A Sign of Contradiction
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The day I began thinking about the gospel we just heard, I opened up the National Post Online and read the story of what took place in St. Peter's Square the day before when Pope Francis prayed the Angelus. He and the two children who were with him released two white doves, as symbols of the peace for which he prayed, that violence in the Ukraine would cease and be replaced by constructive dialogue. Suddenly out of nowhere, a large black crow and a seagull appear and begin attacking the doves.

The Jews in the Old Testament always interpreted these kinds of things as signs or omens, because God is the Lord of history, and nothing happens outside his providential control. There are signs all around us that we often don't notice. But what intrigued me about this event was the unexpected nature of it. Let's release these doves, and everything will happen the way we expect it to happen, right? Then, suddenly, the unexpected happens. Our sign of peace is contradicted, contrary to our expectations.

There is a bias that all of us are vulnerable to, what psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to it as What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). What we do not see simply does not exist. A colleague was telling me about the first time he came over from India to teach in Canada. He walked into a classroom and no one stood up, but kept talking among themselves, paying no attention him. He thought that what he saw in India is what he'd see everywhere else (WYSIATI). What adds to this bias is that we often don't see what we simply don't want to see, and there's a great deal that we simply don't want to see. Evil is one of those things we don't want to see or acknowledge, because we are afraid.

Evil is symbolized by that large black crow. Evil is hidden; it is always hidden. The devil is referred to as a serpent or snake in the book of Genesis; he is cunning, which means he's devious, underhanded, a liar. Generally, we don't see snakes, they are hidden in the grass, they move carefully, and when we finally do see them, it is too late.

Evil is real. There are human beings in this world who simply don't want peace, who love sin, who love the darkness, but we find it so hard to believe that, especially when these people have such dynamic personalities; they're nice, open and compassionate, and very likeable on the surface. It's hard to believe that underneath all that is a wolf who feeds off of others.

My students, I find, are terribly naïve about evil. This is due to their innocence; they believe everyone is good willed, that everyone is a dove and that there are no crows around the corner waiting to pounce on what is beautiful. They believe that those in high places have their best interest at heart, whether that is the media, or their MPs, corporations, etc. The reason is that they project their own benevolence and desire for peace on everyone else (What You See Is All There Is, and what I see in myself, I see in others). But as Jesus said, the children of darkness are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light (Lk 16, 8). The children of light are generally naïve and lack a shrewd mind.

Today's gospel speaks of Jesus as a sign of contradiction, destined for the rise and fall of many, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. That's an interesting line: "…so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed". There is a difference between the thoughts of the head and the thoughts of the heart. The thoughts of my head are revealed every time I open my mouth, but the thoughts of the heart are much deeper; they express what I am at the deepest level. It is very hard to know what is in the heart of another man, which is why we are commanded not to judge. Nevertheless, we are commanded by Christ to learn to be shrewd as serpents, while remaining innocent as doves.

Christ was contradicted, and the cross is the sign of that contradiction, and he is always contradicted, and he always will be, in every age. The Church, which is his body, is a sign of contradiction as well, precisely because she is his Mystical Body. And the only thing the Church can do to minimize that opposition is to shut up and remain silent. The less effective the Church's proclamation becomes, the happier the world is going to be with her. In other words, the farther the Church moves away from Christ, the less opposition she will experience.

Recently I heard a story of a priest who speaks of the regret he now feels at the approach he took as a young Catholic pastor in a U.S. diocese. In short, he had resolved never to challenge the congregation on their moral lives, that is, never to bring up difficult issues of personal morality, for fear that such topics might cause others to feel uncomfortable. His intention was to keep the parish atmosphere light and communal, and the way to achieve this, he thought, was to exclude even the slightest mention of any issue or topic that could cause others to feel uncomfortable or out of place.

Now he admits that his approach was a monumental failure. It was successful in the short run; he filled the Church to the rafters. But it failed in the long run. His eyes were opened just after Pope John Paul II died. He decided to have a special Mass for the occasion, and to his dismay, very few showed up. Hundreds, however, showed up for the reception in the parish hall. Much effort went into making sure there was enough coffee, crumpets, and cookies, etc., but so few were interested in the Mass itself. He came to realize that for the majority of them, going to Church was primarily a social gathering, and the highlights were the receptions after Mass. And, what he also found was that after a number of years, people left. They got tired, bored, and so they looked for excitement in other more interesting and challenging pursuits.

He regrets that he failed to challenge their moral and spiritual lives - which needed challenging - , and it was this neglect and lack of good catechetical instruction, and the resulting lack moral and spiritual awareness and understanding of the real meaning of the faith that allowed them to eventually move on to newer and more interesting experiences. In short, he refused to be a sign of contradiction, because he didn't want the opposition.

But he's not entirely to blame. There are people who simply do not want to be challenged and who will react vehemently against anyone who dares to challenge them. We're seeing an interesting illustration of this today. Pope Francis said very clearly that he is a "son of the Church", which means he believes everything the Church professes. But the children of this world, who are more shrewd than are the children of light, are determined to turn him into the liberal pope they so desperately want. If you read the Time Magazine article on him or the more recent article in Rolling Stone magazine, he is placed in stark contrast to our two previous popes, and Pope Benedict is thoroughly demonized. And the reason is simple: John Paul II and Benedict XVI were clear on matters of faith and morals. But Pope Francis has chosen to emphasize other aspects of Church teaching, and that is deliberately interpreted as if he dissents from these other issues of personal morality and that he is somehow changing the face of the Church. It's a perfect illustration of what's called the narrative fallacy: one creates a narrative on the basis of certain facts in evidence, stringing them together in such a way that you are left with a narrative that is simple, coherent, and appears to be true, but it is profoundly misleading; for the truth is far more complex. And then the narrative is repeated so often that one begins to believe it.

Christ is a sign of contradiction, and he is the same yesterday and today, as the Scriptures point out. The thoughts of the heart are hidden, but they are revealed in the efforts of those who oppose him and his Church, and they are revealed in the efforts of those who cling to Christ and who oppose the ways of this world.