Today’s scripture readings are bracing, though-provoking, extraordinary. Take St. Paul’s words in the second reading: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” For Paul, belief in Christ and belief in everlasting life are intimately linked, because Paul was an utter realist who knew the cost of discipleship and realized that the suffering in life, particularly that consequent on living out the gospel, only makes sense for the sake of some great good, a good often not realized in this life. Paul dealt with shipwreck, stoning, persecution, finally beheading. It was for the sake of Christ and eternal life with Christ that Paul endured all of this.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is able to call the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the despised, blessed because he knew that if they bore their affliction nobly, gracefully, trustingly, acceptingly, they would have an eternal reward. It’s not that we have to suffer in order to obtain that reward, nor that we should supinely accept avoidable suffering in order to obtain our reward, but that given the limitations and apparent capriciousness of earthly life and human effort, eternal life is held out as the counterbalance and rectification of what goes wrong during our relatively brief life on earth.
Eternal life is where justice is finally done, where the ultimate mercy is experienced, where wrongs are righted and righteousness rewarded, where we see finally how it all made sense. We profess our faith, when we recite the creed, in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. Do we really believe it? Do we act as if we believe it? Do we live as though we were preparing for it? When tragedy strikes, do we trust that the tragedy is temporary, the glory eternal, and that from eternity’s point of view, the tragedy will look very different from the way it looks now.
I can’t read minds and hearts, but I try to read faces. It’s a perilous enterprise, and on more than one occasion I’ve discovered that I was way off in my interpretation of what people’s faces revealed about what was going on inside them. Granted that fallibility, I have to say that in praying at wakes and presiding at funerals, what I often see is not just grief and sorrow, but a kind of quiet despair or numbed hopelessness. It’s sad to lose someone we love. It’s sadder still to have no hope of ever seeing that person again.
Our faith and hope is not a blind leap in the dark. There are good reasons to believe what we do. I’d encourage all of you, from teens on up, to visit a terrific website put together by Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. and his staff called crediblecatholic.com. It’s user-friendly, visually appealing, with text, pictures, videos, and voices, and it gives compelling reasons for many things we believe, including eternal life. Give it a look, and share it with others.
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” But we are not the most pitiable people of all, because this life is not all there is. We believe, with good reason, in life everlasting.
In this morning’s readings we see the aftermath of God’s having permitted the sin of Adam and Eve, and Jesus’ pitying a large crowd of hungry people whom he feeds by miraculously multiplying some loaves of bread and a few fish. How is it that a God of such power, whose name is Love, who can feed a multitude with just a bit of bread and fish, allows a world filled with so much suffering? The mystery of evil in the world is one that plagues many people, perhaps most, some to the point that they lose their faith over it.
The Bible teaches that God created the first human beings in a paradise, and, being perfectly at peace with Him and each other, they had the capacity to build up that paradise until it encompassed the whole world. But paradise was lost by sin, and what would have been a happy life of living in a growing, expanding paradise became instead a struggle.
The struggle, the mystery of evil, is there with or without God, whether we believe in Him or not. Without God, it all means nothing and ends in oblivion. With God, we’re part of a great drama, a struggle between good and evil, into which God entered as a human being in the person of Jesus, and through whom, if we fight the good fight, we enter into eternal life, seeing in the very end all creation transformed into paradise, in some measure because of the small part we played in the great drama. We can’t see that now. We will then.
Thomas Howard wrote an excellent book about what ultimately are the only two viable visions of our lives. He called it Chance or the Dance. Whenever we recite the creed, proclaiming our faith in God, the Father almighty, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, we announce that we believe in the Dance.
February 10, 2019
When I was in high school, my favorite subjects were the sciences. When I got to college, although I still loved science, a chemistry course made me realize that a career in that field wasn’t for me. We had a four hour chemistry lab one day a week, during which we were given an experiment to do. Four hours straight of meticulously measuring out chemicals, mixing them in precise proportions, heating them for just the right amount of time, knowing that if you were the slightest bit off with any of this, it would all be for nothing—it was more than I could bear.
Maybe you’ve had an analogous experience with cooking. There’s a bit more leeway in putting together a recipe, but accidentally leaving out an essential ingredient or putting in a little too much can lead to unhappy results. I can still remember my mother’s having grown old and tired of making her own stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner and deciding to try Stovetop, a packaged stuffing mix, instead. Hers was my favorite and still is, so I was disappointed even before trying the new recipe. When I did try it, I told her it tasted like wet bread. She told me to shut up and eat it. A while later, having gone into the kitchen to get something, she returned laughing with a packet of seasoning in her hand. She had forgotten to add it to the stuffing. It was wet bread.
There’s a sense in which our relationship to God is like a chemistry experiment or a recipe. That is, there are essential ingredients to it, and if they’re left out, the result will be more or less flawed. Two essential ingredients are highlighted in today’s readings. In the first, the Prophet Isaiah has a vision of God surrounded by Seraphim, the highest rank of angels. Isaiah’s reaction is not, “Hey, this is really cool. How you doin’ God?” It’s “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” But God has one of the Seraphim touch Isaiah’s mouth with a burning ember to cleanse him. So we have Isaiah’s humility, contrition and fear of the Lord on the one hand, and on the other, God’s power and mercy and love.
In the second reading, St. Paul looks back on his dismal past, calling himself the least of the Apostles, not even fit to be called an Apostle, because he persecuted Christians. But by the grace of God, he says, he was saved and transformed. We can easily imagine Paul singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” There it is again: Paul’s humility and contrition; God’s power and mercy and love.
In the Gospel, Peter, who has seen Jesus’ miracles before, is struck in a new way by a miraculous catch of fish. He’s a fisherman and knows what is possible in the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret). He knows what he has just seen is impossible; and his reaction? “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man?” Jesus’ response: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men”--again, Peter’s humility, awe, and contrition; God’s power and mercy and love.
It’s the first set of ingredients in the recipe, the ones on our side, that enable us to really appreciate the second set. If ours are left out, we’re liable either to undervalue or trivialize God’s mercy, or not to seek it or recognize it at all. Call it the science or the art of our relationship with God. Either way, if any major ingredient is left out, the result will not be what it should be. Nothing is ever left out on God’s side. The problem is always ours. Unless we recognize our problem, God can’t help us, and if God can’t help us, we’ve really got a problem.
- 4th Sunday of the Year (C)
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- Deacon Frank Hartmann (Died 11/27/2018)
- Thanksgiving: Nov. 22, 2018
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- Christmas 2016
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- The Dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome: Nov. 9