Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, New York, NY
Wednesday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs
June 3, 2015
Tob 3:1-11.16-17, Ps 25, Mk 12: 18-27
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted:
- Today we continue to read the last part of the Gospel of St. Mark before we get to the Passion. Yesterday we had the arch-inimically strict Pharisees and lax Herodians teeming up to try to trap Jesus in his speech about whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Today we have the third major group of the time, the well-heeled Sadducees, trying to embarrass Jesus by a question intended both to mock him and non-Pentateuchal sources of Jewish revelation like the Book of Tobit. But once again Jesus transcended the trap. And once again he taught us crucially important principles about the spiritual life.
- The question that came from the Sadducees probably had its grounding in the first reading where Sarah in the Book of Tobit had seven consecutive husbands. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection and claimed that there was no witness to resurrection in the only books of the Bible they accepted, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers). They gave the example of a woman married consecutive to seven brothers according to the levirate law that stated that if a brother died before his wife had conceived, his brother ought to marry her and if they had any children, the children would be legally those of the deceased brother and his heir. Because the woman had been “one-flesh” with all seven brothers, the Sadducees asked with whom she would be united in one flesh in the next life.
- Jesus in his reply said to them that they were “greatly misled” because they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. They didn’t know the Scriptures even they accepted. Using God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “I am” not was “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” long after the three patriarchs had died, indicated that they were indeed alive, in the present tense, with God. With regard to the power of God, Jesus was implying that the Sadducees didn’t believe God had the power to raise the dead or to do anything different in the next world than he did in this world. Jesus says that in heaven, there is no marriage or giving in marriage. There will still be love in heaven, but no more marriages would be entered into since marriage has the purpose of sanctification and the procreation and education of offspring, and neither purpose makes sense in eternity when people are already sanctified and where there will be no more pregnancies and children. The one marriage in the afterlife is the fulfillment of Christ’s marriage to his Bride the Church.
- It’s key for us to know the Scriptures and the power of God. How? At one level, through studying Holy Writ and learning about God’s great deeds in the past, and praying and thanking God for continue miracles today. But I’d suggest, in line with today’s first reading and the feast of the Ugandan martyrs today, that there is a more direct way to know both of these related gifts. It’s precisely through their synthesis in Christ crucified. St. Paul described Christ crucified as the “power and the wisdom of God.” To get to know God’s power, and to get to know the enfleshment of the wisdom contained in Sacred Scripture, we must do so in the person of the Crucified Word of God.
- To some degree, this is what Tobit and Sarah did by anticipation in the first reading. They were suffering immensely, Tobit for having heard calumnies especially from his wife with regard to his bad example of not really trusting her in the subject of the gift of a goat, as we heard yesterday, Sarah for having married seven men all of whom died as they were attempting to consummate their marriage by the work of Asmodeus, a description of a pagan God of lust, whose work can be basically attributed to that of the devil. Both cried out in their desperation for God to end their lives with a sadness similar to Christ’s in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he said that his soul was sorrowful even unto death. But it was through grasping that God doesn’t take away our sufferings but seeks to use them to unite ourselves to him more deeply through suffering that they opened themselves up to the healing they would receive through the ministrations of Raphael, literally the “medicine of God.” They would come to know the power of God and wisdom of God only through being healed, which required their suffering first. It’s an important lesson for us.
- The 22 Ugandan martyrs came to know that mystery much more profoundly, at very young ages between 14-25, and from weeks to a few years after their conversion. Their story, as Blessed Paul VI said at their canonization in 1964, was every bit as moving as that of the heroic martyrs of the early Church, because they were martyrs soon after having received the faith. The story of how they came to know Christ Crucified in all his power and glory needs to be known by Catholics everywhere, so that we may learn how to love and defend the innocent and uphold God’s holy law and simple human goodness with similar courage to what we find in them.
