Preaching an 'odd' truth: The message of salvation is not ours to change

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd,” quipped Flannery O’Connor, playing on Christ’s, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). 

Odd is exactly what I felt the other day during a three-hour conversation with a young professional woman on the train to Washington, D.C. She was very interested in religion but had no personal affiliation. The pleasant back-and-forth became tense only when she brought up the Church’s position on all-male priesthood and homosexuality. 

“I just wouldn’t feel comfortable raising my children in a faith that teaches those things,” she said. I tried to explain how certain truths are given to us by God, not created by us. It is not that we do not have the right to change them: it is that they are unchangeable; in fact, living our lives in accord with them is the only way to be happy. “Are you sure you mean ‘happy’? Or do you mean, ‘good’?” “Happy,” I replied firmly. She nodded and pondered.

During this Easter season, we hear in the readings at Mass Peter proclaiming quite an odd and difficult message: humanity crucified God. But God conquered death and wants us to know how to live in happiness, which entails following a demanding, “narrow” moral path (Matt 7:13). We also hear Christ, after washing the disciples’ feet, saying, “No messenger is greater than the one who sent him” (Jn 13:16). Just as we did not create ourselves and so cannot dictate what will make us happy, so we do not create the truth we are asked to proclaim. Watering down the message entrusted to us would be to betray not only its Origin but ourselves, since our identity as creatures is “sent ones,” not “ones sending.”

The Christian message sounds increasingly odd these days, in a culture where love, a virtue originally popularized by Christians, has come to mean something very different from the kind of love that sent Christ to the cross — and raised Him from the dead. It can be hard to preach the message of true love to friends, family members, and even the person next to you on the train.

Pentecost, the solemnity we celebrate on June 8 this year, has good news to offer: God has given us His Spirit to help us preach the truth. It is the Spirit of freedom, of life, of love. The eighth-century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus describes the Spirit as sermone ditans guttura, endowing tongues with speech. This echoes Christ’s reassurance, “You will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness … Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:18-20). If we trust Him, the Spirit will speak His odd message through us.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.