Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Throughout the play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” the women of Canterbury, bearing critical, often emotionally wrenching witness to the looming tragedy they feel forced to bear and declare, repeat a portentous motif about how people are “living and partly living.” Weaving this mantra into their narrative, in the mode of a Greek chorus, playwright T.S. Eliot captures their horror and fascination before the blood-curdling events to follow — the brutal murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket — and their revulsion and terror before it. Rather like an accident toward which one both draws and withdraws from, and with the same guilty allure.

I cannot help but confess that to me the fate of the Christian faith itself seems wrapped up in a similar drama. For the faith to be real, there is no way of avoiding the substance at its core: the horrific crucifixion of the Son of God incarnate, who dies for us, loving us. Yet, at the same time, to be true to that faith, one cannot just watch it. One must live it. There is no way in which one can be at once a witness to that faith and a mere spectator ... to both live it and escape its fate. Living, and partly living, as it were.

To offer some practical context, you may be familiar with Sherry Weddell, evangelizer, catechist and sociologist of religion, whose research has appeared in several publications, most notably “Forming Intentional Disciples” (2012). From her extensive inquiry and personal experience, she has discovered something that might surprise, even shock us: many, if not most who consider themselves good Christians are more spectators than disciples. And for that, the faith languishes.

Weddell finds, in asking honest questions of churchgoing Christians, that a good half of them not only claim to have no experience of a personal relationship with Jesus, but even doubt it is possible. Avoiding the temptation to judge or disparage these good people, who observe their religious duties, loyal to what they believe their faith demands, it seems clear that something is missing in many who might consider themselves “observant” churchgoers. Could that be one reason younger people do not feel drawn to share their emptiness?

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the decline of “religious” faith among young people — the so-called “post-Christian” generation. This includes Millennials and Generation Z. Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996, and the Pew Research Center has found that 35 percent of them claim no religion at all. Among Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, a third claim not only to have no religion, but 21 percent say they are atheists.

Weddell’s findings, however, put the seeming decline of religious faith among younger generations in a broader context. After spending three years with Jesus, observing his miracles, listening to his teachings, seeing his holiness, one might have expected different behavior of even The Twelve from what the Scriptures record of the last hours of Christ’s life on earth. Recall the narratives of the Last Supper. I know of no other way to summarize their loyalty except in terms evocative of the evasive words of Judas — “is it I, Lord?” — when confronted with the words of Jesus that one would betray him. Only one?

Would not these words also redound on Peter’s conscience when he finds himself denying his Lord three times, later that night? Would not it have occurred to The Twelve that their discipleship was less than committed, given their absence at the scene of their Master’s crucifixion, abandoning him at the most defining moment of his entire life? To put it bluntly, how deep was the faith of even the most trusted disciples, those who had literally been taught by the Master? Was it a faith that was living, or just “partly living?” And what of our faith?

We know the narrative does not end with the Lord’s death. An explosion of life after his Resurrection and the ultimately heroic martyrdom of virtually all the Apostles assures us of the power of grace, poured out from the broken body of the Crucified One on all who will embrace the Cross and live, washed in the blood of Christ. It is attested to generation after generation throughout Christian history. It did not come, however, just by showing up at a meal, not even if that meal was the Last Supper!

It has become fashionable in some circles to characterize the Mass as if it were just a nice dinner among friends. You might recall the musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” in which the Apostles are depicted as even becoming a little tipsy from the wine, for all they understood of the event. The form is certainly that of a meal. However, much more is going on, even if at the time The Twelve themselves were not fully aware. It would not be until the next day that it would begin to dawn on them that the food they were sharing, the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, would be Jesus himself, his life poured out for them. The real Mass is Calvary!

They would learn from post-Resurrection experience, as they were routinely persecuted, derided and, eventually, put to death themselves for proclaiming Jesus as Lord. They would live fully the life that he gave them to live, without fear and well beyond mere ritual, witnessing to the world that this life — HIS life — has the power to bring vigor and joy to the most incredibly difficult challenges in life, including sickness, oppression and tyranny. Who was it who said, the trouble with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting? The trouble with Christianity is that it hasn’t been tried!

What the women of Canterbury, and choruses of Christian disciples throughout the centuries long for yet shrink from is the probability of getting wet by plunging ourselves fully into the waters of our baptism, waters that can wet us at times even with blood, as Christian history shows time and time again. It costs to live our faith! It may not come to the literal luridness of a martyr’s death, as it did to Thomas Becket, but neither can we say we are living our lives as Christians fully unless we are willing to do more than behold the Cross of our Savior. At the very least, we thank him for his personal sacrifice. What do we give in return?

In the end, our faith becomes most real, most persuasive, when it is tried in the living of it. Giving up such conceits as personal control, self-determination, self-satisfaction — what Bishop Robert Barron calls the “ego drama” — and giving ourselves over to the “ ‘theo’ (or ‘God’) drama” of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, surrendering ourselves to that power and glory, trusting that the God who raised up Jesus and the Apostles who came to the fulfillment of their missions, finally, in the Cross, is the God who can and will lift us up to the glory of Eternal Life that this world cannot give. This is more than “partly living.” It is to live and love boldly, without fear of death or being despised by the pettiness of this world with its puny rewards. It is more than just “practicing” churchgoing, but living through Him, with Him and in Him, not only to attend Mass, but to live it.