The Church of the Gesu

On Oct. 24, we celebrated Mass at the Church of the Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus. Here is the homily delivered there by Father Matt Malone

It was considered audacious, even hubristic, for the first companions to call their society the Company of Jesus. For some, it was a scandal. For Ignatius, it was only fitting that this new religious order should take the name of its true and only head. Yet he would have agreed that there is something scandalous about it.

“And they named him Jesus,” St. Matthew says. If I were to produce a new translation of this Gospel story, I might title it something like “Notes on a Scandal.”  By “scandal,” of course, I do not mean—nor did Ignatius—a lie that corrupts a truth but rather a truth that subverts a lie; an irruption that causes the lie or the liar to stumble. The incarnation of our Lord—this astonishing act of love in which God enters a human body—is just such a scandal. Here in Mary’s loving arms, love itself has become incarnate; faith, hope and love beat for the many, in the heart of the one.

The lowly, humble, almost unremarkable character of the nativity—the kind of scene that would go unnoticed if not for who it involves—this scene renders suspect every human notion of power. Here, in a tiny, fragile human body, truth, which alone is power, has become incarnate; human violence and self-deceit, which will reach their zenith in the death of this child on Good Friday, have already been subverted at the moment of the incarnation.

The great St. Athanasius once wrote: At the incarnation, “Mankind’s body has truly acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has become a spiritual one; though it was made from the earth, it has passed through the gates of heaven.”

Now Athanasius is not just talking about a human body; he is talking about all human bodies, yours and mine included. Athanasius, like so many of the early Fathers, was keen to remind us that in Mary’s womb, the Son of God took on, not just a human nature but human nature itself. In other words, in this one person resides the best of who we are. In this one person resides the hope for who we might become. In this one person resides the love that saves the world.

“And they named him Jesus.”

The name of Jesus, then, signifies so much more than a human person in the strict historical sense; so much more than a child born long ago in a distant land. The name of Jesus signifies the highest aspiration of every human person, the deepest desire of the human heart, the lover for whom we long and in whose absence our hearts are restless. The name of Jesus, given by the Father at the very moment of Mary’s faithful “yes,” is itself a scandal, a stumbling block for the “no” of the sinner. In the midst of war, in the midst of injustice, among the callously indifferent and the doggedly unbelieving, the name of Jesus is a scandal—a name that at once affirms the dignity of every human person, created and redeemed, and reveals the futility of our this-worldly scheming.

Throughout the centuries, the saints and martyrs and a thousand Jesuits prayed that the name of Jesus would pass their lips as they themselves passed into eternity. This was not pious exaggeration; nor is it charming folklore. It is historical fact. The very name of Jesus gave the saints and martyrs the strength to live their lives of faith.

Not even Mary and Joseph knew fully the world-changing effect their choice of a name would have. They knew he was special. They could never have imagined, however, just how special he was. They could never have imagined that in his name, in the name of Jesus, a worldwide church would be born—born in Bethlehem, sacrificed on Calvary, made a sacrament on Easter morning. They could never have imagined the church of today, the church you and I are blessed to call home: a billion people spread across every continent. They could never have imagined the world-changing work that this least society would perform in the name of their son.

Today, Christians throughout the world continue to act in his name, demanding an end to violence and injustice—in the name of Jesus. In the face of cancer and AIDS, amidst the shadows of life in a culture of death, the church of Jesus Christ—we sinners still called by God—continues to reconcile, to teach, to heal in the name of Jesus. Mary and Joseph could not have predicted this.

No one had even precisely predicted the events through which they had lived. Tradition held that the Messiah would emerge from the heavens riding a chariot, not in a stable among the hay and dung. Tradition held that God would make his home in a grand temple of Jerusalem, not in the womb of a frightened, teenage girl.

Yet our God—this God who took the name of Jesus—is a God of surprises. As we continue this pilgrimage, we might ask ourselves, we might ponder anew in our own hearts, what surprises God has in store for us. Long before it is ever a proposition, truth is a person. That is the scandal of the incarnation. Thus we never possess the truth; we simply dare to hope that he possesses us.

Can we allow this truth, this person named Jesus—this God for whom love alone is credible—to truly possess our hearts in the days ahead? What untruths or, more simply perhaps, what cherished myths live within us, waiting to be scandalized by him? And what hopes lie there, in our hearts, waiting to be born, waiting for their incarnations, through him, with him and in him?

Most of all, what does this God of surprises, this God of the unexpected, hope for us, for our company—itself a relatively fragile human body, yet one that still has the audacity to hope in the name of Jesus?

The pilgrims at the Gesu