Saturday, October 26, 2013

I Say to You, Arise!

Homily of His Eminence, Archbishop Stephen
for Sunday, October 7/20, 2013, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

There is nothing more sobering than a funeral. A funeral has a tendency to focus all of our attention on the reality and promises of God’s Word. And if there is one reality that stares us squarely in the face when we attend a funeral, it is this: we live in fallen and broken word.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus encounters death for the first time. As Jesus was entering the gate of the city of Nain, He came upon a funeral procession exiting the city, through the same gate. It was a funeral procession for a widow’s only son.
A widow carries great significance in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because the widow represents the poorest, the most destitute, the most dependent and vulnerable classes of people in Israel at that time. To be a widow meant to be totally dependent upon the kindness and generosity of others for daily sustenance and survival.
In Israelite society at the time of Jesus, it was through one’s husband that one received the inheritance of the land. It was through one’s husband that one received financial security. It was through one’s husband that one received physical sustenance. Unlike in today’s society, where the modern woman has the freedom and ability to work and care for herself, even without a husband, a woman in Jesus’s time could not provide for herself in such a way. Women were totally dependent upon their men for their physical well-being. As a result, the worst thing that could happen to a woman in ancient Israel was for her to lose her husband. If a woman did lose her husband, life became very difficult for her very quickly, sometimes virtually overnight.
The Old Covenant law protected the widow and made provisions for her. For example, in Deuteronomy 24, there are regulations that prevent a man from harvesting his fields more than once during the harvest season. The reason for this was because anything that was left after the first pass was to be given over to the poor, which included the widow. Since she was without her husband and the regular support and care he provided, she became completely dependent upon the kindness of landowners and their obedience to the law. Can you imagine what kind of existence this must have been for someone who did not intentionally get herself into such a difficult situation? I wonder how she felt to be dependent upon others who do not know you, who have no vested interest in you, other than the provisions made by God’s commands.
The vulnerable and destitute state the widow found herself in can only be attributed to one thing: the reality of death. Death totally changed her life. Death totally changed the way she looked at things, her financial security, even her identity. No longer was she known as Mr. So-and-so, but as one who lost her husband. If anyone could attest to the reality of the fall, it would be the widow. To her grieving and broken heart, to her collecting the remainder of a landowner’s harvest, her life was a living testimony that this world is fallen.
In today’s Gospel reading, the message of the fallenness of this world is compounded and multiplied beyond measure. The widow we come to know in the Gospel not only lost her husband, but she also lost her only son, whom she was now going to bury. Talk about tragedy and heartbreak! Here is a woman who is surrounded by the darkness of death. It is one thing to have to bury your husband; it is quite another thing to have to bury your only child.
The broken-hearted and grieving widow we meet as she goes to bury her son represents for all of us just how fallen and broken this fleeting life truly is. But we don’t have to put ourselves in her sandals to know this. I am sure all of us can readily testify to the fact that we live in a broken and fallen world. Babies are born addicted to drugs. Spouses abuse each other. Helpless and vulnerable children and elders are abused. Natural disasters destroy homes and thousands of lives. Terrorism and war fill the pages of our newspapers every day. Lives are lost to drunk driving and senseless accidents. Couples grieve over miscarriages and infertility. Husbands and wives work more than one job just to make ends meet.
If the widow represents what it is like to live in this fallen world, then Jesus Christ represents the intrusion of the Kingdom of Heaven into this material world. Jesus represents the arrival of a new world order, of a new and more perfect society, of a more perfect kingdom. So dramatic is this event that it can only be described as the clashing of the ages, of this present age and the age to come.
Jesus comes into this world to deliver His people out of this earthly and material world that is fallen and passing away. He came to lead us and guide us into a country whose builder and foundation is God. He joined us in our human existence so that we may have a better life; that we may have a better world; and that we may know hope and peace and happiness once again.
When Jesus encounters the funeral procession leaving the city and when He sees the grieving widow, He has compassion on her, “His heart went out to her.” He understands her pain and suffering. He comprehends her loss. Jesus restores her hope and her joy by raising her son from the dead. No one had asked Jesus to do anything. No one had recognized Him. But the sights and sounds were too much for Him. Moved to compassion, Jesus says to the woman, “Do not cry.” He then touched the coffin, raised the man to life, and “gave him back to his mother.”
By this miracle, Jesus gives evidence to the unfathomable love of God for His people. God does not wish us to suffer. In raising the widow’s son, Jesus shows us that there is hope beyond this fallen and broken world.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is a man of compassion. As He walked through the villages and towns and saw people afflicted with sickness and disease, “He had compassion on them.” When He saw the hungry, “He had compassion on them.” When He was confronted by those who were lame, blind, crippled, or deaf and dumb, “He had compassion on them.” When He encountered the poor or anyone in any kind of need or distress, “He had compassion on them.” When He left Jericho followed by yet another large crowd and two blind beggars yelled out for help, “Jesus had compassion on them” and healed them.
The two most famous parables on the Bible, of the Good Samaritan and of the Prodigal Son, are about compassion. In contrast to the arrogant and indifferent religious professionals we encounter in the story about the Good Samaritan, the outsider Good Samaritan “had compassion” on the man beaten by thugs. And while the prodigal son “was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.”
We must understand that Jesus doesn’t raise the widow’s son just for the sake of showing His divine power. He doesn’t do it simply for winning over the crowd. He does it, rather, for the sake of giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God…a kingdom of life, love and joy; a kingdom without suffering, disease, heartache and death. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom where compassion and mercy are to be found in abundance.
Surely, in many ways, we are like the widow in today’s Gospel. We have all lost, in one way or another, the very vital means of life support, which is the Word of God. We have become dependent upon the false security and material things of this world. When they disappear, when they are taken from us, we have nowhere to turn except to become dependent upon others. Rather than depending upon God to provide for us, something He does freely in abundance, we turn instead to those whose help more often than not comes with a price tag or strings attached.
Sadly, much human charity and philanthropy today has behind it a hidden agenda or is given with conditions attached to it. God does not put conditions on the generous giving of His love, compassion and mercy. They are ours for the taking, as much as we want and as often as we want. The compassion which Jesus shows to the widow can never be outdone by any human act or gesture. That kind of compassion can only be given by God Himself.
In our times of despair and brokenness, let us seek out God’s compassion earnestly; for the promise of the joys of the Kingdom are within our reach today in the love and person of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Cross is Our Way of Life

