I wish to paint a picture for you of something I felt very strongly recently. The verbal expression of the feeling is this: With Christ we see new colors. I fear my article may bring in too many colors, both old and new, and just confuse you. But I hope by the end you will be able to step back and “see” what I felt. I propose we start with the Word of God.
“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”Mt. 18:3
We have here a terse statement with three elements: turning, children, and kingdom. First off, what does the Gospel mean with the curious caveat, “unless you turn”? Are we to turn back the clock and become young again? Or are we to turn heel on the increasingly-complex responsibilities of adulthood, falling back on the childishness of, “I want what I want, and right now”? Assuredly not, and I would like to come back to these questions later. But first let us ask that other question which is bound to shed light on them—what does it mean to become God’s children? Is this not perhaps a mere spiritual metaphor, densely veiled, with little concrete meaning for us today?
The theme of Pope Francis’ Lenten Message 2019 is this: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). This title surprises us. It seems more like a New Age slogan than a Bible verse. In what sense can God’s children be revealed? And what has creation got to do with it? At this point we risk asking more questions than can easily be answered, but it may be that by continuing to probe the matter, some inner connections may come to light.
The Pope goes on to say the following: “When we live as children of God, redeemed, led by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14) and capable of acknowledging and obeying God’s law, beginning with the law written on our hearts and in nature, we also benefit creation by cooperating in its redemption.”
These are heavy-going notions, not easily digested. For the moment, I limit myself to a single question: By ‘cooperating in its [creation’s] redemption,’ are we not helping to bring about the kingdom of heaven? We have thus brought into view the third term from the original verse of St. Matthew—the kingdom—where it was least wanted! Let us therefore return to the notion of childhood.
A short time ago I had the opportunity to see Instant Family (2018), starring Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, and Isabela Moner. This movie is objectionable on account of the same tired faults of most modern movies—secular agenda, crudeness, and laced with profanity—but in other respects it shimmers. The core of the film is diamond-strong, and I render it thus: people with all their colors are still worth loving. Take a look at the trailer if you like.
At the risk of some repetition, I describe more fully the situation of Pete and Ellie Wagner. At movie’s beginning, they are happily married with profitable employment but no children. The question comes, what of fostering a child? Foster care in the United States is at best a hit-and-miss affair, with kids often shuffled from home to unhappy home. The Wagners realize that only foster parents of the deepest determination can be the anchor of love that these kids—often beset by depression, anorexia, or anger—most desperately need. They begin to research, cautiously wading into the deep waters of unwanted children. At an adoption fair, they meet Lizzy, a pert girl of fifteen (played by Moner). “Foster child” now has a face—a beautiful face with a bleeding, defiant heart. Far from asking to be taken in, Lizzy tosses her head, seeming everything but sweet and kind. In addition, she has two younger siblings. What now?
Mr. and Mrs. Wagner go back on their desire to foster. It was a hasty decision, a fool-brained idea, and one that would obviously restrict their freedom and comfort significantly. In short, Pete and Ellie begin to act like the opposite of the children of the kingdom. They have begun to calculate, to count the cost before giving the gift. Only an episode of righteous indignation at sneering relatives is able to rouse them to the fever pitch of generosity required to overcome this fear. They come away seething; “How dare they think we could never make good parents!” Lizzy moves in, along with Juan and Lita—an instant family.
Pete and Ellie weld their love and wills into a rock capable of withstanding the volcanic pressure applied by the wounded teenager. In fact, it is soon Lizzy who is feeling the intense push of pent-up parental love released at last. But it sends her running the other way. She closes up. She dresses down. She lashes out. She speaks daggers. She even paints her room black. It’s as if her whole body is convulsing in the throes of many-years-old venom that must slowly, painfully, be purged up from her system. This is understandable; her real mom is a drug addict. Her only world has been foster care, where ‘parents’ take her in and then spit her back out after awkward months. But the Wagners are different. They tell her they love her. She tells them they don’t, and they’d better stop saying that. They insist; they love her! But how can she accept such a sweet new elixir when all she’s drunk in the past is poison? Lizzy threatens to rip at the seams.
