Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Triumph of Love – An Easter Reflection

When I was a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Primary School in Goulburn, Australia, one of the activities that I’d have my students engage in as we prepared for Easter was called “A Different Kind of King.” It involved the students drawing the type of king that the citizens of Jerusalem wanted Jesus to be as they watched and applauded his entry into their city on what we now call Palm or Passion Sunday.

I would always preface this activity by revising the political situation in Jesus’ country and time: the Jewish lands were occupied by the Roman Empire and many Jews wanted an end to this oppressive occupation; many wanted a king who would lead them in violently overthrowing the Romans. As you could imagine, many of the students in my class greatly enjoyed depicting a muscle-bound Jesus – complete with sword, dripping with the blood of the hated Romans!

And indeed, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the cheering crowds claimed him as this kind of warrior king. Yet when it dawned on them shortly afterwards that Jesus was not this kind of king, that his message was not about violent revolution and merciless death to one’s enemies, but rather about non-violence, radical inclusiveness, and compassion, they turned against him.

Jesus paid a terrible price for not living up to the expectations of others; for being, in other words, “different.” After all, many of those who shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” on Palm Sunday, were soon screaming, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. As the events of Holy Week testify, discovering that someone doesn’t meet our expectations can not only be disappointing but even infuriating – inciting some to rage and acts of terrible cruelty.

I was reminded of this when Episcopal bishop, John Selby Spong, in a talk at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Auditorium this past Saturday, shared the story of a young gay man who, after years of being closeted from his parents, finally wrote to them and shared with them that he was a gay man. They responded by sending him his birth certificate cut up into little pieces. This “different” son obviously did not meet his parents’ expectations.

Sadly, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons have experienced similar stories of rejection by people who loved and accepted them until the reality of their sexual orientation or identity was revealed – a revelation that suddenly made them unacceptable and unlovable.

The Cross We Bear

“Following Jesus means following the way of the Cross,” notes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its 2006 guidelines entitled, “Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations.” In this and other Church documents, LGBT Catholics are called to unite their suffering with Christ’s and thus live in hope of one day sharing in his resurrection.

Of course, in the eyes of the official Church, this “suffering” stems from being gay (understood as a “disordered inclination”) and, accordingly, from the struggle to live a life of celibacy as dictated by the Church. “Homosexual acts,” after all, insists the Vatican, “are contrary to the natural law,” and, accordingly, “under no circumstances can they be approved.” Similarly, the Vatican maintains that “homosexual unions are contrary to the divine plan.”

Yet for the vast majority of gay Catholics, the “cross” we bear isn’t our homosexuality but rather the homophobia of our Church and society.

And the promise of resurrection relates not to the successful repression of our God-given sexuality but to its loving acceptance and expression in our lives. For some this may indeed mean living a life of celibacy. Yet for most of us it means seeking and building a loving, committed relationship with another of the same gender; a relationship that is experienced and expressed sacramentally and sexually.

In short, the promise of resurrection in our lives as gay people can be seen to relate, in part, to the inevitable triumph of love over fear, compassion over dehumanizing legalism. It’s the triumph of God’s guiding presence in the depths of our very being over doctrines and “guidelines” developed by those unmindful of God’s transforming love and truth in our lives and relationships.

A Story of Resurrection

For LGBT persons within the Catholic Church, the way of the Cross continues in many ways. Yet there are signs of resurrection all around us – both within the Church and beyond it. This past Palm Sunday, for instance, Michael Winerip had a powerful story of resurrection published in the New York Times. It concerns a teenager named Zach O’Connor who struggled and overcame his fears so as to come out to his family and friends. Here’s a brief excerpt:

[Zach O’Connor] says he knew he was different by kindergarten, but he had no name for it, so he would stay to himself. He tried sports, but, he says, “It didn’t work out well.” He couldn’t remember the rules. In fifth grade, when boys at recess were talking about girls they had crushes on, Zach did not have someone to name.

By sixth grade, he knew what “gay” meant, but didn’t associate it with himself. That year, he says: “I had a crush on one particular eighth-grade boy, a very straight jock. I knew whatever I was feeling I shouldn’t talk about it.” He considered himself a broken version of a human being. “I did think about suicide,” he says.

Then, for reasons he can’t wholly explain beyond pure desperation, a month after his Valentine “date” – “We never actually went out, just walked around school together” – in the midst of math class, he told a female friend. By day’s end it was all over school. The psychologist called him in. “I burst into tears,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ Every piece of depression came pouring out. It was such a mess.”

That night, when his mother got home from work, she stuck her head in his room to say hi. “I said, ‘Ma, I need to talk to you about something, I’m gay.’ She said, ‘O.K., anything else?’ ‘No, but I just told you I’m gay.’ ‘O.K., that’s fine, we still love you.’”

The triumph of love! Isn’t that what the Easter story is all about?

Being closeted is like being entombed. It’s a living death. Yet God’s grace and love calls us out of the tomb of the closet, just as surely as God raised up our brother Jesus after his ordeal of suffering, struggle and death.

I mean, just look at C.M. Glover’s photograph of the O’Connor family. See how the family surrounds and supports Zach – literally! And Zach himself, needing that support after his long ordeal of entombment; needing support as he learns to stand and walk free of all that once restricted him.

Zach feared that he wouldn’t be what his family wanted or expected of him; feared, I’m sure, that they would reject him. Now knowing what we know of his family, such fears were obviously groundless, but believe me, when one lives in a closeted state, everything is distorted and magnified – including one’s fears.

Yet thankfully on some deep level, perhaps even unconsciously, young Zach trusted his family’s love, and allowed that love to lift him up and give voice to who he really is. Out of the closet, the tomb, he stumbled. And his family was there to reach out and hold him. And it’s all captured in that beautiful photograph! It’s an Easter image, to be sure.

The Triumph of Love

As gay people, as gay Catholics, each one of us is a “different kind” of child of God than what many in our Church may expect or want. Tragically, their response to our reality is often not much more than a sophisticated way of saying, “Crucify them!” And believe me, that’s how many LGBT people feel treated by the Church. Our lives and relationships are denounced, discounted, and rejected.

Yet as we continue our journey through Holy Week, I remind my fellow LGBT Catholics that the indifference and abuse of Good Friday that our Church has meted out to us for centuries, will one day give way to Easter Sunday’s triumph of love.

I don’t know how exactly this triumph will look for you, or when you’ll experience it. To be sure, many of us already experience the light of Easter morn in our lives and relationships outside the “acceptable” parameters established by the institutional Church and its dysfunctional sexual theology. These parameters comprise the Church’s tomb, and without question, the institutional Church has a long way to go before it allows itself to be liberated from this tomb and let the triumph of love illuminate and inform its teaching. Still, if we keep faithfully embodying this light, perhaps we’ll help herald the day of resurrection for the institutional Church in this matter.

My sense is, however, that that day is still a long way off. So for now, my prayer is that you, dear Catholic LGBT reader, will experience the Easter reality of love’s triumph deep within the very core of your being – your blessed and lovable gay being; and that you’ll also experience it mediated by those around you – your family members, your friends, your lover, and your local community of faith – Catholic or otherwise.

This Easter, know that you are loved; know that God calls you to be who you are – a living, loving, relational human being. You are blessed. You are loved.



Image 1: “Resurrection” by Cynthia Nelms-Byrne.
Image 2: “Christ Carrying the Cross” by Hieronymus Bosch.
Image 3: C. M. Glover.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Palm Sunday Around the World.


C.M. Glover said...

Thanks for the compliment.
C.M. Glover

Michael J. Bayly said...

You're welcome!