Cardinal Qualities

Lately I noticed an abundance of bird droppings on my Honda, not on the hood or roof but strangely on the side door panels. Finally one day, I caught the culprit in the act: a bright red cardinal that frequents a tree by my office.  I observed him perching on the side-door window ledge and, seeing his reflection in the rear-view mirror, proceeded to repeatedly, almost violently, peck at the mirror; presumably thinking it was another cardinal and not an image of himself.

Doing a quick search, I learned a couple of facts about cardinals. One, they’re extremely territorial, and two, they apparently mate for life. They’ll relentlessly fight to protect their territory and their young. My little friend obviously sees his mirror-reflection as an unwelcome intruder: competition, a threat. And the reality of a life-long mate suggests a dedication and commitment many humans would do well to imitate.

The cardinal’s cardinal qualities provide relevant lessons for us. We humans are all rather territorial creatures, some extremely so. Our “territory” has all kinds of little parts and parcels over which we are stewards; which is why we’re often so busy. We work hard, try hard, even fight hard to defend our territory and protect what is ours: families, homes, cars, and stuff. We spend a great deal of time, energy and resources to do this, often at significant personal sacrifice. On a wider scale, we likewise defend and protect our personal opinions, values and beliefs like some sort of intellectual territory off-limits to potential intruders who may seek to impose some thought or idea on us we’re not ready and willing to accept, tolerate or condone. Our time is often considered a commodity included in “our” territory. No one and no thing should be able to infringe upon our use of our time.

Now some questions: What is God’s territory?  Where is it? And how does He defend and protect what is His from external threats and potential intruders?

In our Holy Church, all our teaching, scriptures, writings, services, rituals, beliefs, history, practices, prayers and everything else provide the answers to these questions in concise, unambiguous, crystal clear terms. God’s territory is the universe He Himself created from nothing and called very good. And instead of asking where His territory IS, perhaps, in the tradition of the long-suffering Job, we would ask where His territory ISN’T!  Are we not “of God:” created in His image and likeness, breathing with His breath, exercising dominion over His creation on His behalf, and “ransomed with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:15)?

Now if we think living the kind of life that clearly testifies to and manifests the omnipotence and sovereignty of God is utterly impossible, especially in this day and age, here come our countless, beloved saints to proclaim otherwise, teaching us that not only is such a life possible but desirable and essential (“cardinal”)!

The Gospel proclaimed on All Saints Day issues a formidable challenge that ranks among the “difficult sayings” of Jesus with which each of us must grapple: “Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).  To acknowledge Christ publicly—to concede that we indeed belong to Him and therefore must always and everywhere have Him as our first love and His Kingdom our highest aspiration—that’s difficult.  As if this isn’t hard enough, listen carefully to what comes next: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (vv. 37-38).

Are we truly part and parcel of God’s “territory;” are we not the sheep of His flock and His beloved children who call upon Him several times a day; “Our Father… Thy will be done.”  The “territoriality,” commitment and life-long dedication of a little red cardinal will compel it to fight relentlessly to defend its territory and its young.  How much more will our Living and Loving God protect and defend those who love Him and are confident in the promise—“no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The saints are saints because they understood to Whom they belonged and the eternal implications of what that meant.  They didn’t allow any pressures, threats or possible consequences to dissuade them from bearing living witness to Christ.  They spoke the truth because they lived the truth. Through the example and intercessions of this “great cloud of witnesses,” may we all be dedicated and committed, inspired and encouraged, to do likewise.