Thursday, September 1, 2011

Homily for 22d Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
22d Sunday

in Ordinary Time
Aug. 28, 2011
Matt 16: 21-27

I was scheduled to celebrate 2 Masses at St. Michael's in Greenwich again on Sunday, but Hurricane Irene changed a lot of people's Sunday plans. Here's the homily I prepared but didn't get to preach.

“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly” (Matt 16: 21).

Last week, in the gospel passage immediately preceding this one, Simon Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of God. Jesus admitted to that identification and brought out some of the implications of who he is. The passage ended with an admonition from Jesus that the apostles should “tell no one that he was the Christ” (16:20).

Why tell no one? Isn’t Jesus’ message “Good News”—which is the literal meaning of Gospel? For now, tell no one because no one understands what being God’s Anointed really means. They don’t understand the nature of this Good News. Not even the apostles. Not even Simon Peter.

Jesus today begins to explain his mission as the Christ. He is to suffer, to be subjected to the cruelty of the rulers of the earth, to be killed—and to rise.

Peter and all the apostles, and every other 1st-century Jew, expected that the Christ, the Son of David, Anointed of God, would be a worldly ruler who would deliver Israel from foreign oppression and exalt Israel above all other nations. The Messiah would bring hope and change; would inaugurate an unending golden age.

So the apostles, Peter included, don’t understand this suffering stuff, and they’re not ready to accept it.

Furthermore, they see and reject the implications: if our leader should suffer and die, what about us?

That’s right, Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (16:24). The way to the glory that you seek—a different kind of glory than you imagine, entirely different because it’s not worldly at all—is the way of the cross. And everyone who belongs to the Christ must walk that way with him in order to attain the glory—resurrection, the “saving” of your life (16:25) for eternity. Everyone must suffer and die before rising and attaining the glory of the kingdom of God when the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and repay everyone according to his conduct” (16:27).

What does it mean to take up Christ’s cross and deny yourself? Jesus draws out a distinction between saving one’s life in this world, profiting in this world, and carrying his cross, following him, even losing our lives for his sake. The way of the world is not the way of Christ. The way of the world is power and pleasure, self-seeking and wealth; the way of Christ is self-emptying, seeking God, service, building up and assisting our sisters and brothers.

At World Youth Day a few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the Way of the Cross with hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world. Among other things, he told them: “Christ’s passion urges us to take upon our own shoulders the sufferings of the world, in the certainty that God is not distant or far removed from man and his troubles,” because Christ became human himself, enduring suffering and death. The Pope prayed that Christ’s love would “increase your joy and encourage you to go in search of those less fortunate. You are open to the idea of sharing your lives with others, so be sure not to pass by on the other side” of the road “in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give of your very best: your capacity for love and compassion.”[1]

Further, to follow Christ we may have to say and do things that aren’t popular, that aren’t politically correct, that are counter-cultural: about the dignity of every human being, about local and national priorities, about what our children should be taught, about family life. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, our hearts will be where our treasure is (Matt 6:21). We have to decide what we treasure: the values and pseudo-truths that society and the culture promote— Hollywood and slick magazines and advertising in general, the New York Times and politics and academia; or the values and authentic truths that the Bible teaches, and the successor of St. Peter and the bishops and the entire Catholic tradition. From what will we seek to profit? “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (16:26).

There’s another truth about carrying the cross with Jesus. We’re going to suffer in this world, whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not. And we’re going to die eventually. We don’t have to like those facts, and we shouldn’t like them, but we can’t deny them. We can accept inevitable suffering—not seek it out, and trying to mitigate it as best we can—but what’s unavoidable, we can finally accept with grace, and inevitable death as well as part of our personal union with Jesus Christ. Jesus accepted these as part of the human condition, the deepest evidence of how close God is to us, how much God wants to be with us, and to have us be with him forever. In the patristic reading for the Divine Office today, St. Augustine writes:

Let us then follow Christ’s paths which he has revealed to us, above all the path of humility, which he himself became for us. He showed us that path by his precepts, and he himself followed it by his suffering on our behalf. In order to die for us—because as God he could not die—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The immortal One took on mortality that he might die for us, and by dying put to death our death.[2]

We reciprocate by saying, “Yes, Jesus, I will walk along with you, carrying my own cross”— anxiety, pain, illness, bad news, spoiled plans, loss, betrayals, all “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” all the unpleasantness life throws at us. Whatever we suffer, whether it be because we’re disciples of Jesus or simply because we’re frail human beings, we can turn our sufferings into Christian worship. That’s what St. Paul says in the 2d reading today: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). We don’t offer our bodies as literal holocausts on an altar, as various pagan religions have done thru human sacrifice; we offer them in a spiritual sense—offer whatever is related to our bodies, our emotions, our minds: pain, illness, anxiety, bad news, and, yes, resistance to temptation, because oftentimes (we all know it) our bodies make war on our souls; many of the 7 deadly sins are bodily-based.
Whatever life throws at us is no worse, no less fair, than the cross of Jesus, his “great suffering from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes” (Matt 16:21)—the suffering of the most innocent human being who ever was. But if we’ll follow him with our own cross, then surely we’ll end up where he did: passing from the cross to resurrection and everlasting life.

[1] As reported by Catholic News Service, 8/19/11.
[2] Sermon 23A, LOH 4:189.

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