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The Collective

First Sunday after Christmas - December 26, 2021

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 + Psalm 147 + Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-7 + Jn 1:1-18

Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

A very blessed Christmastide to you all!

My sermon on Christmas Eve attempted to probe the struggle, the beauty, and the power of finding one’s voice over the course of one’s lifetime. I reflected on how, even the very Word of God, spoken in silence from all eternity, and now made flesh in Christ Jesus, sought for some 30 years to find his ‘human’ voice before entering the public stage of his ministry in Galilee.

It is that Eternal Word-Made-Flesh we encounter in the opening of John’s Gospel today:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,

and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life,

and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness did not overcome it…

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

These few lines of poetry are among the most succinct and sublime affirmations of Christ’s divinity in the New Testament, unambiguously echoing of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where God’s all-powerful Word speaks creation into existence: “let there be light, let dry land appear, let the earth produce every kind of living creature…”

Indeed, the early church never tired of exploring the nuances, paradoxes and theological implications of John’s prologue. For here he is making an audacious claim. The Word that was eternally with God, that indeed was God, “became flesh and dwelt among us” in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14). It is difficult to overstate the magnitude and brashness of his assertion: that the principal creative force of the universe is not a what but a who.

Here we are confronted with the social implications of the Incarnation: “…we have all been given power to become children of God.” An affirmation central to Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…so that we might receive adoption as children…. [in whom] God has sent the Spirit…into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So, you are [made] a child, and…also an heir, through God.

This adoption as children and heirs to divinity, is what the later church would call “deification” – God became human in Christ, that we might be made divine. And thus, if each of us are deified – made children of God in Christ, then so too are we siblings one and all crying out collectively not individually, “Abba, Father.” Hence, Jesus teaches us to pray not “My Father who are in heaven” but “Our Father….”

This is why in becoming fully human, even the divine Christ needed to find his own human voice. Our unique voice is the expression of our full humanity, And, thus, anyone denied their voice is denied their full personhood.

But it is precisely the uniqueness of our voices that are under assault today – ever more insidiously threatened by mass movements and social forces that hold out for us the pseudo-promise of a collective identity when in fact they do nothing more than erode the freedom of thought and personal expression central to authentic community.

And this is the difference between a “collective identity” and “communal identity.” Collective identity shuns personal uniqueness, demanding an allegiance to the collective over-against those who think, act or believe differently. Communal identity, by contrast, nurtures, supports and encourages uniqueness for the benefit of the community. The contrast between collective and communal identity might be exemplified by the contrast between: Cults vs. Religion; Despotic Regimes vs. Democracies. We should note for example the first amendment of the US constitution guarantees the “freedom of Speech” as an inalienable human right. Speech, one’s voice!

Or again, hate groups and conspiracy theorists vs. those who celebrate diversity and embrace cultural and ethnic distinction. On this point, allow me to offer a poignant commentary on modern society, as I ask you to reflect carefully on what images, concepts, and associations come to mind as you hear it. And I quote:

A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations.

The member of a mass movement, afraid of their own isolation, and their own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within themselves the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, they seek a movement that will protect their weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify their acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not “ours.” This must be brought into line – or destroyed.

Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of humanity who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever they can, and first of all in themselves, the capacity of love and which makes humanity the living image of God. (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, 1960, adapted for inclusive language)

Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions. Though published in 1960, Merton’s observations of modern society are hardly obsolete. To the contrary, they are eerily truer now than then.

Facilitated by the era of mass media and social media, for example, tweeting where inter-personal communication is restricted to 280 characters, words have become cheap, nuance has been sacrificed at the altar of collective identity, partisan politics, and big money; even as the dignity of the human person is squandered and wasted, and our individual voices eviscerated by what Merton calls the “universal infection of fanaticism, [the] plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of [a humanity] who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person.”

