Faith Amid Trials and in Daily Work, 33rd Sunday (C), November 17, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
November 17, 2013
Mal 3:19-20, Ps 98, 2 Thes3:7-12, Lk 21:5-19

To listen to an audio version of today’s homily, please click here: 

This was the written text that guided the homily: 

The Day of the Lord

During the month of November, the Church leads us in a meditation on the Last Things. Today the prophet Malachi describes that the day of the Lord will come blazing like an oven scorching proud evil doers but rising like a sun of justice with healing rays on those who fear God’s name. In the Gospel, that long awaited Sun of Justice, Jesus himself, gives far more details about the end times. He describes how the house of God will be attacked, how there will be imposters claiming to be speaking for God and asking us to follow them, how there will be wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions, hatred, betrayals by family members and friends, and how even some of his followers will be put to death.

When Jesus’ listeners asked, “Master, when will this happen?” — presumably so that they could be prepared — he didn’t answer their question directly, not only because the time of the second coming was known only to the Father, but also, and perhaps most importantly, because he wanted them to be prepared for it always. If he had given some date weeks, decades or centuries later, the temptation would have been just to go on with life as normal. But Jesus had come to establish a totally new normal, a norm of faith, a norm of vigilant awaiting, a norm of full-time Christian behavior. He wanted the day of the Lord to be a perpetual state, so that each day would be the Lord’s day, a day in which we exclaim, “This is the day the Lord has made!” And the signs of the day of the Lord he gives us help us to maintain this awareness, because they are in fact events we see in every age, when there’s destruction, natural disasters, wars, famines, illness, betrayals, attacks on the Church, and the persecution and killing of Christians..

Contradictions? 

But if we’re paying close attention to the readings, there seem at first glance to be some contradictions. How can Malachi say that the sun of justice with his healing rays will arise for those who fear God’s name if they’re having to endure betrayal and persecution not to mention all types of natural disasters? How can Jesus affirm at the end of the Gospel simultaneously that some of his followers will be put to death but not a hair on their head will be destroyed? In short, why would God allow so many terrible things to happen to those who trust in him? How’s that a healing ray? How’s that protecting them down to every last strand of hair?

Let’s get specific with events in the news: Why would he allow Typhoon Haiyan to kill so many of his sons and daughters in the Philippines, the most Catholic country in Asia?  Why would he allow Fr. Anibal Gomez to be stabbed to death right in front of the bishop’s residence in Colon, Panama two weeks ago? Why would he permit the Muslim Brotherhood to open fire on the members of a wedding party at a Cairo Church last month, murdering four — including 8- and 12-year-old bridesmaids — and turning such a happy occasion into a time of blood and mourning? Why would he tolerate the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria to continue to bomb Catholic Churches while worship services are going on, murdering dozens each time? Why would he allow so many periods of persecution and martyrdom of his family throughout the centuries and why would he allow half of all the martyrs in the history of the Church to have shed their blood during the lifetime of some of our oldest parishioners?

Why God permits these evils

The answer is something we all have to grasp as we begin the last week of the Year of Faith. It’s not a contradiction at all, but it’s a hard truth all the same, one that we must view with faith. God permits these evils in order to help us become better disciples and better apostles, more fervent followers of him and more passionate proclaimers of his salvation. He does so to help us become more faithful and bring other people to faith. He tells us in the Gospel that all of these things “will lead to your giving testimony” — and not just any testimony. He tells us that he will give us the grace of “a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.” Pope Francis said at his Angelus meditation today on this Gospel, “The adversities we encounter for our faith and our adhesion to the Gospel are occasions for witness; they shouldn’t distance us from the Lord, but rather impel us to abandon ourselves even more to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit and his grace.”

When we’re brought to our knees by natural disasters or man-made hatred, it provides the opportunity for us to pray far more devoutly, to grow in faith, and to be proven like gold in a crucible. When we’re tested more severely in the faith, God always comes to our aid, he always sends us himself, to help us pass those tests, provided that we open ourselves up to his presence during trial and respond to him. And that type of faith is the greatest means to bring others to faith.