- When the White Fathers arrived in Buganda, the southern part of what is now Uganda, in 1879, they found the local King Mtesa hospitable to outside influence in the hope of improving his personal and national situation. Mtesa had already welcomed in Anglican missionaries a few years earlier. Because he liked the Christian teaching on the afterlife, he even allowed the missionaries to evangelize the members of his court. One of his young pages was Mukasa Balikuddembe, who rose in prominence at the palace after he courageously saved Prince Mwanga’s life by capturing and killing with his bare hands a venomous snake threatening him. For 3 years, Mukasa received a very thorough catechumenate at the palace from the White Fathers before being baptized in 1882 with the name of Joseph. After the White Fathers needed to go into exile for a couple of years because the dying king feared outside influences, Joseph Mukasa became the de facto catechist for the converts and hundreds of catechumens. When the priests returned after Mtesa’s death in 1884, they saw that Joseph Mukasa had helped the new converts bring family members to the Lord, renounce slavery, polygamy and other practices against the Gospel, and dedicate themselves heroically to serving those in need. Once Prince Mwanga had succeeded his father, Joseph Mukasa became his majordomo, the top assistant in charge of the king’s palace and court. To be head of the pages, Joseph appointed a young catechumen, Lwanga.
- What both men soon discovered, however, was that King Mwanga was homosexually-attracted to the teenage boys and solicitous to have them brought into his private company. Through various means, Joseph and Lwanga successfully and repeatedly conspired to thwart the king’s designs, but the king drew increasingly frustrated. After King Mwanga had had an Anglican missionary bishop murdered, Joseph went into his presence and reproved him for the murder as well as for his perverse attraction to the boys in his service. Even though it was technically the majordomo’s traditional responsibility to correct the king, Mwanga would have nothing of it. His anger boiled against Joseph and his fellow Christians whom he knew were training the boys to resist his advances. Under the pretext of Joseph’s disloyalty for putting the commands of another king, “The God of the Christians,” over his own, King Mwanga sentenced him to be burned alive. To the executioner who was having trouble carrying out his orders against the majordomo, Joseph said, “A Christian who gives his life for God has no reason to fear death. Tell Mwanga that he has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart.” After that, the executioner took it upon himself to behead him Joseph and burn his body rather than have him be burned alive. The day of Joseph’s martyrdom, Lwanga and the other catechumens among the pages were baptized. King Mwanga had made it known that he was intending to put to death all the Christians in his court and they wanted to make sure that they were baptized by water and the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in blood. Lwanga took the Christian name Charles.
- Several months later, after the king returned from a fishing trip and saw one of the routine objects of his sordid desire receiving catechetical instruction, he summoned the catechist, St. Denis Ssebuggwawo, put a spear through his chest and then had his executioners hack him to pieces. The following day, the king, fuming, assembled all the pages and demanded that they make a choice, between God and him, between prayer and the predator, between life and death. “Let all those who do not pray stay here by my side,” he said, waving to his right, and “those who pray” he told to stand by the fence at his left. Charles Lwanga and a group of 26 Christian pages, 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans, headed toward the fence. He asked them whether they intended to remain Christians. “Until death!,” they replied. “Then put them to death!,” Mwanga responded, sentencing them to be burnt alive in Namugongo, a village 37 miles away. They began the death march, which they turned into a religious procession with hymns, prayers and expressions of joy. This was in the sharpest contracted to the brutality of their “chaperones,” who beat them so fiercely that three of them died along the way. Once in Namugongo, they were forced to watch for days as the pyre awaiting them grew and became increasingly intense. The executioners decided to kill Charles Lwanga first, in the hope that after his death, others might abandon the faith. To increase his sufferings, he was placed in a reed mat and fire was set first to his feet first so that these would be charred to the bone before the flames would reach the other parts of his body. In the midst of his suffering, Charles said to his executioner, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body,” a reference to the sweet solace of his baptism, the foretaste of his imminent new birth. After he was dead, the others remained steadfast and entered the pyre. One young page said to a priest present who was mourning the death of so many young Christians, “Why be sad? What I suffer now is little compared with the eternal happiness you have taught me to look forward to!” They died on June 3, which was fittingly Ascension Thursday.
- It’s no surprise that, on the foundation of their heroic faith, the Church has continued to grow in Uganda. Since their martyrdom, Catholics in Uganda have grown from a few hundred to almost 12 million Catholics out of a total population of 26 million. All of these martyrs could have easily chosen another path. They were among the few chosen ones in the king’s service. Joseph Mukasa and Charles Lwanga could have simply looked the other way when King Mwanga was going after the pages, become even more powerful in the kingdom, and saved their lives. The young boys could have chosen to give in to the king’s depravations as a means to satisfy worldly ambition, provide for their families and survive. None did. Even though Christianity was less than a decade old in their kingdom, they had already gotten what it was about, and they were willing to die rather than to sin, to be killed rather than to allow sinful predation to happen to the young and innocent, to be burned alive rather than to betray the faith in the least in order to keep their lives.In canonizing them, the Church has exalted them as models not just for Catholics in Africa, but in Ireland, America and across the globe, of those who unite themselves to Christ Crucified and experience his full power and wisdom not merely in this world but forever.