If you do not hear in Merton’s commentary an apt description of our society now spinning out of control, you are simply not awake. Much as the cigarette industry attempted to mask for decades the deleterious effects of smoking on human health: from lung cancer to immune depressants, to birth defects – today the “mass” and “social” media industries worth billions upon billions of dollars are attempting to mask the divisive, destructive, and dehumanizing impacts of social media and mass media upon people across generations, cultures, and nations.

And make no mistake, the platitudes offered by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley which provide “filters” on what our children can see or not see, or which help us to navigate how much time we spend on this or that electronic device – all of these have just made us more dependent on the devices themselves. It’s no different that Marlboro putting filters on their cigarettes to delude us into thinking they are now “safe.”

Sisters and brothers, we are not losing our voices. We have LOST our voices. Think about the obscenity of Q-Anon, the conspiracy theories that are multiplying by the day, the misinformation about the value of vaccinations and mask wearing that is causing the deaths of thousands. Think of the visceral disgust, even hatred, that has been nurtured in you for another human being who voted the other party line in our last election.

Doctors have long warned us that the single most important decision one can make on behalf of their health is to wean off smoking. And I am ever more convinced that the single most important decision we can make on behalf of our spiritual health is to wean ourselves off our dependence on social media, reduce the time we spend obsessing on the latest news story, the newest scandal.

I know many of you may feel reactive or offended by such an admonishment. No doubt you will say: “But I use Facebook to keep in touch with my children, my college classmates, my family.” “It is socially responsible to remain informed about the politics of the day.” I get it. But I say again, beware. The influences are subtle but extremely powerful, the seduction is strong.

The power to control that at one time rested largely in despotic regimes or fanatical religious movements, now enters subtly into your own home, your hip pocket on social media and all it promises.

Pause for a moment to ask why, in a world with so much capacity to connect to others right at your fingertips, we have never been so lonely? How many of you know that loneliness in your own life? In a world of social media that promises community, it more often than not promotes only the collective. Truth is, I don’t know how much social media is too much social media. I don’t know where the sweet spot is – and I don’t know if it is a one-size-fits-all answer.

But I do know that the multi-billion-dollar industry that is “social media” in all its forms, has become as dirty, corrupt, and destructive to our society, our individual freedom and our unique voices in the world, as the fossil fuel industry is to our planet. They too tried to deny for decades the devastating effects of burning fossil fuels. Look where that got us. The success of all these industries: smoking, fossil fuels, social media is that they easily seduce us because of what good they have to offer.

The glamor of smoking and the social cachet it promised: Remember that burley good-looking Marlboro man riding horseback with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth? Yea…the same one who died a long miserable death wasting away of lung cancer but a few years later. And wow who could deny the amazing benefits of burning fossil fuel? Forget our love affair with our automobiles! One gallon of gas in the tank of a tractor could do in 30 minutes what 10 farm workers couldn’t do in eight hours. How’s that for cheap labor? So cheap in fact that if you bought a gallon of coffee, cup by cup how much would that cost you today? 25 dollars? Suddenly, $5.00 for a gallon of gas doesn’t seem so expensive after all.

So, I won’t pretend that social media doesn’t have its benefits. It does! And that is precisely its allure! And its danger. Because it feeds on what Merton realizes as our fears, on our loneliness, on what we perceive is lacking in our lives. Even as it promises to link us to community, as it is today—right now, it plagues us with the constant sense threat of demanding we be reduced to the collective.

And in that sense, nothing has really changed since Merton was writing in the 60’s – mass media has just helped us become more efficient, more capable of eviscerating the unique voices that comprise communities of love and replacing it with the monotone voice of the collective, driven by fear and hatred. And how many of us have not been led to flirt with that hatred induced in us over politics, race, ideology? You see, I am not speaking theoretically here, I am speaking to a reality we now all know in our hearts. I close then with Merton’s admonition, as poignant (if nor more so) now as it was then:

It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever they can, and first of all in themselves, the capacity of love and which makes humanity the living image of God. (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, 1960, adapted for inclusive language).

If you are to love, I say again: find your voice! Shut out the collective, and embrace the communal. In darkness and emptiness and silence find your voice. How?


+ Three-in-one and one-in-Three!


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