Liturgy and Justice

Jesus as Model Relationship Builder

March 07, 2007


I write this on January 19th, a day when we in the U.S. remember the prophetic vision and transformative work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I heard proclaimed at Mass this morning the passage from the Gospel of Mark (2:18-22) and reflected on Dr. King’s legacy, two thoughts occurred to me.  First, in the Gospel reading, Jesus responds to a question about fasting and in doing so, teaches his listeners something about conversion of life:  “No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.  If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.  Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.  Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined.  Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”  Just before these verses in chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals a paralytic and in the process is accused of blasphemy for forgiving the man’s sins (Mk 2:1-12).  In the very next section, Jesus invites Levi (whose new name will be Matthew) to follow him and is then challenged about his eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mk 2:13-17).

It is striking to me that Jesus’ teaching about the old and the new, about conversion of life requiring a complete giving over and giving into being a new creation, follows two scenes in which he challenges prevailing prejudices.  Jesus invites two social outcasts to transformation of life, and importantly, empowers them to do so by his very presence and by his desire to be in relationship with them.

I thought also about Dr. King as a man who called a whole society to conversion of life and who understood the building of right relationships as key to such conversion.  Other such servants of justice come to mind as well – Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero – to name only a few whose legacies are known to many modern day people.  Not only could we add numerous names to the list of those ministers of justice who gained worldwide attention, but we could also draw up what would be an even longer list of people who are committed to promoting justice every day and who do so outside of the public spotlight.  And while I’m sure we would discover many common traits among all of these people, my hunch is that one particularly powerful shared characteristic is that they were/are relationship builders.  My guess is they understand that for authentic transformation of persons and of communities to come about, right relationships are a must.

Like Jesus, then, we Christians are mandated by our baptism to be epiphanies of the justice of God in this world.  This mandate is achievable only when we follow Jesus’ lead in forging right relationships between God and humanity, and among peoples, and with the whole of creation.  Jesus illustrates clearly for us that as John Haughey, S.J. has written, justice is giftable.  (See “Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part III).)  I think it’s giftable because it’s borne out of relationships – where we give and receive.

Let’s consider for a moment Jesus as our model for relationship building.  First, contemplate or imagine what was in Jesus’ heart.  What moved him to focus on relationships?  I think of his passionate and unconditional love for people and for all of creation.  As the Incarnate One, he was the epiphany of God who is love, who is justice.  Jesus manifested the very heart of God as he went about forging right relationships.

So then we can ask, how did Jesus put into action what was in his heart? Recently, I sat with the four Gospels and reflected on the various ways in which Jesus goes about building right relationships.  Here’s my list:

Jesus builds relationships by: 

+  praying – alone and with others;
+  loving and being self-giving;
+  reaching out to all persons   regardless of social status, degree of faith, or any other characteristic – his ministry is inclusive;
+  bringing together people who might not think they have anything in common;
+  gently inviting;
+  naming, which goes to the very essence of a person;
+  touching;
+  forgiving and reconciling;
+  healing;
+  being present – not just there but really present;
+  enabling persons to change and live as a new creation;
+  honoring the fundamental dignity of each person he encountered; all people were visible to him;
+  being open to others’ perspectives;
+  attending to the natural world – which he often refers to when offering powerful images in his teachings;
+  teaching about rightly ordered relationships through his parables;
+  telling stories to describe the Kingdom of God and inviting his listeners to connect their stories with his stories and ultimately the Kingdom of God;
+  feeding people – food for their bodies and food for their souls; and
+  celebrating!  He dined with an assortment of people. 

Certainly my list is not exhaustive.  I’m sure that if you explore the Gospels in this way, you will find more ways in which Jesus is a preeminent model for us in forging right relationships – in manifesting the justice of God.

Note also that Jesus’ relationship building activities form the basis of the Church’s sacramental life.  The Church, which if we follow the thinking of theologian Edward Schillebeeckx is the sacrament and symbol of Jesus Christ in the world, brings to consciousness the gift of God’s grace through both its formal sacramental rituals and through its basic sacramental way of being.  We as Church are called to pray, love, offer ourselves, reach out across barriers, gather people through what they hold in common; invite; name; forgive; be present; enable and empower people; respect the dignity of every human being; and be good stewards of creation.  Once again, my list is not exhaustive.

Our formal liturgical rites include, among others, actions of laying of hands, touch, anointing, welcoming, honoring, eating and drinking, and celebrating.  These actions help us give expression to the right relationships we desire with God and one another.  Our participation in these actions enables us to rehearse our role as ministers of justice and ultimately, for the Kingdom of God where all relationships are rightly ordered.  So we see already that the Church’s liturgy, the Church’s sacramental life, and the Justice of God are really threads of the same cloth.

One more story that sums up in a very meaningful way much of what I have attempted to say here.  Not long ago a gentleman from my parish told a group of people about his work with the homeless in D.C.  He mentioned that in the shelter program that he coordinates, the shelter residents are required to have dinner with one another and with volunteers and staff every evening.  The belief – the hope – behind this requirement is that table fellowship will build community among the residents and the parishioners from various congregations who help at the shelter.  This gentleman added in his reflections, “Needless to say, this has a rather obvious relation to liturgy.  Celebrating Eucharist is an eschatological banquet.  All are welcome.  All eat.  All are forgiven and forgive one another.  All celebrate.  If many things are unclear about Jesus, one thing that is clear is that he loved dinner parties.  Needless to say, neither most shelter meals nor most family meals are heavenly banquets.  They are with broken people.  Part of my job is getting broken people (myself included, of course) to accept their brokenness and their belovedness; they are God’s children.”  Well said by a man committed to building right relationships, a man committed to serving Jesus Christ with justice.

Anne Koester works and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  She has edited or co-edited three books:  Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002); Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); and Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006.  Anne is also the author of Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.)


A Participation that Is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy
Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part I, Part II, Part III)
Liturgy: Some Key Ideas
Putting on Our Sunday Best
The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision
To Live & Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?

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