Ditch the modern-day masks of Jesus (pt. 1)

Jesus is arguably the most influential person to ever walk the Earth – and perhaps the most misunderstood. For many, he was a great moral teacher and speaker, for others, a great activist, and yet for others, a fictional character who was deified throughout the years.

Here are just three of his many modern-day masks that can help us reflect and encounter the true Jesus of the Gospels, the one the Church has defended throughout the ages.

Jesus all-loving, all-permissive

In a society that hears “closed-mindedness” and “imposition” with the mention of “truth,” Jesus can’t be cold hearted or a proclaimer of truth. He’s a nice guy. He doesn’t force anyone. He understands. He’s not too demanding. He will forgive you. Jesus then turns into a person who lets people remain where they are, in their sin, because he’s “compassionate.”

Jesus is all-loving and all-merciful, there’s no doubt about that. He will forgive you if you repent. Yet, we must look at what love and mercy really mean. When Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery, he doesn’t condemn her, he forgives her. Yet he adds, “Go and sin not again” (Jn 8:1-11).

Jesus lifts her up and calls her to conversion. It is the latter that is not very popular – it’s uncomfortable. But what Jesus is doing is calling her to a better life, to what she’s meant to be, to authentic happiness. True mercy and love lead to a change in life. If Jesus didn’t call you to truth and conversion, he’d be giving up on you, not helping you become who you’re meant to be.

Jesus, the activist commie

For many people, Jesus was a radical social activist who died for the cause of the poor and marginalized. Yet, this revolutionary Jesus becomes merely a great historical figure who fought for the rights of the underrepresented, stripping him of all divinity.

Jesus, nonetheless, claimed to be God and not a mere moral teacher. The Jews of his time saw it clearly, which is why they sought to kill him: “[He makes] himself equal to God” (Jn 5:18).

Even more, his morality was centered around himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). As C.S. Lewis puts it, if this isn’t true, then Jesus was really an egotistic madman “compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men.” That means that only God can say such things, and if we didn’t believe in his divinity, he would have to be a lunatic instead of a great moral teacher.

There’s no “in-between.” Either ultimate human fulfillment consists in social, economic or earthly factors, or in a God, as Jesus claimed to be. And we know that nothing on this earth can satisfy the deepest longings of the heart, which is constantly pleading for a transcendent “more” or, I would say, a transcendent “Someone.”

Jesus was spiritual (but not religious)

Nowadays it’s popular to be spiritual but not so much religious. Many Christians themselves don’t affiliate with a specific church. This view holds that Jesus never intended to establish an actual church, but instead wanted us to simply follow his teachings.

I believe this position partially comes from a response to a “wound.” People identify “religion” with the negative things they have heard or experienced: corruption, sexual abuse, greed… People have lost faith in religious institutions. Moreover, the constant push in society to put the “me” in the center of everything, defying all authority, also plays a role. When you include a good desire to know God in the equation, you end up with an individualistic Christianity. We end up making a god according to our image and opinions.

This is nothing new. Christians have wanted to make their own god since the time of the apostles, from the so-called “super apostles” that Paul fought (2 Cor 11:5) to his Corinthian community that needed constant correction. However, there was always an authority that guided early Christian communities and solved new issues in the light of the teachings of Christ (Acts 15:23-29). If there had not been an authority, there would have been no unity. And where there’s unity and authority, there’s a religion.

Jesus established that authority, the apostles, and gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, choosing him as the “rock” upon which he would build his “Church” and promising that the powers of Hell (heresy) would not overcome it (Mt 16:18-19). Saying that Jesus didn’t want to establish a Church would be like saying that he intended people to follow and interpret him in their own way. The early Church knew this and fought against all distortion of Christ’s image and teaching. His same Church continues to do so up to our day.

COMING UP: Past 25 years remembered, next 25 anticipated at More Than You Realize conference

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“Be not afraid!”

