by jumping into the water with us and taking all the pollution out of it and into Himself so that we no longer have to suffer from it.

Old books are helpful, to be sure, but Jesus is the only long term solution for what has us ripped apart. Yet even in the Church today, we often seem more interested in swimming in our own water than in His. We take our petty squabbles into the Church with us, forming different factions, following the latest dilettante who tells us what we want to hear, even if that means throwing out the pope and the magisterium to get there. If we try to bring our polluted water with us into the Church, that’s a surefire recipe for drowning. We need to swim in water that’s been purified by Jesus, to let go of our pet peeves and our need to be seen as holier than the person in the next pew. Jesus is the only way out of this mess. We must put everything else aside and focus our minds and our hearts only on Him: obeying His words, imitating Him, and allowing Him to pour into us the grace that can change us from the inside out.

You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.