- As we approach the altar today, we ask them to intercede for us so that we, like them, might recognize even in our hardships that God is a God of the living not the dead, that he is our God just as much as of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that he will come to our rescue as much as he did Tobit and Sarah. As we prepare to come into Communion with Christ crucified and risen, we ask him to help us always know the Word of God and the Power of God so that we may conform our whole existence to it and help others to do so with the same fidelity with which the faith is passed from generation to generation in Uganda!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Tb 3:1-11a, 16-17a
Then with sobs I began to pray:“You are righteous, O Lord,
and all your deeds are just;
All your ways are mercy and truth;
you are the judge of the world.
And now, O Lord, may you be mindful of me,
and look with favor upon me.
Punish me not for my sins,
nor for my inadvertent offenses,
nor for those of my ancestors.
“We sinned against you,
and disobeyed your commandments.
So you handed us over to plundering, exile, and death,
till you made us the talk and reproach of all the nations
among whom you had dispersed us.
“Yes, your judgments are many and true
in dealing with me as my sins
and those of my ancestors deserve.
For we have not kept your commandments,
nor have we trodden the paths of truth before you.
“So now, deal with me as you please,
and command my life breath to be taken from me,
that I may go from the face of the earth into dust.
It is better for me to die than to live,
because I have heard insulting calumnies,
and I am overwhelmed with grief.
“Lord, command me to be delivered from such anguish;
let me go to the everlasting abode;
Lord, refuse me not.
For it is better for me to die
than to endure so much misery in life,
and to hear these insults!”
On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media,
it so happened that Raguel’s daughter Sarah
also had to listen to abuse,
from one of her father’s maids.
For she had been married to seven husbands,
but the wicked demon Asmodeus killed them off
before they could have intercourse with her,
as it is prescribed for wives.
So the maid said to her:
“You are the one who strangles your husbands!
Look at you!
You have already been married seven times,
but you have had no joy with any one of your husbands.
Why do you beat us? Is it on account of your seven husbands,
Because they are dead?
May we never see a son or daughter of yours!”
The girl was deeply saddened that day,
and she went into an upper chamber of her house,
where she planned to hang herself.
But she reconsidered, saying to herself:
“No! People would level this insult against my father:
‘You had only one beloved daughter,
but she hanged herself because of ill fortune!’
And thus would I cause my father in his old age
to go down to the nether world laden with sorrow.
It is far better for me not to hang myself,
but to beg the Lord to have me die,
so that I need no longer live to hear such insults.”
At that time, then, she spread out her hands,
and facing the window, poured out her prayer:
“Blessed are you, O Lord, merciful God,
and blessed is your holy and honorable name.
Blessed are you in all your works for ever!”
At that very time,
the prayer of these two suppliants
was heard in the glorious presence of Almighty God.
So Raphael was sent to heal them both:
to remove the cataracts from Tobit’s eyes,
so that he might again see God’s sunlight;
and to marry Raguel’s daughter Sarah to Tobit’s son Tobiah,
and then drive the wicked demon Asmodeus from her.
Responsorial Psalm PS 25:2-3, 4-5ab, 6 and 7bc, 8-9
In you I trust; let me not be put to shame,
let not my enemies exult over me.
No one who waits for you shall be put to shame;
those shall be put to shame who heedlessly break faith.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
he teaches the humble his way.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Alleluia Jn 11:25a, 26
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord;
whoever believes in me will never die.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mk 12:18-27
came to Jesus and put this question to him, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
‘If someone’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.’
Now there were seven brothers.
The first married a woman and died, leaving no descendants.
So the second brother married her and died, leaving no descendants,
and the third likewise.
And the seven left no descendants.
Last of all the woman also died.
At the resurrection when they arise whose wife will she be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them, “Are you not misled
because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?
When they rise from the dead,
they neither marry nor are given in marriage,
but they are like the angels in heaven.
As for the dead being raised,
have you not read in the Book of Moses,
in the passage about the bush, how God told him,
I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob?
He is not God of the dead but of the living.
You are greatly misled.”