At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” – Luke 13:31-35
A Homily Given on November 6, 2020
Over the summer, I served as a chaplain intern at the VA Hospital, where a number of my Catholic patients announced to me that they believed themselves to be in purgatory. Long, painful hospital stays in the midst of a pandemic, being prodded with needles and forced into embarrassing interactions with a parade of hospital staff, made these vets feel like they had suddenly been assessed, and considered not good enough to enter the Kingdom of God. They were just waiting for the suffering to end.
Even if we had clear news about the election this morning, the fact would remain that many of us feel like we’re just waiting for the suffering to end. Does that mean we’re in purgatory, too?
In Catholic thought, purgatory is not always conceived of as a place of passive waiting. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict the 16th, suggests that purgatory is not a “supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints.”
The hard, uneven places between certainty and uncertainty, safety and danger, justice and malice, supremacy and equity, are not places of passive suffering either. Time has not stilled, breath is not bated, even though it often feels that way. Jesus knows something about this. In today’s passage from Luke, he tells off the Pharisees who cry: “Danger is coming! A decision is about to be made, and you’re in trouble.”
But Jesus doesn’t freeze like a deer in the headlights. I can imagine him wildly gesticulating with his hands: “Don’t you see I have work to do?” Jesus lives in the purgatorial space between violent Roman supremacy and the Kingdom of God, and yet his work remains the same: he presses on to advocate for the marginalized and drive demonic evil out.
All week I’ve been asking myself what is required of me, what it means to be a Christian in a partisan empire, not realizing that Jesus has been wildly gesticulating to get my attention all along.
Our lives are lived – not just now, but entirely – in the uneven place where demonic evil like white supremacy bleeds together with the Kingdom of God. And so, we are in purgatory, but we’re doing it wrong.
Many of us in more progressive circles take for granted that social justice is a call of our shared faith. And yet, while we proclaim that we’re doing the work, we’re often sitting in our own self-designed purgatories. It may look like waiting for someone else to pick up the pieces while evading the harder work of ushering in the Kingdom of God. It may look like self-flagellation, a belief that punishing ourselves will somehow right the wrongs of the world. Or, it could look a bit like standing on a soapbox in the city center declaring our piety for the world to hear.
But the process of becoming “capable of Christ” is not fostered through our nihilism, self-loathing, or performative allyship. Our exterior actions must instead accompany us in our inner purification. Following Christ’s lead, our shared work defies the voices that cry out DOOM! Instead, we listen for the hymns of praise sung on the path to the Kingdom. We find the song and join the march.
We are not being called to “win” something for God, as if God primarily desires to live within the unimaginative narratives of our political systems. Neither are we being called to patiently wait for the suffering to end. We are being called to press on, in the novel and defiant path of the Gospel, to enter into the true story – which is more confounding and more just and more bright with unquenchable love than anything we have known before, the one in which all the saints of God dwell.