Homily, Lenten Sunday 3C
Since the dawn of mankind, one question has forever plagued the minds and hearts of every human being that has taken the time to reflect. One question has perplexed philosophers and confounded the wisdom of sages. One question continues to shake me to the very core of my existence: Why do bad things happen… to good food? Why, when I lift that last piece of pizza from the box, something would happen to throw off my balance and lose my grip and send that piece, toppings down, to the ground? And even if there’s still something salvageable in this case, after doing my best to remove any bits of grass and hair, and hoping against hope that the rest of what I still see is just black pepper, this doesn’t change the stark reality that in the case of good soup, whatever is spilled is ultimately lost to me. Sir Isaac Newton claimed to find the reason, as a tasty apple fell upon his head on its way to the ground at his feet. As he mourned the loss of that apple, he formulated the law of gravity, that the things of earth tend towards the earth. Still, the mechanics of how these tragedies happen are not very satisfactory as an answer to the question of why.
Whether small or big, we all face tragedy in our lives, times of disappointment and loss, even times when it seems the very foundation of our existence is shaken, or our world is turned upside down. And we all search for reasons. Why would a good, supremely loving, supremely just and merciful God allow these things to happen? Is God in control or isn’t he? And if he is, why does it seem like he isn’t paying much attention? These are the same questions the Israelites faced during their oppression as slaves in Egypt. And in the time of Jesus, they faced tragedies of the sacrifice of human blood and the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed. And in our day, we have seen sudden deaths, traffic accidents, devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, terrorist attacks, cancers and other diseases.
In the time of Jesus, they often thought of these disasters as punishments for personal sin, but Jesus very clearly rejects this explanation. They didn’t suffer these things because they themselves were greater sinners. Jesus also demonstrates this in his own crucifixion. Jesus is the sinless One, who nevertheless suffers great torments and dies, not for any sin of his, but for proclaiming the truth for our salvation. Much of the evil we suffer stems from our sins, but we can’t ignore the fact that we often suffer at the hands of others or because of forces beyond our control. And it is very little consolation to understand the physics or the biology of how so many suffer and die. And we might blame the devil, but God is infinitely more powerful than the devil, so we can’t escape the reality that God does allow these things to happen.
I still remember the first time that I had to come to terms with death and tragedy in a real way in my own life. 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 when I was in fifth grade, 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 happen and God allows them to happen.
What do we do in the face of real tragedy? What questions come up for us? And are we willing to really face these questions and bring them to God? Or do we look instead to distractions, something to try and numb the pain and the emptiness that we experience? I’ve always found it comforting that of the 150 psalms, the words that God himself gives to us in Scripture to pray to him, over 40% of the psalms can be classified as psalms of complaint. I think a lot of times, we feel like when we pray we need to just thank God and pretend that everything’s great and maybe ask for a few things. But the psalms of complaint actually encourage us to bring to God these difficult questions, our struggles in faith, our wavering and broken hearts, the raw pain and even anger of what seems to be “just not fair.” God is big. He can handle himself. We won’t hurt his feelings by bringing to him what we are really going through. We should not curse God or blaspheme, but he wants to hear from us, who we really are, and not just who we pretend to be. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together in front of God. He knows our need and wants to live in us. He wants to comfort us, perhaps in ways that we do not expect, but that only happens when we bring to him what we are really going through.
The dying and rising of Christ that he wants to live in each of us is a mystery. This mystery demands our faith, our trust in God’s love and providence in our lives and in the world, even amid so much that appears like evidence to the contrary. We can’t always tell how the tragedies and evil of our world will be transformed into the new life of the Resurrection, but even now we are given a foretaste of heaven in this Eucharist, as Christ renews his sacrifice of love for each of us and for the salvation of the world. Bring to Jesus the difficult questions. Pour out your hearts to God so that he can fill you with his own divine life. We won’t be freed from pain and suffering until we reach the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, but even in this life, we will never suffer alone. God is with us. God wants to be with us. Do we want to be with him?