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. Had God abandoned them and forgotten the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? 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 own sins, but we can’t ignore the fact that we also 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. 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.
Jesus doesn’t preach a prosperity gospel. Jesus never tells us, “If you follow Me, obey God’s commandments, and do everything you’re supposed to, nothing bad will ever happen to you.” Not only does Jesus not promise us an easy life, free from trials and tragedies, He goes so far as to tell us, “You will be hated by all because of Me,” and “in the world, you will have trouble, but take courage: I have overcome the world.” How is our Lent going so far? Is it starting to get difficult to keep our resolutions and disciplines? Are we perhaps disappointed that we’re not getting more out of Lent? That our small sacrifices have not obtained for us miraculous healings and overwhelming spiritual consolations from God? Is that the reason that we took on certain disciplines, to force God to bless us?
I’ve always greatly admired the early Christian martyrs, from those first centuries. They became Christian at a time when they knew that they would be hated for it. The Romans thought they were strange. Even the Jews rejected them. Often, members of their own family would disown them. And when faced with the loss of all their property, being taken or sent away from their homes, even under pain of torture and death, they would not deny their friendship with Christ Jesus, which they valued above all else. They would not deny the truth of the Christian religion. The martyrs were willing to suffer and die, for the sake of Truth. How many of us find it difficult even to go a whole day without some little lie, half-truth, or falsehood, to make things easier, to smooth things over, to avoid some minor inconvenience? How many Christians and how many Catholics are still willing to suffer or die for the Truth? If we find ourselves unwilling to endure even the slightest smudge on our public image, we’ve got a ways to go.
The world doesn’t need any more Catholics looking to take the easy road. The Church doesn’t need any more bishops and priests acting like politicians, placing more value on their friendship with this passing world than on their friendship with Christ. The world needs the faith of the martyrs. The Church needs men, women, boys and girls willing to stand for God in the midst of tragedy, willing to proclaim the truth in the midst of persecution and in the face of an unbelieving society. In many ways, we’re seeing the return of days like those of the first Christian centuries. In other areas of the world, the persecution has already begun. And persecution is on its way here, if we’re willing to proclaim the full Gospel. Are you living your Lent as if you’re really training for something? In the world, you will have trouble, but take courage, Christ has overcome the world. May Jesus also overcome the lack of faith, the cowardice within us, so that when He returns, we’ll have the strength to stand in His Presence.