A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to the New York Encounter, a cultural event sponsored by the movement Communion and Liberation. The yearly, Martin Luther King-weekend event includes artistic performances, presentations, and exhibits centered around a particular theme, all seeking to demonstrate how the Christian event, the encounter with Christ, enables us to look at every aspect of our life differently.
This new criterion, this original judgment, enables us to stay with Christ as His presence “echoes” in the events of our life. A particularly strong experience of Christ gives us the tools to recognize Him again, in new environments and in front of new faces.
My experience of the New York Encounter ended on a particularly high note, as I got to meet the president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Father Julian Carron. Carron came to New York to attend the Encounter and to meet with the men and women, laity and clergy, who lead the movement throughout the United States.
It was toward the end of the weekend, just before I left on my flight back to Phoenix. I said to Father Carron the first thing that popped into my mind: “I had the most beautiful experience here this weekend, and yet I couldn’t be more excited to go home.” The words were surprising even to me, but they accurately described what was filling my heart at that moment.
And Carron responded: “That is how you know it is Christ!” Again, an unexpected but equally welcome way of describing what was in me that morning.
What did he mean? Quite simply, that Christ does not take the place of life, but enables us to live life more fully. The fact that Christ can show His face in one place means that He can, and will, and does show His face in every other place.
But we expect the opposite, don’t we? At least, I expect the opposite. I have a beautiful experience and I don’t want it to end. I want to “hang on” as long as possible. Or, after the particular event, I try as far as I am able to recreate the circumstances, the faces, the events that so struck me–usually to no avail. The result can be a frustrated and painful nostalgia for something lost and in the past.
This dynamic is true of human encounters and relationships, but often of the relationship with Christ. Christianity as nostalgia is how a large part of the world–Christian or not–understands Christianity. Christ is a figure from the past, who did amazing things, who taught us to love God and our neighbor, and who died to show how much He loves us (and to forgive our sins).
Christianity as nostalgia is also how most of the world treats the Christmas feasts that we just celebrated. We remember something that happened in the past so that we can be encouraged to seek peace and to be more about giving than receiving. All of which is important, but none of which gets to the point of Christmas or Christianity.
The whole reason why the Apostles and the first followers of Jesus Christ decided to write about Christ, about His birth, His miracles, His moral teaching, and His death “for us” is because death was not the last word about Him. Christianity is interesting because Christ is present, because He rose from the dead.
The Christmas story is interesting because God-IS-with-us, not God-was-with-us. The “glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will” is possible because Christ lives now to give it to us. Christ’s miracles and teachings in the past are important because He never stops to work wonders and to teach us. Christ’s death on the Cross is life-giving only because He rose from the dead, has overcome sin and death, and wants to win that victory in us.
Christianity as nostalgia still moves hearts. That’s why all the radio stations play Christmas music, and we hear so much about the “spirit of Christmas” and “Christmas cheer”. But nostalgia cannot, does not, move us the rest of the year. Christianity as nostalgia is a reduction of Christianity, and therefore can only get people to church once a year, or so. Eventually we lose interest, if we are lucky, or we continue to practice the faith out of habit, for cultural or social reasons.
Christianity as presence, as event, as Christ here-and-now filling my heart and my life with His grace and truth has the ability to hold our interest long after the radio stations have stopped the Christmas music and we have taken down the decorations.
These last two weeks, I have had the grace to be home, visiting family and friends and reconnecting to my Phoenix roots, which I miss so much. I was sick most of the time I was home, but still it was a beautiful experience of love and companionship, of everything I love about home.
After one of the most beautiful days of my vacation, spent with great friends and with my family, I was surprised to find that I could not wait to get back to Rome, to school, to the friends and the people that I have met in Italy. That might seem obvious to many: Father, you live in Rome after all!
I am not downplaying the blessing of living and studying in Rome. Still, that does not take away the fact that I miss home, miss my life of priestly ministry in the diocese, and miss my family and friends. That is what was so surprising. After a day full of all the things I love, I did not look to the future with sadness and fear; I did not think of the past with nostalgia. The easiest way to put it was that I was excited, excited for what was next.
Which is to say: I am excited for what Christ would do next. Because if Christ shows Himself alive in Phoenix, He cannot but be alive also in Rome or in the Minneapolis-St Paul Airport where I write this post.
This year, I will not have the chance to go to the New York Encounter–poor me, I know, I’m in Rome!–but the words of Father Carron still echo in my heart: “That is how you know it is Christ!”