Passing rattlesnakes from one person to another has never been a part of Catholic worship. We’ve tried many different liturgical rites but not that one. Most Catholics simply see the custom as a needless and dangerous risk. But it is the needlessness of the risk that rules it out, not risk itself. Christian faith is full of risk.
Matthew’s gospel summarizes much of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. To a casual reader it begins innocuously enough: Blessed are the meek and the peacemakers, those who mourn and the clean of heart. It sounds harmless, like a lecture encouraging children to be nice while relatives are visiting. Then come the first jarring notes: Blessed are you (i.e., you’re in harmony with God) when you’re persecuted, when you’re insulted, when you’re spoken ill of and slandered. It goes on to get more demanding and more dangerous. The 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel is interesting reading. It’s an effective antidote for the image of a sweet, clueless Jesus who just wanted everyone to play nice.
The most serious criticism of Catholicism today isn’t that its liturgy is incomprehensible or its thinking on sexuality is useless to people. The most serious criticism is that it’s been domesticated. It has lost its vision and daring. It no longer confronts the most dangerous forces in the world. With few exceptions success has tamed it’s voice into a nagging complaint at the edges of life rather than a strong voice calling out from the center.
This isn’t simply a problem with leadership; it is a problem of our entire community. There are Catholic lay people who demand justice from power, sometimes at real risk to themselves, but the percentage of us who do so is small. We’re not known in the larger world as a community of special courage against injustice. Yet that’s precisely what the gospel asks us to be. Risking everything for those who are hungry, are disrespected and ignored, for those who are exploited, that’s the heart of Jesus’ story and the message we must model. It’s our contribution to the World of God’s Future. It’s the gift God has given us.