A homily for the twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B). Readings available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
This is the custom of the simple: they ever find fault with the more subtle doctrines and foolishly tear in pieces any thought that is above them, because themselves understand it not: although they ought rather to have been eager to learn, and to have loved to search diligently the things spoken, not, on the contrary, to rise up against so wise words and call that hard which they ought to have marveled at.
— St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John
This week I took the next step in honing my mechanical skills by attempting to adjust valve clearances on my motorcycle. I say “attempted” because as a novice I didn’t realize that not only do the pistons need to be at top dead center to adjust the valves–they need to be at top dead center on the compression stroke. Duh!
As foreign as the workings of a modern internal combustion engine are to me, I discovered that they are not so complicated to my auto mechanic neighbor. He appeared disgusted by my incomprehension of elementary vehicle maintenance; however, if Fr. Alex the football coach switched the topic of conversation to implementing a cover-2 zone defense for the local high school team, the balance of power in the interaction would likely have been reversed. I would have felt comfortable and at ease with the topic at hand. While it can be embarrassing to admit ignorance to a neighbor, and demanding to try to understand a new concept, diving headfirst into an unfamiliar situation is an essential way we learn, grow, and develop as human persons.
It’s likely we can all identify with this experience. There are some things—like motorcycle maintenance or football defense schemes—which come easily and naturally to us even though they seem hopelessly complex to others, and others which we find uncomfortably difficult to grasp even though our friends mastered them years ago. But true growth comes not when we stay within our comfort zone, but actively pursue those things which make us uncomfortable and challenge us to grow.
It turns out that this is true not only of developing new skills, but also of progress in holiness and understanding of the mysteries of our faith. At the conclusion of his Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus once again challenges his followers to come to a new level of understanding regarding his mission. All sorts of controversial and difficult topics are coming to the forefront here for his disciples: the Eucharist; his divinity and humanity; and, perhaps most difficult of all, the ultimate sacrifice towards which Jesus is rapidly advancing. Again and again, we see Jesus using this pedagogical technique in the Gospels. He brings people to their breaking point and asks them to bend beyond it. This method is typically welcomed and even cheered when someone sees Jesus challenging another on a matter about which they are already comfortable, but when he pivots towards something uncomfortable, the situation often deteriorates. The Pharisee might look on with satisfaction as Jesus instructs the woman at the well to conform to Jewish law regarding marriage, but balk at his suggestion that their narrow and legalistic understanding of the faith is insufficient.
It is uncomfortable to feel that we are being asked to grow and develop outside of our comfort zones. We see this in today’s Gospel: disciples murmuring, complaining, and ultimately abandoning Christ due to their unwillingness to accept those teachings which are personally challenging. Here Jesus asked his disciples to follow him beyond the breaking point of their understanding and comfort on the nature of the Eucharist as Christ’s body and blood, the suggestion that he will ascend to where he was before, or the increasing realization that his life will end in sacrifice. It is this dynamic in today’s gospel that St. Cyril of Alexandria is referencing in his above commentary. I opted to focus on St. Cyril not only because of the incredible insight present in his writing on this chapter of John, but also because his own life and ministry represent a sort of living commentary which both informs and is informed by his understanding of the gospel.
Cyril of Alexandria was patriarch of Alexandria in the fifth century and the primary force behind the third ecumenical council at Ephesus. He was a vocal critic of the Nestorian heresy, which–uncomfortable with Mary’s title as Theotokos (Mother of God)–proposed a stark division between the humanity and divinity of Christ. At Ephesus, St. Cyril affirmed our Catholic belief that while Christ has both a human and a divine nature, they are united in one divine person. Today’s reflection is not on Christology or the hypostatic union, so it is sufficient to note that Cyril returned from Ephesus to Alexandria victorious—he had successfully defended the true faith, the union of the human and divine natures in Jesus Christ.
While he was wildly popular among the people, Cyril was not greeted with universal affirmation in his diocese, but rather grumbling and complaining. He had gone too far in compromising, some of the monks of Alexandria informed him. His definition of the faith was tainted by Nestorian heresy and unacceptable because it acknowledged the human nature of Christ, they said. His teaching proved to be difficult to accept for different groups of people. Some were unwilling to be moved by his teachings regarding Christ’s divinity, while others would not budge when asked to find a place for Christ’s humanity in their understanding. Cyril’s subtle and nuanced theology which required both sides of the argument to adjust, like Christ’s teaching in the Bread of Life discourse, revealed the hard hearts of those who would rather abandon their teacher than open their hearts to deepening faith.
Of course, the via media is not always the correct path forward, even though it happened to be in this case. But a deeper understanding of the faith—or a deepening faith—requires us to be challenged in the very ways in which we do not wish to be challenged. I am not made uncomfortable by discussions about defensive strategies in football, it requires no great mental exertion on my part, but DIY motorcycle repair stretches me beyond my comfort zone. It required no heroic act of obedience for the Alexandrians to accept that Christ is one divine person; their challenge came in acknowledging that Christ has both human and divine natures—a challenge which many of them failed to meet. If we are not truly and personally challenged by our faith, then we are not living the same faith with which the disciples grappled as they contemplated abandoning Jesus or the faith for which St. Cyril of Alexandria endured criticism from all sides. As Cyril says, we should not grumble and complain but instead seek to learn, grow, and marvel at these mysteries, especially those which come as a challenge.
This lesson has become increasingly relevant over the last seventy-five or so years. During these seven pontificates, beginning in many respects with Pope Pius XII and becoming especially pronounced with Pope Francis, many Catholics have found themselves challenged by the successor of Peter in a manner to which they had not previously been accustomed. We have been asked to not comfortably watch others be transformed, but to be willing to conform ourselves more fully to Christ, especially when it is difficult. There is no great virtue in submitting oneself to the Church when one is already completely comfortable with every aspect of her belief and practice; heroic virtue comes when we follow Christ even though we do not see where he is leading, and when we are made uncomfortable by the demands which he places on us. This is the decision—to complain and leave or to be personally transformed—which was placed before the disciples.
I don’t mention recent pontificates merely as an afterthought, of course. Today’s Gospel ends with St. Peter, the first pope, pledging to follow Christ who “has the words of eternal life” on behalf of his brothers. In his commentary, St. Cyril of Alexandria praises the apostles for their wisdom in allowing the first among them to speak on their behalf. Peter exercised a unique role, and the willingness of the other eleven to prudently follow him as he professed his trust in Christ provides a model for us all. It was by imitating his example that they were able to move beyond their reservations and grow in Eucharistic faith. Today we are called to follow the examples of Peter and St. Cyril in embracing the parts of our faith that challenge us, so that we may follow more closely he who “has the words of eternal life”.