Broken Vessels

Perhaps it’s not by chance that brokenness is on my mind—after all, we are drawing close to the season of Lent.  Yet it is the topic of Theological Shark Week that prods me to think about our human limitations.  To describe “why I am (still) Catholic” implies faithful and critical evaluation of what it means to be Catholic, or at least of how Catholicism has been lived out within history and in our present moment.

What should we do when the brokenness of Catholics, as individuals and as a communion, inveighs against our Catholic identity?  The final portion of the creed might serve as an ecclesial examination of conscience:

One:  What divisions do we profit from or promote?  With whom do we refuse to be in solidarity?  When do we deny forgiveness or ignore opportunities for reconciliation?  How do we violate the call to care for all creation?

Holy:  How do we reject intimate union with God and others?  With what hypocrisies do we live?  Where do we lack the gospel’s integrity and authenticity?  When are we deaf to the call to conversion and beatitude?

Catholic:  What areas of our lives are kept “safe” from the call of faith?  Which people seem too far away or too different to claim our care and resources?  How do we prize uniform individualism over diverse unity?

Apostolic:  How do we respond to the gospel with fear rather than faith?  When do we reject Christ’s mission, or categorize it narrowly to suit ourselves rather than to promote God’s reign?   How do we practice Christ’s mission—through love or by power and domination?

Individually and together “all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  When our communal incarnation of the Body of Christ is obscured by sin my Catholic identity seems both false and foolish and I am tempted towards a cynical despair.

If brokenness only meant “sinfulness” I might find it impossible to claim Catholicism and to acknowledge its claim upon me.  I think that there is another way to imagine brokenness, however, one that does not deny the power of sin and evil, but that also perceives within brokenness the seeds of resurrection.

To understand brokenness in this way I turn to the image of the crucifixion.  Why does the crucifix hang in Catholic parishes, homes, and institutions?  Why is the crucifixion Catholicism’s predominant image rather than the empty tomb or resurrected Christ?  History and theology provide various ways of answering these questions.  To me the prominence of the crucifix is linked in part to a Catholic interpretation of brokenness as both the consequence of sin and as the means of realizing God’s love.

In writing this I am not excusing sin-induced suffering, offering some optimistic notion that “everything turns out OK in the end,” or indicating that pain is an essential ingredient in a redemptive magic potion.  Rather, I believe God does not ignore the brokenness caused by sin; God chooses to work within and through a finite and fragile creation.  God does not “get around” our brokenness, but rather chooses to be mediated through it.

With our humanity, Jesus took on brokenness:  “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-7).  In the resurrection that brokenness is not erased, but transformed:  in the breaking of the bread and the abiding wounds of his body the disciples recognize Jesus as the authentic messiah (Luke 24:  28- 40).

In the midst of personal and communal brokenness the psalmist mourns “I have become like a broken vessel” (Psalm 31: 12).  The same psalm also conveys hope, echoed in Jesus’ last words from the cross:  “You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.  Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (Psalm 31: 3-5; cf. Luke 23:46).   Despite powerful reasons to despair, our Christian hope is that brokenness—mine, yours, and ours—is neither presently nor ultimately an obstacle to redemption, but is rather the location from which we call out to God, committing our spirits once again to God’s Spirit who brings about our communion, holiness, catholicity, and mission.

One of the (many) reasons why I am (still) Catholic is our ecclesial embrace of Christ crucified.  Through it I find our identities revealed as broken vessels of redemption.

[The broken vessel pictured above was found in Wajahat Ali’s reflection on perfection and forgiveness in Ramadan.]