Monday, November 11, 2013

Homily 32nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C: Courage in Hope



Although we still have about one and a half months left in the calendar year, the Church year ends in a couple of weeks with the end of the Season of Ordinary Time. Advent, the season we will be entering into, marks the beginning of a new Church Year because it is the season that prepares for Christmas, the ultimate “new beginning” that celebrates the entry of God into human history when the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. Whenever we come to the end of something, that is always a time of great significance. End-times cause us to consider ultimate questions and last things. As we near the end of a liturgical season and the Church year, the readings at Mass become more and more challenging and direct. We are challenged to remain faithful, to persevere, to prepare for persecution, to prepare for our judgment, to avoid sin, and increase in holiness.

Such is the case with this weekend’s readings. The first reading from the second book of Maccabees gives a snapshot of a severely vivid witness of uncompromising fidelity and obedience to God in the face of overwhelming persecution and suffering. The Church gives us readings like this to help us to prepare for our own persecutions. In this scene, we have seven brothers and their mother who are brought before the king and threatened with torture and death unless they forsake the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic Law. The Israelites were under many dietary and ritualistic laws in order to form them in discipline so that they would be better able to receive the deeper, spiritual laws of the coming Messiah. These brothers and their mother will not forsake even the least of God’s laws. So the king tortures and kills each brother, one after the next, in front of the others. And with the death of each brother, the next one does not waver. Eventually all seven and their mother are killed for their obedience to God. What allowed them to persevere in the face of such cruelty was their deep and abiding faith in the resurrection. They believed that the glory due to them overshadowed any persecution or suffering in their earthly lives. Their faith in the resurrection helped them to put their suffering in proper perspective, no matter how severe.

The faith of these seven brothers and their mother is what the Sadducees openly mock in the face of Jesus in our Gospel reading. The Sadducees were a group of Jews who did not believe in the Resurrection because they did not see it spelled out explicitly in the first five books of the Old Scriptures. But, Jesus has been openly preaching the Resurrection and so they decide to try to make him look like a fool by posing to him an absurd riddle that despicably mirrors the scenario in the first reading. They ask, in the case of seven brothers and childless widow, to which brother will the woman be married if all are raised from the dead?

Jesus, not stymied by their trick, answers them on their own terms. He first makes the point that we are not “given in marriage” in the next life. Second, Moses himself teaches the resurrection when, in the episode of the burning bush, he calls Yahweh the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If God is a God only of the living, and they had been dead for centuries before him, then they must somehow be alive in God – which implies the resurrection. After this the Sadducees did not dare pose any other arguments.

Jesus’ point about us not being “given in marriage” in the next life was meant to emphasize the Resurrection but it can be a troubling point. I experienced this in my own ministry as a seminarian when I went to the hospital with a lay woman to visit a parishioner. It was a straightforward visit, but we could tell that the lady we were visiting had something else on her mind. She finally told us that she was feeling alone and afraid as she lay in the hospital. Her husband had just died one year before and she recalled that after his funeral Mass she asked the priest if she could still consider herself married to her husband. The priest must have been in a hurry because all he did to answer her was quote today’s Gospel about us not being “given in marriage” in the next life, without any further explanation. His words were ringing in her ears as she suffered alone in the hospital. She began to cry.

The woman I was with and I tried to console the lady. We explained that this scripture passage is true because marriage is, by definition, ordered to the procreation of offspring through natural sexual intercourse and the unity of the spouses which enables them to guide each other to salvation. But, once we are in heaven, life will not come through natural intercourse but directly from God, the source of Eternal Life. And spouses will not need each other to guide them to salvation because they will have received it fully. Once you come to the destination, you no longer need the sign pointing you toward it. Plus, we emphasized that she would be more unified with her husband in heaven than she ever was on earth because they would be one in Christ, which is a much deeper and more profound unity. This seemed to console her greatly.

This consolation of the Resurrection, which allowed the seven brothers and their mother in the first reading to persevere in faith and obedience despite great suffering… this consolation that helped the lady we visited find hope in a different, more profound unity with her husband in eternal life… this is the consolation that is put before each one of us today. This is our consolation too, that helps us to put all of our sufferings or persecutions in their proper perspective. In this country we do not face persecutions such as imprisonment and torture for being faithful Catholics, but we do have very real persecutions on the horizon and in our day-to-day lives that hold us back just the same.

This isn’t meant to be a partisan statement… but the health care law that goes into effect in the new year will be a form of persecution as faithful Catholic employers will be forced to disobey their conscience and provide services that are against Church teaching, such as abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception, or else face onerous penalties. There are other persecutions that are more common to all of us. Again, these aren’t violent and forceful but they hold us back as if they were. These are more subtle persecutions, which can be the most devious… persecutions of timidity and fear; of pressure to be accepted, favored, or approved; persecutions of being bullied for being faithful; of the fear of change; of the fear of taking a step forward toward a better way of life because we cannot envision it due to not having experienced it yet… these are all persecutions that keep us at bay, that keep us from being bold and courageous Catholics.

Recently I was at a football game and the guy behind me was drinking and swearing, completely out of control. There I sat, a priest, and I should have turned around and said, “please stop taking the Lord’s name in vain”… but I didn’t, I was afraid of what he might say or if he might make fun of me so I just sat there and grumbled. But if I would have just taken a moment to think about the glory of the Resurrection that I can realistically hope for if I persevere in faith and obedience, then I would have had the courage to stand up boldly and defend God’s Holy Name. This is my point. Stopping for a moment to place our sufferings and persecutions, no matter how large or small, into the context of the Resurrection helps us to have the courage we need to endure them courageously and patiently. Our hope in the Resurrection gives us the strength to take every opportunity to glorify God, to defend our faith, to honor His Name, and to increase in holiness.

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