We’ve seen since the early days of the Church that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians (sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum). So many have converted when they see the way Christians suffer even martyrdom with peace, serenity, joy and chants, how we forgive our enemies, how we pray for our persecutors, how we freely lay down our loves in love for Him who freely laid down his life out of love to save our own. But we also see it on a lesser scale when Christians, having suffered natural disasters like the rest, rush unselfishly to help others before thinking of themselves, how so many far from the catastrophes sacrifice in Christ’s name as Good Samaritans to help people rebuild as we’ll have an opportunity to do next week with a collection for the Philippine Typhoon victims.

Just as Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and martyrdom strengthened his own adhesion to the Father’s will — “Not my will, but yours be done!” he cried to the Father three times in the Garden of Gethsemane — and just as it led to his giving the most powerful testimony of all from the Cross of God the Father’s merciful and saving will, so when we suffer it’s to enable us to give the greatest possible testimony of faith. It’s a chance for us to show that we Christians live, suffer and even die differently than the rest, because we know, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, that neither persecution, famine or the sword, neither death nor life, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31-39). When we remain faithful under duress, it teaches others that Jesus is worth living and worth dying for. That type of witness can’t help but move people.

Examples of the witness provided in trial

Every July 9, I rejoice to be able to celebrate the feast of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions, some of the thousands of martyrs in China. In 1815, he was a 30 year old soldier escorting French Missionary Bishop Saint Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse on an infamous Chinese death march from Chendu to Beijing where he would be martyred. He was so moved by the bishop’s patience, his forgiving those who struck him with blows, whipped him with cords and pushed him to the ground, his prayer and his joy along the death march that after the journey, he asked what he needed to do to become a Christian. Once baptized, he asked who would be able to celebrate the sacraments for the people after so many missionary priests had been killed. When he realized that people might live and die without the sacraments, he asked to go to the seminary, even though to be a priest was to basically live under a death sentence,. They gave him an expedited course and, because the few bishops left who could ordain priests could be arrested and killed at any moment, he was ordained right away, intending that he would continue to learn what he needed on the fly. But he was soon himself arrested, and then tortured and martyred. He had gone from pagan soldier to baptized Christian to priest to martyr within three months, such was the power of Bishop Dufresse’s faith on the death march, which the bishop transformed into the way to the eternal Jerusalem. And his own conversion and example inspired many other Chinese people to come to the faith after him.

The type of witness that occurs in suffering doesn’t have to be so dramatic. I know a remarkable, truly saintly young child named Caeli whom I met two years ago preaching a parish mission in Texas. She was almost five at the time, but she was so small that when I met her I thought she was 3. She had come to the first night of the mission and had taken an unbelievable 40 pages of notes on my talk in her big script. She had been begging her pastor to allow her to receive the Sacrament of Confession as soon as possible and then to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, something that was granted because she was so spiritually advanced. She had a strange illness, however, that none of the doctors at the renowned Houston Medical Center could diagnose. She would go from feeling totally healthy to a death watch almost overnight as her blood counts changed dramatically. Sometimes she would be in so much pain that she would just grab a crucifix and ask Jesus to help her bear it. She was always being admitted to the hospital. She would write me letters saying that she felt like a pin cushion because they’d probe her with so many needles trying to find veins to take out blood, but she just would unite herself to Christ on the Cross as he was pierced not by needles but by thick nails. Eventually, however, she realized what might be going on. She wrote me that she thought God had allowed her to have such a severe undiagnosed disease so that she could be in one of the top hospitals in the country evangelizing doctors, nurses and so many others from her parish. She was able to show that because of our faith she was not afraid to suffer and how even her great pains were something she could offer in prayer for the souls in Purgatory. She would write me in her letters that some of doctors and nurses would cry as this tiny little Christian girl would bear her sufferings, as she would ask them to pray for her and with her, as she would say that she’s praying for them and all in need of prayers, especially the dead. Her sufferings had led to her having an opportunity to give witness and she didn’t miss the chance. Moved by the Holy Spirit who taught her what to say, this dimunitive five year old, the age of most kindergarteners, was spreading the faith to some of the smartest doctors and nurses in the country.

And so we need to think of our own sufferings and how God has given them as an opportunity for us to grow in faith and to share the faith.

