par⋅a⋅dox [par-uh-doks] –noun
1. a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
2. a self-contradictory and false proposition.
3. any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature.
4. an opinion or statement contrary to commonly accepted opinion.
A priest once told a friend of mine to stop going to Mass. “Don’t let anything get in the way of your relationship with God,” he told her. She had found herself full of dissonance during every recent experience of the Catholic liturgy. The homilies, the Scriptures, the people around her, the music, the patriarchy she perceived, the baggage, the history—all of it left her bitter and desperate. The pastor’s simple advice feed her guilty conscience, and she took a leave of absence from Sundays at her local parish. My friend sacrificed the liturgy for the sake of her relationship with God.
To many, that might sound like outrageous, paradoxical pastoral instruction: how can one grow closer to God by forgoing the House of God? By forfeiting the sacraments or the liturgy or the Church? These objections are unsurprising and worthy of consideration, I think. Yet, at the same time, Christianity has often been characterized by surprising paradoxes. So many of those profound paradoxes show up in this week’s Sunday Gospel:
James and John strive to be as close to Christ as possible for eternity, and Jesus—our Mighty God incarnate—reveals that this request is beyond his authority.
Being great and Godlike means being a servant—a slave even.
The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus is the incarnate paradox, and based on Christ’s ethical prescriptions in the gospel passage, our living as Christians should be a bit paradoxical too. Paradox is tricky, though. By accepting the possibility of truth in contradiction, Christian living can no longer be taken as obvious or easily discerned. For instance, Jesus came to heal suffering through life as a suffering servant. The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity. In light of this paradox, how am I to make sense of suffering?
Within the Catholic tradition we find the Spirit of God, yet many proclamations made on behalf of the Church seem utterly contradictory to that Spirit. My friend leaves the Church to save her faith in God; I have returned to the Church to claim my faith again. So what am I to make of Catholicism?
Like the disciples who turn to Jesus for guidance, we must turn to God with these messy paradoxes. We must be open to replies that we do not expect. We must refuse to let the fear of contradiction get in the way of our relationships with God.
Jessica Coblentz is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.