From a parable of Jesus: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ”
I don’t know if this parable confuses you as much as it does me. Is Jesus saying that the new wine is good, or rather the old? Certainly, he validates the old wine: “The old is good.” But the new wine has its place as well, namely, in fresh wineskins. I understand the parable in two ways.
First, we with our experiences old and new are the wine. Each of us has old experiences and a present situation, like a foster child. Our history has brought us to the place where we are, and from that point we look out to what awaits us. Perhaps our past is good; it is wine that has matured. But even bad grapes, with the fermentation of faith, can produce good wine. As for our present and future, we sense with great anxiety that they are largely in the hands of those around us. We need them to love us adequately, with fresh and understanding hearts. Each new day we yearn for new wineskins.
Second, our friends and loved ones are the wine. Old friends are good, but new friends are also good. Our hearts are the wineskins needing constant renewal, for we cannot accept others with their past, with all their brokenness and misery, if our hearts are sagging old wineskins. We become bitter, closing off from others and demanding that they be the ones to change. We become like foster parents who renege on a foster child. “You should never have become a foster child in the first place,” we say with not a little insanity. Or we mentally entrap others’ future, closing it off childishly by seeing only how it affects me. In reality, we are bursting our own wineskins.
Why is the meeting of the new wine with the old wineskin so painful? What has gone wrong in the encounter? Why does Lizzy spurn the affection of her foster parents? I believe the answer is that she has not yet learned to live as a child of God. (And with a foster past, who can blame her?) Pope Francis’s Lenten message tells us the following:
“Indeed, when we fail to live as children of God, we often behave in a destructive way towards our neighbours and other creatures – and ourselves as well – since we begin to think more or less consciously that we can use them as we will. Intemperance then takes the upper hand: we start to live a life that exceeds those limits imposed by our human condition and nature itself.”
A German artist named Sarah Connor sings a beautiful song called “Wie schön Du bist,” (“How Beautiful You Are”). The music video on youtube (which has more than 53 million views) is a powerful blend of ancient and fresh wine, old and new colors meeting at high impact. It shows a young girl, estranged from her mother, lashing out at society with frightful creativity. “Intemperance takes the upper hand.” Without for a minute condoning the girl’s actions, Connor exalts her inner worth, (in my interpretation) simply because she is God’s beautiful creation. Here is my translation from the German, with the refrain in italics.
The applause is long past, and your heart’s heavy as lead.
Everyone’s talking about you, but you’re still so alone.
You look so sad, come into my arms and let it out.
Believe me, I was where you are, and I know what’s killing you.
But when you laugh, I can see it, I see you
with all your colors! and your scars! behind the walls.
Yeah, I see you, don’t let them tell you, no don’t let them tell you.
You don’t even know then, how beautiful you are?
I see your pride and your rage, your big heart, your lion-courage.
I love the way you walk and the way you look at me.
How you tilt your head to one side, I always see how I’m doing.
You know that wherever we are, I’m your home.
And what that does to me, when you now laugh I see
all your colors! and your scars! behind the walls…
Every point of your face is so perfect, sheer chance
There’s nothing more beautiful than you.
And I have so desired all of it,
All the terror and the gold.
I’ve never desired something so much
as all your colors! and your scars!…
No one would deny that this girl has issues. She typifies what was quoted from Pope Francis above: “When we fail to live as children of God, we often behave in a destructive way towards our neighbours and other creatures – and ourselves as well.” The lion-courage of her big heart manifests itself in rage. Her attitude of “To hell with the whole world” diametrically opposes the desire of creation to see the revelation of the children of God precisely because it masks the inner beauty of the girl herself, setting her at odds with everything and everyone around her. But how can these old colors in her heart, this lurking venom, be purified? How can she “turn and become like a child”? Only by love. Only by a love that comes from outside her, from someone else who takes her rage and holds it to her bosom and absorbs the shock, can she be loved back into a right relationship with herself and others. In the music video, Sarah Connor is this figure who steps in from outside and offers her “salvation” by affirming her true beauty with a caress. (The absurdity of such gratuitous love is admirably symbolized by the delightfully absurd hurling of paint cans at a whitewall.) In the movie Instant Family, it is Pete and Ellie who can save Lizzy from herself. In our lives, it is Christ. With Christ, we see new colors.
