When Tragedy is a Reality

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 13B

“The child is not dead but asleep.” Since its beginnings, Christianity has spoken of death in terms of sleep. This can be a little confusing at times. I remember reading in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and one of the first permanent deacons, and coming to the end of the passage after his last words, it says simply that he fell asleep. I remember thinking, “Well that doesn’t sound so bad. He’s just taking a little nap. He was probably tired from all his long-winded preaching.” And in one of the Eucharistic Prayers used at Mass, when we pray for “those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” it is hard for me to keep from imagining to myself those who have starting dosing in their pews.

So why do we, as Christians, speak about death as if it were like sleep? We find the answer in today’s readings and in the alleluia verse: “Our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life to light through the Gospel.” The Son of God who is life itself, “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” As God, He was immortal and undying, so He became man, so that He would be able to suffer death for our sake and conquer death by his Resurrection. Ever since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that death is only temporary. In that sense, death is like sleep. We know as Christians that even if we die, we will rise again, we will awaken to God’s judgment and His eternal reward or eternal punishment. Each of us has such a short time on this earth in view of eternity, and some just have a slightly shorter time than others, but all are alive to God and present in his sight. 

Still, this often seems very small consolation in the face of real tragedy. I still remember the first time that I really had to come to terms with death. Growing up, I had this sense that God was always protecting me and my family and those close to me and that nothing really bad could ever happen to us, and for a long time that seemed to be the case, and I never experienced the death of anyone I had known very personally. Then one evening as we were praying the rosary at home, the phone rang, and my mom answered it. And when she hung up the phone, she told us that Chris DeBuhr had just died in an accident on the road. And I thought, “Well, it must be some older relative with the same name. It couldn’t be the kid that I had sat next to in school and watched him storing a short pencil inside the bottom of his shoe. The kid that I had argued with and laughed with. It couldn’t be that Chris DeBuhr that they were talking about.” But then I had to face the reality that accidents do happen, and God allows them to happen. 

Our faith can be shaken and tested, and sometimes we have to say goodbye to some people and some things rather earlier than what we would have liked and chosen for ourselves. Yet through these trials, our faith can also grow stronger if we are willing to be honest and open with God and to continue to trust in his goodness and compassion, even when tragedies appear to call into question whether a good and loving God is really in control. Christianity proclaims a God who is so attentive to our needs that in today’s Gospel, after raising the girl from the dead, Jesus tells them “that she should be given something to eat.” I had to say goodbye to Chris for now and entrust him into the hands of God, trusting that we will meet again someday very soon. I cannot know what would have happened, and what Chris would have grown up to be if he had not died when he did, but I can thank God for the time I did know him, and I can try to make the world a little brighter, like Chris did in so many small ways. 

So many people and events in these communities and in these parishes have shaped me into the priest that I am going to be. I hope that I will always keep Christ and the good news of his Resurrection at the center of everything I do, and I ask all of you to remind me often about what’s really important. Ultimately, life on this earth is short for all of us, and the relationship we have with God is the most important, because He will be the one to carry us through the sleep of death. I hope that you never give up on God, no matter what happens to you or your loved ones. 

I’m encouraged by the fact that of the 150 psalms, some of the oldest and most widely used prayers of Sacred Scripture, over 40 % are psalms of complaint. Too often, we feel like we’re not allowed to complain to God. We need to just thank him and pretend like everything’s great, but the inspired Scriptures actually give us words to use in complaint to him. God can handle Himself. You’re not going to hurt his feelings. We should not blaspheme, but when difficulties arise or tragedy strikes, God wants to hear from us what we’re really going through, so please, never give up on God. Continue to return to him in good times and in bad. Never give up on God because, I’m here to tell you, God will never give up on you. 

Most Honored Guest

Homily, First Mass after Ordination, Saturday of 12th Week, St. Cyril of Alexandria

When I was growing up at home, I used to hate having visitors. And it wasn’t just because I was shy. It was also because I was lazy. You see, every time we knew someone was coming to visit, we’d have to clean up around the house. I tried to convince my mom many times that we really shouldn’t clean up for visitors. It was deceitful. Instead of welcoming them into our home, we would be welcoming them into an artificially tidied-up version, really just the shell of our house that would then lack so much of that lived-in feeling. But with nine kids in the house, there was no escaping the strong sense that the house was definitely lived-in. And our small efforts at cleaning up were a sign of the respect we had for our visitors.

The readings today are all about receiving guests, although Abraham manages to welcome and feed his visitors without bringing them inside his tent, and the centurion convinces Jesus to heal his servant without having to enter under his roof. Peter is the one who really welcomes the Lord into his own home. And once Jesus enters, He goes to work and heals Peter’s mother-in-law and many others and drives out demons. I couldn’t have picked better readings myself for my first Mass, but in God’s providence, these are the readings given in the Church’s Lectionary for today. The centurion’s words from today’s Gospel are the words we pray at every Mass, before receiving Jesus into our own body and soul: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And when Jesus comes to us, we too desire Him to go to work on us, healing us and driving out any demons He might find.

But how do we prepare ourselves to receive such a guest as Jesus in the Eucharist? Jesus is the King of the Universe, of all that exists. He’s more important than the pope or the president of the United States, and He comes to visit us at every Mass. But Jesus visits us humbly, under the appearances of bread and wine, and He wants to work in us and help us to clean up our lives by his grace. What He needs most is an open door. We shouldn’t be afraid to let Jesus into the mess of our lives and into the darkest places of our hearts, because it is His presence that transforms darkness into light.

At the same time, we should know that serious sins lock Jesus out and make us incapable of welcoming Him into our hearts. When we receive Holy Communion while conscious of serious sin on our souls, Jesus is not able to enter in, but we instead insult our Guest further by greeting Him only with a locked door. To open the door to Him again, we need to meet with His great mercy in the Sacrament of Confession, where the priest, as God’s instrument, exercises the power of the keys and opens the way of Christ that we had shut, and brings new life to a soul that was dead in sin.

In a short time, I will be blessing the chalice and paten that my mom and dad had cleaned up and restored for use at Mass. The bread and wine placed in them will be consecrated and changed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the very Person of Christ Himself, and these vessels will be set aside from this day forward for this sacred purpose. The preparation of the chalice and paten to receive the Eucharist was much more expensive than the means that have been given to us to prepare for receiving Holy Communion. The Sacrament of Confession is still offered for free. It’s quite the deal. I highly recommend Confession, along with personal prayer and a life of Christian love, to open ourselves fully to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, that His grace take deep root in our lives and hearts.

So far, I’ve been speaking mainly to the Catholics here, but today, I also have the great privilege of welcoming many other visitors here for my first Mass, many relatives and friends that over the years have been a sign to me personally of God’s love and presence in the world. I welcome all of you to this Mass and assure you that you are always welcome. I depend upon your prayers and support as I begin my priestly ministry, and I am thrilled that we could be together for this graced event. As I spoke earlier about preparation for Holy Communion for Catholics, I would like to speak now about how all of us will participate at that point in the Mass. I invite everyone to join in singing the communion hymns, and those Catholics who are prepared to receive Jesus in the Eucharist will approach me for Communion in the usual way. Catholics who are not prepared to receive Communion and those who are not Catholic may approach me with their arms crossed over their heart to receive a blessing. Again, thank you all for being here, and please pray for me as I pray for you, that we may all grow closer to God through Christ his Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.