Today’s readings: Nehemiah 8,2-6.8-10; 1 Corinthians 12,12-30; Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21.
The results of the 2017 census on church attendance on Sundays in Malta was recently published, giving a snapshot of the situation in our parishes. It transpires from the report that only a third of the population in Malta still opt to come to church on Sundays, which is a day of obligation.
From a marketing and management perspective, any entity in today’s world would be concerned about the results. Yet to date, there has been no sign of worry whatsoever from the Church’s side, at least officially. That in itself is very telling.
Numbers apart, I am bringing this up because today’s Scriptures address the situation of impasse we seem to be in, suggesting that there are turning points in time when religion needs refocusing.
The first reading from Nehemiah refers to Israel coming out of the Babylonian exile where it had lost its religious belonging and identity. It was a tragic time of moral void when Ezra and Nehemiah sought to reconstitute the people’s assembly by going back to basics.
Similarly, in St Luke’s narrative, Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath, as was customary, but breaks radically with the religious past, providing the antidote against sterile ritualism. In this key text in Luke, Jesus pushed the reset button of religion, announcing the beginning of a new future when the sacred text was no longer to remain a dead letter.
There is a surprising similarity between the situation of Israel at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, that of the Jews at the time of Jesus, and our situation today when religion desperately needs rebranding if we really want to hand down to future generations something meaningful.
The religion that has been handed down to us no longer seems to be responding to the needs of today, and for many it has come to the end of its road. Many others still stick to the cultural Christianity as if that is what faith consists in.
At this precise turning point we need prophets to indicate for us what can fill the void left by the exile of the sacred. To date, we’ve spent a lot time and energy reacting negatively towards progress and regress as it unfolded throughout history, wanting to redirect things as we thought right.
But the world is in God’s hands. As with Ezra and Nehemiah, we need to roll up our sleeves first and foremost to discern wisely God’s ways and then be proactive rather than simply react as if wanting to just stick to a nostalgic past.
Ezra and Nehemiah were catalysts for their people in dire circumstances, helping them to discern their way out of exile. Ezra, the priest, helped the people recover the moral force they needed to stand up to the new situation, while Nehemiah sought ways to rebuild the city.
Similarly, the impasse at the time of Jesus was evident in that the religion of the synagogue had reduced itself to rituals and was failing miserably to be the source of faith in a living God. Jesus was the catalyst par excellence to make the proclaimed text come true.
In our times it is futile to keep responding with a traditional religion to new emerging situations that are marginalising the very religion we still market. We are called to be proactive, to reinvent the Church we want to belong to and to rethink our faith in a way that can reconnect with our deepest needs and desires. The time for a religion of obligations is over, and now is the time to rethink religion from the standpoint of interiority and personal conviction.
People need to hear more of God’s love that saves rather than of their moral or religious obligations; people desire more to experience the joy of believing rather than be inundated with doctrines and moralisms; people would be more happy to discern as grown-ups their way towards God and be accompanied to walk their inner journey rather than be treated as eternal adolescents.
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