Religion is commonly blamed for two evils. The first is war. But while we can think of plenty of wars, some of them going on right now, in which religion has been invoked to stir people up, many wars have erupted without the help of religion. Hitler and Stalin slaughtered their millions and both were violently anti-religious.
The second evil is infantilisation – turning grown adults into helpless children. Again, I can think of plenty of cases where this is simply untrue. I have been privileged to work in parishes with people who are not only able and gifted but often hold their families and local communities together – and it’s quite clear that it’s their faith that makes them what they are. But I have also seen capable adults behaving, in church, quite helplessly. I remember once celebrating Mass and one of our parishioners was going blind. After receiving Holy Communion she stumbled around trying to find her way back to her place, nearly falling over. As I was giving out the Holy Eucharist I gestured to people and tried to catch their eyes to help her. They just stood and stared, frozen, as if having the Lot’s Wife Experience. In the street they would have rushed to help her. Why not in church?
We hear a lot about being God’s children, even if we’re 90. We are the lost sheep, and, as Isaiah tells us, God gathers lambs in his arms like a shepherd, showing us compassion. We pray as ‘poor, banished children of Eve’. But is this really helping us grow up? Doesn’t it just make us dependent – especially on the priest whom we call Father?
In the world Jesus grew up in, being a child of God was understood very differently. Being someone’s child – especially the first-born son – meant inheriting what your father had. So to be God’s child means that we inherit what God has – what He is, indeed. This comes out very clearly in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ Heavenly Father sends down the Holy Spirit on him at his baptism, a sign that ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’ So Jesus receives everything the Father has and is.
And what is true of Jesus is true of us, his adopted brothers and sisters by grace. When we were baptised, we were anointed not as useless, but as priest, prophet and King. Most of us were anointed as babies, so as we grew physically, we could be expected to grow into these three great roles by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to share in God’s nature.
So do we just need to ‘grow up’? God is not as harsh as this. Many people put on a shiny face every morning but are struggling to cope. They have wounds that have not been healed – and may not know where to turn for healing. God comes to console a broken and wounded people. In comparing them with sheep, Isaiah is not making them out to be useless: sheep are curious, and this curiosity is sometimes misplaced and leads them to get lost and trapped. Like us.
The Scriptural word for salvation also means healing. God comes to heal us. It may be, that when we enter God’s house, we at last find a space where we can just be where we are in our lives at that moment. We can own the broken and wounded part of us. That may mean that we suddenly feel unable to cope. God’s house, the community which is the Body of Christ, is a place where it’s OK not to be OK – provided we’re willing to let God heal us and raise us up. In the Christian faith, Jesus offers us something much better than a prop. He offers us a transforming share in God’s nature, so that we can be a priest, prophet and king – the person who is truly us, the person beyond our wildest dreams.