Wednesday, March 7, 2012

THE NEED FOR CONSECRATION

We can lose our freedom for different reasons and, sometimes, for the best of reasons.

Imagine this scenario: You are on your way to a restaurant to meet a friend for dinner, a perfectly legitimate agenda, but en route you witness a car accident. Some of the people in the accident are seriously hurt and you are the first to arrive at the scene. At that moment your own agenda, dinner with a friend, is put on hold. You've lost your freedom and are, by circumstance and need, conscripted to remain there and help. You phone for an ambulance, you call for the police, and you wait with the injured until help arrives.

During that whole time your freedom is suspended. You are still radically free of course. You could leave the injured to fend for themselves and head off to meet your friend, but you would be abdicating part of your humanity by doing that. Circumstance and need have taken away your existential and moral freedom. They have consecrated you and set you apart just as surely as a bishop's blessing sets apart a building to be a church. The building didn't ask to be a church, but it's now consecrated and no longer free for other usage. So too with us, circumstance can consecrate us and take away our freedom.

In the ordinary mindset, consecration is a word that connotes things to do with church and religion. We understand certain things as consecrated, taken out of the profane world and set aside for sacred, holy service; for example: buildings (churches), persons (priests, deacons, monks, nuns), tables (altars), cups (chalices), clothing (vestments and religious habits). There is some merit in that, but the danger is that we tend to see consecration as a cultic and metaphysical separation rather than as a setting apart for service. Setting aside your freedom in order to stop and help at a traffic accident doesn't alter your humanity; it just suspends your ordinary activity. It calls you to service because you happen to be there, not because you are more special or holier than anyone else

That was the case with Moses: When God calls him to go to Pharaoh and ask him to set the Israelites free, Moses objects: Why not my brother? He has better leadership skills. I don't want to do this! Why me? And God answers those objections with the words: Because you have seen their suffering! It's that simple: God tells Moses that he may not walk away because he has seen the peoples' suffering. For that reason, he is the consecrated one, the one who is not free to walk away. Circumstance and need have consecrated him.

Our very notion of church draws on this concept. The word Ecclesia comes from two Greek words: "Ek Kaleo". "Ek" is a preposition meaning, "out of"; and "Kaleo" is verb meaning, "to be called". To be a member of the church is to be "called out of". And what we are "called out of" is what our normal agenda would be if we weren't conscripted by our baptism and by the innate demands of consequent discipleship. Baptism and church membership consecrate us. They call us out and set us apart in the same way that Moses' having seen the suffering of the Israelites took away his freedom to pursue an ordinary life and in the same way as witnessing a traffic accident on the way to meeting a friend sets aside our dinner plans for that night.

Edward Schillebeeckx once wrote a book within which he tried to explain why Jesus never married. He examined various theories and possible motives and concluded that, ultimately, Jesus never married because "it was existentially impossible" for him to marry. In essence, what Schillebeeckx is saying is that Jesus never married because the universal embrace of his love and magnitude of the world's wounds and needs simply never left him the freedom to marry, like someone on her way to have dinner with a friend but who has that agenda derailed because she witnesses a traffic accident. Like Moses, he was conscripted by a moral imperative. He didn't not marry because he judged it holier to be celibate or because he needed some kind of cultic purity for his ministry. He never married because the needs of this world simply suspended ordinary life. He was celibate not by emotional preference or by spiritual superiority, but by moral conscription.

Today the word consecration has lost much of its rich meaning. We have relegated the word to the sacristy and over-loaded it with connotations of purity and cult. That's unfortunate because both what's best in our humanity and our faith are forever trying to consecrate us. The needs and wounds of our world are constantly asking us to suspend our radical freedom, to set aside our own agendas, in order to serve.

And, like Moses, we have all seen enough suffering in this world that we should no longer be asking the question: "Why me?"

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