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Our present difficulties have been a source of much discussion in our Church and they have brought much pain and sorrow into our faith community as has been evidenced by the many comments I have heard and the numerous conversations I have had with many of you over the past two months. They have also brought to the surface a wide range of emotions many of us, myself included, are struggling to deal with. As we move forward in the process of the court case involving the charges against myself, the Archdiocese's Chief Operating Officer, and the Archdiocese itself, I want to take a few moments to remind everyone that our life as Christians is never without the Cross. This present situation is our Cross to bear at this time in our life as Church. Christianity and the Cross go hand in hand. There can be no Christianity without the Cross and to think of the Cross without pain is unrealistic.
Yes, this is a truly a painful time for us all. There is intense emotional pain and suffering in our midst right now. There is also spiritual pain and suffering; I feel it myself as well. But we cannot despair. We must have hope in Christ's power to deliver us from all tribulation and distress and to comfort us with His immense love, which surpasses all human understanding.
My dear people, we are safe under the shelter of God's wings. God knows what is in our hearts and in this particular instance He knows we have done nothing wrong. We have no right to believe that our good works or even our good intentions will be seen as such by others. We live in a world that is fallen and broken, which no longer understands the things of God and the ways of God.
Our Lord warns us: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you! In the self-same manner their fathers used to treat the prophets.”  Faith, when it is authentic, brings down into opposition with itself many selfish interests so as not to cause scandal.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be a good Christian and not find oneself in conflict with a bourgeois and comfortable atmosphere that is frequently pagan.  We have to ask continually for peace in the Church and for Christians of every country, but we should not be surprised or frightened if there is resistance from our surroundings to the teaching of Christ that we want to spread, to resistance that takes the shape of defamation, calumnies, etc. God will help us to receive abundant results from these situations and will ultimately deliver us from them.
The opposition from the good usually shows itself in antipathy towards some brothers in the Faith, in a more or less masked opposition to their work, and a criticism that is as destructive as it is ill-informed. In any case, the position of the Christian who wants above all else to be faithful to Christ has to be one where he can pardon, make amends and act with rectitude of intention, all the time looking toward Christ. Don’t expect people’s applause for your work. What is more, sometimes you must not even expect other people and institutions, who like you are working for Christ, to understand you.  Seek only the glory of God, and while loving everyone, don’t worry if there are some who do not comprehend what it is you are doing.

When Saint Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews living there said, referring to the infant Church: We know that everywhere it is spoken against.  At the end of twenty centuries we see, both in recent history as well as at the present moment, how in various countries thousands of good Christians, priests and lay persons have suffered martyrdom on account of their faith or have been marginalized or discriminated against for their beliefs or have been kept out of public office or teaching positions on account of their Faith, or encounter difficulties in procuring for their children a Christian education. Alternately, it is the same oppressive atmosphere that looks upon religion as archaic, while modernity and progress are conceived as liberation from ‘restrictive’ religious ideals.
It is difficult to understand calumny or persecution - either open or veiled - in an era in which one hears so much about tolerance, understanding, fellowship and peace. But the attacks are more difficult to understand when they come from good men, when Christian persecutes, no matter how, another Christian, or a brother his brother. Our Lord prepared His own for the inevitable times when those who would defame, calumniate, or undermine their apostolic work would not be pagans or enemies of Christ, but brothers in the Faith who would think that with these actions they would be doing a service to God. This opposition from the good is a trial that God sometimes permits. Nevertheless, it is a bitter pill to swallow. It is particularly painful for the Christian to whom it happens.
Right now, we don't know if our present difficulties are opposition from the good, or the acts of truly evil people. The motives of the calumniators are usually due to human passions that can distort good judgment and complicate the clear intention of men who profess the same faith as those they attack, and who make up the same people of God. There are at times jealousies that supervene and rash allegations that appear to derive from envy that make it possible to consider as evil the good that is being done by others. There can also be a kind of blinkered dogmatism that refuses to recognize for others the right to think in a different way in matters left by God to the free judgment of men.
My dear people, God will reveal in His own good time whether our present sufferings and difficulties are the result of opposition from the good or derive from those who are truly evil and have acted out of hate and vengeance. In both cases, let us pray for those who afflict us and hate us, asking God to send down His Holy Spirit, through Jesus His Son, to soften their hearts and renew His divine love within them. And let us not look to discard the Cross we now bear, but ask God to give us all the courage, strength and grace to carry it with all dignity and love.
Please continue to pray for me, Phil, and our holy Church and know that you are always in my prayers and in my heart.
Your faithful and unworthy servant,
+Archbishop Stephen