Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Church, Fall River, MA
Fifth Sunday of Lent, B
April 6, 2003
Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
1) In the older, majestic pulpits in Europe, often they would inscribe on the inside pulpit certain phrases from the Bible to remind the priest about what he was mounting that pulpit to say. One of the most common, and my favorite, comes from today’s Gospel: “Domine, volumus Iesum videre,” “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” People come here to meet Jesus, to hear his words, to see him and get to know him. And every week the preacher’s job is to help you see him more clearly, to perceive his burning love for you, to discern more clearly what he’s asking of you. Today again that is my task. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” What Jesus do we see today?
2) We see the beginning of Jesus’ glorification: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But this glorification or exaltation takes on a very strange appearance. The king’s throne is a Cross and his crown is made not of gold but of thorns. This is Jesus’s glorification because it is the supreme witness of God’s love for man, that he was willing to suffer so much for us, that he was willing to sacrifice his own life so that we might live. Jesus says, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it produces much fruit.” If the grain of wheat doesn’t fall to the ground, it will never produce any wheat; it has to die in the ground for it to produce fruit. Jesus fell to the ground and died and therefore produced the fruit of eternal life for all who live and die in him. Jesus continues, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Jesus gave up his life freely, to take it up again forever and showed us the way to eternal life, through dying to ourselves and allowing him to rise from the dead within us.
3) Then Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.” The servant of Jesus will follow him in that path he himself trod, laying down his life in love of others. We have seen recently two great illustrations of what this means. The first is Sr. Philomena… The second beautiful illustration of this principle in the young men and women of our country who have been risking and, in some cases, giving their lives for the people in Iraq. In order to bring the Iraqi people freedom, in order to liberate them and the whole world from the menaces of a ruthless, brutal dictator, they have been giving their lives and offering their deaths. It’s an incredible example of love, even for some Iraqis who don’t seem to be grateful, but this makes their courageous love even more shining. Jesus died for those who were killing him and for many people through the centuries down to our own who aren’t grateful for his sacrifice. In the same way, our soldiers are fighting for and trying to save people who themselves don’t even in some cases seem to appreciate the sacrifice and the liberation that will come later.
4) In my estimation, this is one of the proudest moments in American history, which ranks right up there with the courage and character our nation showed in World War II. I’d like to tell you why. There’s the parable in the Gospel of the Rich Man and Lazarus. You remember the story Jesus told. There was a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day, dressed in fine linens and lived the good life. Then there was a poor man at his gate named Lazarus, who desired just to eat the scraps from the Rich Man’s table that were tossed to the dogs. The dogs used to come and lick the Rich Man’s sores. Jesus says in the parable that after both died, Lazarus went to heaven and the Rich Man to hell, where he was tormented by the flames. When you examine the parable closely, it was not because the Rich Man had done terrible deeds to Lazarus that he was sent to hell. It’s not as if he had sent the dogs to attack Lazarus and lick his wombs, or kicked him, or in any other way mistreated him. The reason why he went to hell was because seeing Lazarus in all his agony, he did nothing to help him. He didn’t even bother to lift a finger.
5) Well, when we look at the situation of Iraq, we have people who not only were starving to death — to the tune of 5000 per month — but who were being tortured by a brutal dictator, who used chemical weapons on 60,000 of his people in the 1980s; who has built a series of torture chambers throughout the country in which he tortured his own people in ways that I won’t repeat in a homily because of the children here; who has been rounding up wives and children of husbands and threatening to rape and kill them unless their husbands fight; and who has been using his own people as “human shields.” No other dictator in the history of the world, as far as I know, has ever done such a thing. Hitler didn’t use human shields. Stalin didn’t use human shields. The leader of a nation should try to protect his citizens, not use them to protect himself. It would be like if an armed burglar were entering a house and the father, instead of trying to defend his wife and kids, took one of his young children from a closet and put the child at risk to protect himself. Saddam Hussein even did more, in taking over Kuwait, having his soldiers rape and abuse their women, and, when he couldn’t keep their oil, lit the oil wells on fire, so that the Kuwaitis couldn’t have them either. Even if Saddam didn’t have weapons of Mass destruction — which he obviously does, by the presence of so many chemical weapons suits that have been found by our soldiers — it was a situation crying out.
6) The Iraqis are modern day Lazaruses, suffering tremendously, from hunger and from terror. And what is most of the world willing to do to help them? Nothing. When we look at France, it’s not as if France were attacking the Iraqi people. But just like the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable, they weren’t willing to do anything to help them. Germany. Russia. Most of the world. They weren’t willing to do anything. Even here in America, there were choruses from various segments, from democrats and republicans, from liberals and conservatives, saying, “Why should we act?” “Why should we risk American lives for Iraqi lives?,” or chanting “Let’s give peace a chance!,” even though the starving, terrorized Iraqis hadn’t known peace for the entire tenure of Saddam Hussein. We’re all for peace, and there are of course legitimate grounds on the basis of which one might have wanted to give more time for diplomacy. But sometimes the refrain for peace can be an excuse for inaction or for selfishness. There are many people in the US right now who just don’t want to be bothered with anything. The thought of losing an American life — especially their own — for an Iraqi life seems like the most absurd thing imaginable. No cause, no principle, no other could be worth their life. They don’t wish the Iraqis any harm, but they’re really not willing to do anything to help them. Well, was your life worth Jesus’ life? That’s the standard we’re called to apply. The better part of our nation, that part of us which really built this nation and made us historically great, decided to do for these modern Lazaruses what far too many others were too cowardly to consider. We acted. And as each day goes by, and we discover yet another thing that Saddam Hussein used to do to his people, I’m gladder and gladder we did and I’m prouder and prouder of our president to have the guts to make the call, prouder of Tony Blair for having the courage to stair down his nation and say “support this or I quit,” and prouder of our young men and women who are showing us the type of courage that inspires us all. “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” The brave members of our armed forces has been showing us what that love means.
7) But the Lord wants even more out of us to which he wants us to respond with even more courage, grit and heroism than our nation’s military. Earlier this week I was praying a good deal about petitioning to become a chaplain in the armed forces. There’s such a great need for chaplains there, to be with our soldiers, to strengthen them with the sacraments, to help them with Christ’s word, to be with them if they should have to give their life. There’s such a shortage there, much worse than in our parishes, because so few families and young men have been willing to give their lives to God over the past few decades. But in prayer I received a provisional answer, that Fall River was to be my Baghdad, Somerset, my Basra, Westport my Umm Qasar and Dartmouth my Tikrit. That there was a greater enemy here. And that we need to fight that enemy with the same fortitude, virtue and self-giving love as our soldiers are showing in Iraq. This is the battle that the Lord is calling us to wage this Lent. What am I talking about? Here in Fall River, Westport, Dartmouth, and Somerset, people have been getting persecuted by someone far worse than Saddam, as brutal as he is. People here are being persecuted by the devil, and oftentimes don’t even know it. Like the Iraqis, some has gotten so used to his machinations that they’re almost afraid to see him go. The Lord is calling you to go out to them, to set them free, by your introducing or reintroducing them to Jesus, the truth that sets us free. As President Bush has said often over these past few weeks, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the people of Iraq, but God’s gift to humanity.” This spiritual freedom, this spiritual nourishment, is God’s gift to humanity and Jesus is calling us to bring it to others, to the spiritual Lazaruses who are starving and whom so few others are lifting a finger to help them. We can use the same These are your Christian marching orders. Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit. Lent is the time to fall to the ground and die, so that we might bear fruit, imitating Christ. We are the disciples of the greatest liberator of all time, who has conquered the world.