When we’re betrayed by a family member, for example, it is a chance for us to give real witness. I know a married woman who was betrayed by her husband. She had been trying for years to get him to pray with her, to go to confession, and to come to Church with her each Sunday. He wasn’t interested for years and it took a toll on their marriage. Eventually one night at a work party, he had too much to drink and ended up going home with a woman who was not his wife. When he returned the following morning, his wife was waiting for him. He was so ashamed at what he had done. He thought his marriage was over and his family would be divided because he had said so many times that if she were ever unfaithful to him, he would never be able to forgive her. He anticipated she would treat him by the same standard. But in the midst of his tears and hers, she said to him, “I forgive you!” He couldn’t believe it.  He asked her how she could forgive him something so evil. She replied that on the day they were married, she made a promise to be faithful to God and to him “for better or worse” and she was prepared with God’s help to keep that promise as they confronted the “worse” together. She added that just as God had forgiven her, so she could receive the strength to forgive her husband. The whole experience of his wife’s strong mercy led him that weekend to return to receive God’s mercy for the first time in decades. He turned his life around. He began to pray, to come to Mass and to receive that same strength of Christian faith that he saw in his wife. She had lived an exemplary Christian life throughout their marriage, but none of that sufficed to get her husband to return; it was only when she proved to be a true Christian in merciful love, when out of her suffering she gave witness to the full beauty of the Christian faith, that her husband accepted not only the faith but truly grew to recognize how lucky he was to have a good Christian wife like he did. And the wife told me that even though the entire experience was excruciating for her, she had never felt closer to God in her life than when she was sharing his mercy with her husband.

We can also think of how we occasionally suffer for our faith and how God wants to use that to increase our faith and pass that treasure on to others. Right now Catholics in the United States are undergoing a form of soft persecution, trying to force all of us to pay for others’ contraception, sterilizations, chemical abortions and surgical abortions. It’s not a good place to be in when the government is trying to force its citizens to violate their consciences to pay for others to do what they consider evil. But it’s an opportunity for us to give witness to our faith, to the inviolability of conscience, to right and wrong, and that our faith is worth suffering for. Two years ago it led the New York Times belief reporter to come to one of my Masses in New Bedford and spend three hours afterward interviewing me, writing a piece on the Church’s teaching on contraception so positive that many thought they’d never see in the New York Times. In addition to a lot of hate mail and vulgar comments, I received hundreds of emails from people who thought that the Church’s teaching was just a bunch of rules rather than something that is intrinsically tied to true love of others.

God always tries to bring good out of evil and we need to be aware that out of the evil he allows us to suffer, he wants to bring about the good of our sanctification and our spreading the faith.

Working hard to cooperate with God’s help to bring good out of evil

But that witness doesn’t happen automatically. Suffering and persecution are tests, tests that with God’s grace we can pass with flying colors, but tests that we can also flunk. When the difficulties arrive, we know that God will be present with his help, but we must receive that help and respond courageously. And the way we prepare to pass with God’s assistance the greatest tests is by passing faithfully the pop quizzes that come up every day.

In today’s second reading, we see how St. Paul prepared for his eventual martyrdom. “In toil and drudgery, night and day,” he worked. He told the Thessalonians that he was not looking for any free meals, literally, from anyone. Even though Jesus taught that the laborer is worth his wage, St. Paul — lest anyone think that we was trying with impure motives to make a living off of the Gospel — preached the Gospel during the day but at night did the strenuous work of making tents and other leather products so as to support himself. He told the Thessalonians that he wanted to present himself as a “model” for them, so that they might imitate him.

He went on to say that that’s why someone who was unwillling to work shouldn’t eat. Notice the word “unwilling.” St. Paul was not saying that someone incapable of working —  because someone is an infant, or severely handicapped, or frail and dying — should be starved to death. But what he was saying was that if we are capable of work, we should be willing to work, so that we’re not living off of the work of others. He was a realist. Work isn’t often fun. Many times it’s “toil and drudgery,” like it was for him. But if we’re not willing to work to support ourselves and our loved ones — out of laziness or irresponsibility or a desire not to do anything we don’t feel like doing — then how can we ever be expected to do something hard when it comes to giving witness to our faith under duress?