“People with all their colors are still worth loving.” This is the diamond message of the movie, and as in the case with the wine, it can be read in two ways. First, we are the people who are worth loving—and in fact God loves us! Second, others are worth loving—and it is our job to love them. With respect to the first interpretation, that we ourselves are worth loving, it does not follow that we are exempt from the need to change. Thus we return to the question we asked ourselves at the beginning: what does the verse from Matthew’s Gospel mean with the curious caveat, “unless you turn”?
Pope Francis uses the word “turn” twice in the English translation of his Lenten message which we have been following. The first passage where it occurs asks us to embrace fasting as a turning away from the temptation to devour others. The second exhorts us to turn to the Risen Christ.
“Fasting… [means] learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, TURNING away from the temptation to “devour” everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts…”
“…Let us ask God to help us set out on a path of true conversion. Let us leave behind our selfishness and self-absorption, and TURN to Jesus’ Pasch. Let us stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them.”
Therefore, “to turn” means to embrace the path of “true conversion.” The Latin word “converto” means quite simply “to turn around.” This turn is a turn away from ourselves. It is a turn toward Easter Resurrection. It is a turn toward “our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them.” It is a turn towards the one from outside ourselves who comes to meet us with a message of saving love—towards Sarah Connor, towards Pete and Ellie, towards Christ.
This turn is difficult, but Lent is the season par excellence for embracing the difficult task. “This “eager longing”, this expectation of all creation, will be fulfilled in the revelation of the children of God, that is, when Christians and all people enter decisively into the “travail” that conversion entails. All creation is called, with us, to go forth “from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Lent is a sacramental sign of this conversion.”
The word “travail” refers to a woman in childbirth, and there exists no better image for the experience of conversion as regards both the arduous, painful labor it entails, as well as the catastrophic joy of new life which follows it.
A highly memorable three-part sequence in Instant Family begins with Lizzy having a bad hair day. Foster mom Ellie offers to brush the tangles out. Lizzy agrees, and even sheds silent tears at the touch of the soft hand on her head. We sense that finally, finally, love has broken through and new colors will begin to shine. But the second part of the sequence shows Lizzy waltzing out of her bedroom the next morning in a tight, strapless red shirt. She’s tossed Ellie’s hairbrush in the toilet, and her sass is back. Pete erupts and sends her marching back to her wardrobe. Part three: Instead of driving Lizzy to school, Pete takes her to an old house he’s demolishing. He hands her a sledgehammer and tells her to let the anger out!
A bond between Lizzy and Pete is now established. Only by taking on her rage and holding it in a tight embrace of love is Pete able to be the anchor she needs. With paschal logic, Pete (1) sees her waywardness, (2) suffers it in his own person (after all, he has brought this troublesome thing into his house), and (3) brings her to new life by affirming her true beauty. Thus, the real message of Lent is at the same time the message of Easter. Christ has died for us, Christ is risen for us, Christ makes us children of God. “People with all their colors are still worth loving.” Our two readings of this phrase merge into one: We are worth loving and others are worth loving because we are all created beautiful by God. We are God’s family now, all children of God!