This was the rallying cry at the Aug. 11 More Than You Realize conference, echoing the very same call St. John Paul II gave exactly 25 years ago when he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Over 5,000 faithful from across the Archdiocese of Denver filled the seats of the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland at what was the largest Catholic gathering in Colorado since WYD ’93. The all-day conference was presented in both English and Spanish tracks, featured a dynamic lineup of renowned Catholic speakers, and culminated in a powerful commissioning Mass.

The name More Than You Realize and consequently, the logo resembling an eyechart, stems from the idea that almost everything may appear a certain way at surface level, but upon closer inspection, it can be more than one realizes and seen in a different light. This is especially true when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Over 5,000 gathered at the Budweiser Events Center Aug. 11 for the More Than You Realize conference, which celebrated the last 25 years since World Youth Day in Denver and looked to the next 25. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

In planning for nearly two years, pastors from each parish of the archdiocese hand-picked those parishioners and members of their community who they wished to attend the conference, which revolved around the idea of discipleship. Through engaging videos and talks given by speakers such as Chris Stefanick, Luis Soto and Dr. Edward Sri, attendees were invited to join a new movement of discipleship within the archdiocese, echoing the one sparked 25 years ago at World Youth Day.

“[I] had a great rejuvenating time at the More Than You Realize Conference,” said Alex Martinez, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish. “I am excited to see the MTYR movement take shape.”

Brenda Garrett, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception said, “It was an amazing event, so blessed my pastor Father Ron from the Cathedral Basilica sent me. I am so proud to be part of this movement.”

The key to evangelization

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford spoke before Mass began about the impact of World Youth Day 1993 and the challenges the Church faces today.

“What does the summer of ’93 teach us about our present circumstances in 2018?” the cardinal asked. “The Holy Spirit was sent out in a special mission to our Church in 1993. The power of that sending was unexpected and disorienting to me as archbishop and to most others.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford speaks during the More Than You Realize conference. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

But despite urban violence, threats of boycotts, organized protests and other issues prior to World Youth Day 1993, “a fundamental change took place in the Church of Denver,” said Cardinal Stafford, “but not only here — among the young people who came throughout the world, [and] even the Holy Father.

“Above all, our Church was transformed,” he said.

Cardinal Stafford said that to evangelize those who don’t know the Gospel, we first need “…a deep awareness of the delight of the Father taking in each of us as baptized men and women,” he said.

“I would urge you to think deeply and to pray deeply about realizing how delighted God is in you — each of you — because you are received by the Father as being [part of] the body of his Son, who is beloved.”

‘Jesus is much more than you realize’

In his homily given in both English and Spanish, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila also touched on what World Youth Day 1993 means for us today.

“The world likes to tell us many things about ourselves,” he said, “and not many of them today are good or uplifting. Just look at the distorted image of beauty that is prevalent today, let alone the distortions of what it means to be a human person…

“The devil is certainly having a field day in a world that has abandoned God, and even in some members of the Church who have a weak faith in Jesus,” he said.

But despite similar issues taking place in 1993, the pope brought to Denver a message of hope.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the commissioning Mass that closed out the conference. (photo by Andrew Wright)

“When St. John Paul II spoke to the youth gathered for the prayer vigil on Saturday night at Cherry Creek State Park, he reminded them that God and a much bigger role for them to play in history,” said Archbishop Aquila.

That message is just as important today, within an archdiocese and Church that stand at a crossroads, the archbishop said.

“We have an opportunity to make a major impact for Jesus Christ, even as the surrounding culture is becoming less Christian.”

The pope opened the doors for those who attended to become greater disciples of Christ — not just directly after World Youth Day, but forever.

“St. John Paul II believed in retrospect that a revolution had taken place in Denver,” said the archbishop. “We, today, are the inheritors of this spiritual revolution, and we must not be afraid to put out into the deep to let our nets down for a catch.

“Jesus is much more than you realize. The Church is more than you realize. And your role in the plan of God is much more than you realize or [can] even imagine,” he said.

“And so, I beg you as your shepherd today to open your hearts to Jesus and speak heart-to-heart with him who loves you most.”

Aaron Lambert, Moira Cullings and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.