Sunday, April 28, 2013

Homily 5th Sun Easter – Self-sacrificial love renews the earth

In the Catholic Church, we don’t just celebrate Easter for one day, we celebrate it for fifty days! This year, we celebrate Easter by following the early Church, step by step, through the Acts of the Apostles. We have an inside look into how the graces of that miraculous Easter morning helped the early Church to endure many trials and thus experience rapid expansion. I think it has been fascinating to watch how our Church first began its mission to preach the Good News and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Along with our journey with the early Church, we are also steeped in the Book of Revelation, the account of the mystical vision St. John received while exiled on the island of Patmos. Today it reveals that “a new heaven and a new earth” will be perfectly formed when God’s Son comes again. God the Father, the one who sits on the throne, said, “Behold, I make all things new.” This is in the present-tense. Although incomplete until the end of time, He is making the new heaven and the new earth, the Kingdom of God, presently, currently, right now. This is what we celebrate!

How does this come about - When, as John’s Gospel says, we “love one another” precisely as our Risen Lord has loved us. The early Church we are following in the Acts of the Apostles shows us exactly what living this love looks like. “It is necessary,” they said, “to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” True Christ-like love involves sacrifice.

On Monday, May 10, we will celebrate the feast day of St. Damien of Moloka’i, an excellent example for us of true Christ-like love. As we look at his example, let us ask ourselves, “Does the love I say I have for God, for my family, for my friends, have an element of sacrifice too? Could it be characterized by sacrifice?” If not, it is not Christ-like love.

St. Damien, a Belgian priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, lived in the mid to late 1800’s. When his brother, also a priest, was unable to take an assignment to go to Hawaii to minister to the native peoples, Damien took his place. At the time the natives were undergoing a grave crisis as they struggled to cope with the new diseases introduced to their population by foreign traders and sailors. The worst of these was leprosy. Knowing very little about the disease or how to treat it, and fearful of its spread, the King in 1865, in a decree that would last over 100 years, ordered all lepers in the kingdom of Hawaii to be quarantined in a small settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, accessible, even today by only a narrow mule path. Between 1865 and 1969 over 8000 lepers were sent there with very little food, supplies, or health care.

In 1873 the Bishop of Honolulu asked for four volunteers to minister to the settlement. Fr. Damien was the first to volunteer and he entered the quarantine which then had over 800 lepers. There he built them a parish, gave them the sacraments, and dressed their wounds. He and the healthier natives also built homes, beds, farms, and schools for them. He also built proper caskets for the dying and dug them proper graves. Out of great love for them, Fr. Damien wrote: “Here I am in the midst of my dear lepers. They are hideous to look at but they have souls redeemed at the price of the blood of our Savior… I love my Hawaiians very much… I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

He knew that his ministry among them would soon bring the disease upon himself. But he wrote, “I would not want to be healed if leaving the island and abandoning my work were to be the price.” So he persevered, ministered to them, and showed the natives great love as they died. “By keeping the lepers close to me when they are sick,” he said, “a good number have died with good dispositions.” Fr. Damien himself died of leprosy on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and on October 11, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized him St. Damien of Molokai. In his homily for the canonization, Pope Benedict said:

His missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who lived there, abandoned by all… He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.

St. Damien’s life illustrates what John’s Gospel means when it says we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us: by self-sacrifice, by sacrificing ourselves for each other. Through suffering, offered to the Father, Jesus showed the depth of his love for us and won for us our salvation. That was the way Christ went and so it is our way too, for the disciple is not above his master. St. Paul loved this way too. We have heard all about his traveling from place to place, preaching, ordaining men to lead the local Churches, praying, fasting, and even returning to lands that had persecuted him in the past in order to strengthen the Christians there. All of this he accomplished after being stoned, dragged out of the city of Lystra, and left for dead! He endured all of this in, and out of, great love. This is why he was able to say, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Self-sacrificial love is how, here and now, God makes all things new. This is how we begin to live in a new heaven and a new earth, the kingdom of God that He is making. Self-sacrificial love is how God dwells among us, wiping every tear from our eyes. This is how he conquers death, mourning, wailing, and pain. This is how the old order passes away – when we endure suffering that comes our way with patience and humility. When we ask God to unite our sufferings with those of his Son’s Cross for the salvation of our friends and family. When we give of ourselves like our Lord, like St. Paul, like St. Damien; when we sacrifice ourselves for those we love, because we love them.

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