To be a child of God, therefore, is not to forget our adult cares or throw responsibilities to the clouds. Being a child of God means conversion, accepting others with their old scars while earnestly daydreaming their future. When we treasure loved ones while still opening our hearts to new encounters, we are also opening ourselves to Christ. My own heart gave quite a leap when I read the continuation of our original Gospel verse: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Mt. 18:5). Pete and Ellie did this literally! By accepting not one but three new children, they received Christ triply. Pete and Ellie became children of God not by throwing cares away, but by making a turn and assuming new duties and sacrifices. By foregoing the comfort of the golf course and the gym club they created a home where other pasts, presents, and futures—all with faces and names—could flourish. This notion of “creating a home” leads us onward, in fact, to the third and final element of our discourse: the kingdom. Here again is our verse.
“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:3)
What is the kingdom of heaven? Is it simply the place of rest, where all motion stops and one can recover from the frenetic pace of life? Maybe it is that, but it must be much more besides. I believe that Pope Francis gives us marvelous insight into the kingdom of God. One main thrust of the Lenten message—which I have perhaps disguised until now—is the renewal of creation itself from a desert to a garden.
“Dear brothers and sisters, the “Lenten” period of forty days spent by the Son of God in the desert of creation had the goal of making it once more that garden of communion with God that it was before original sin (cf. Mk 1:12-13; Is 51:3).”
It is true that the message has a strong ecological tone, but I focus here on the inter-personal aspect of the kingdom, the “garden of communion with God” and with others. I call this a home, like the home Pete and Ellie created. A home with goodnight kisses and Christmas presents. A home with screaming and ketchup stains. This is the domestic garden which hopes for cooperation from the children of God. Where men do not live in a right relationship with each other and with creation, we could say that the earth is in a bad mood. It is in travail until our being children of God is properly made visible in unity and charity.
“The root of all evil, as we know, is sin, which from its first appearance has disrupted our communion with God, with others and with creation itself, to which we are linked in a particular way by our body. This rupture of communion with God likewise undermines our harmonious relationship with the environment in which we are called to live, so that the garden has become a wilderness (cf. Gen 3:17-18).”
We cannot speak here about the body, which is another theme apart. True, it would be fascinating to consider the movie from the standpoint of the significance of our bodies—hugs, caresses, dress, facial expressions, distancing or nearing oneself to others, and so forth. But our concern here is the kingdom of heaven as a garden of communion. Those who have no home wander in a wilderness with nowhere to go. They chase after the moon, looking for love. If and when they reach a garden, as Lizzy and her siblings did, they find a place where the air is clear. For once, they can breathe fully. For once, they can experience the stability of love that doesn’t change. They can abide and plant roots. In an existential sense, they can stay.
In the last sentences, I have been quoting from another music video. This one, entitled “I’ll Stay,” is sung by Isabela Moner (Lizzy) herself and needs no translation. If the troubled girl from the previous music video was an example of old wine, Moner singing “I’ll Stay” is the new wine which has found fresh wineskins.
Listening to this music the feeling leaps up in me again. With Christ, we see new colors! I not only know this and believe it, I feel it. With Christ, I do and will see new colors. And not just more of the same colors, but new colors, colors never seen before by anyone! For me these colors are people I haven’t met yet, and also those I have. This Lent I believe Christ wants me to see anew old friends and loved ones, as well as open my heart to the stranger—because people with all their colors are worth loving. Pope Francis also invites us to “rediscover the joy of God’s plan for creation and for each of us, which is to love him, our brothers and sisters, and the entire world, and to find in this love our true happiness.”
As the song says, “Our feet are sore from walking all night long.” We wish for a place to reside, somewhere to stop and stay. This place is the garden kingdom, and Our Lord himself taught us to pray for its coming: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. “The Our Father is itself a prayer uttered in the first person plural, and it is only by becoming part of the ‘we’ of God’s children that we can reach up to him beyond the limits of this world in the first place.” (Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, p. 129).
The Wagners formed a “we.” They planted a garden in which the children of God could reveal themselves. They made a turn which pointed them toward the kingdom. They formed a family, though it was far from instant. In a way, they felt their way to a decision for Christ: “I’ll stay, with you I see new colors.” I hope you feel it too.