One of the things we need to confront today in the United States and particularly here in Fall River, because it undermines faith and virtue, are the amount of people “playing the system,” collecting checks for disability when they still could work, collecting checks for unemployment when they’re not even looking for jobs, living off of welfare — living off of other people’s hard work — when they would be totally capable of working. We’re all grateful that there’s social assistance when we are hurt so bad that we can no longer work, when we’re pounding the pavement every day looking for work but can’t find it, when disaster strikes and we need some help for a period of time until we can get back on our feet. But there are many who are capable of work who never want to get back on their feet because they want to continue to lie down and let others support them. This is wrong. This is evil. It’s a version of the capital sin of sloth. And it prepares people not to be martyrs but to be cowards because it’s training them daily in throwing in the towel.

Likewise in this Year of Faith we have to confront the spiritual equivalent of this same attitude. In the Church there are many who live off of the work of others. They profit from the tremendous sacrifices of the generations who built their Church. They depend on the generosity of others who volunteer to make a parish, or a St. Vincent de Paul Conference, or a CCD program, or a choir, or a youth program, run. They take advantage of the sacrifices of others who give ten percent of what they make before taxes to building up the kingdom while contributing far less than what they could in order to have more to spend on cable, or Dunkin Donuts coffee, or things they really don’t matter.

In business, this phenomenon is called the “Pareto Principle”: 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. In a parish, one midwestern bishop said, it’s probably closer to 10 percent of the people doing 90 percent of the work, contributing 90 percent of the collection, and making 90 percent of the prayers, extending 90 percent of the invitations to programs to enhance their faith and others. Just like a culture of people collecting social assistance when they really don’t need it weakens all of society, so a culture of Christians not sacrificing for their faith their time, their talents and the material resources of which God has made them stewards weakens not only the Christians involved but the whole Church. It’s a counter witness. Rather than drawing others to Christ and the family he founded, it leads others to drift away, because people can led to think that being Catholic means having a baptismal certificate rather than a way of life and love. If the Catholic faith doesn’t inspire people to commit themselves totally in order to receive something greater in return, why would others be interested in becoming Catholic?

God’s megaphone

One of the reasons why Jesus allows persecutions, natural disasters, betrayals and other objective evils that he wants to convert into moral and apostolic goods is because they wake us up and help us no longer take our faith for granted. They force us to live by faith, whereas when things are fine, our faith can just fade into the background. This Friday, November 22, we will mark the 50th anniversary not only of the terrible assassination of President Kennedy but also the death of the greatest 20th century English writer, C.S. Lewis. He once said in a beautiful reflection on suffering, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God speaks to us with a bullhorn when we and others are suffering — and gives us an opportunity likewise to speak with a megaphone to others through our words and actions, because others are now awake and attentive.

But I hope that we won’t have to wait for that megaphone, for an outright persecution or hurricane or personal disaster in order for God to wake us up. Today’s readings and the beginning of the last week of the Year of Faith ought to be a sufficient alarm clock. Every day is meant to be a day of the Lord. Every day the Lord sends us his Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith and help us to give witness to our faith by words and deeds.  Every day is an opportunity for us to live differently than the rest, to live more like St. Paul, to live more like St. Bernadette, to live more like SS. Augustine Zhao Rong and Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse, and to live more like Christ. The more we in our day-to-day examinations unite ourselves with Christ and his mission, the more we unite ourselves to him in our work and in our daily prayer, the more prepared we will be to remain united with him in the supreme hour.

The greatest preparation we have happens here at Mass, when Jesus teaches and inspires us with the words of Sacred Scripture and then unites ourselves to him in a communion meant to make us truly holy if we let it. St. Paul urged and instructed the Thessalonians in the Lord Jesus to work quietly and eat their own food. Today we unite God’s gift to the work of our hands as we eat the food Christ himself worked so hard to give us. Christ does this so that we in turn may go out and work just as hard in bringing all those we know to receive this same nourishment and the eternal banquet to which it points and leads.

The Readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
MAL 3:19-20A

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the LORD of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 98:5-6, 7-8, 9

R. (cf. 9) The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Sing praise to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and melodious song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
sing joyfully before the King, the LORD.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell in it;
let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to rule the earth,
He will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with equity.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.

Reading 2
2 THES 3:7-12

Brothers and sisters:
You know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way,
by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly
and to eat their own food.

Gospel
LK 21:5-19

While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”Then they asked him,
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
He answered,
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”