Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Lawrence Ruiz and Companions, Martyrs
September 28, 2016
Job 9:1-12.14-16, Ps 88, Lk 9:57-62
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Yesterday, Jesus “fixed his face toward Jerusalem,” toward Golgotha, toward the fulfillment of his Messianic mission. Everything for the rest of St. Luke’s Gospel needs to be interpreted within that context. And as he was heading there, he met three different people, two of whom volunteered to follow him and one whom Jesus directly called. But to all of them, Jesus described what it would mean to follow him. What he taught them is crucial for us to know in order for us to follow Christ faithfully and help others to become his true disciples.
- In the first vocation story, a man runs up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus had come into the world to make disciples and many would refuse to follow him, so we would have expected for him to respond with joy. Instead he replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus wanted him to know the cost of discipleship, especially at a time in which messianic expectations had hyped up the Jews to think that the Messiah would kick out the Romans and set up a political administration in which there would be plenty of patronage. Jesus wanted him to know that to follow him wherever he went meant to follow someone who was basically homeless, to follow him meant to value him more than one’s own home and one’s own bed, to follow him meant that you wouldn’t even have what foxes and birds take for granted. We, too, need to ponder the radical nature of God’s call. Are we willing to follow Jesus wherever he goes? If he asks us, like God asked Abraham, to leave our own native place at 75 and go to a place he would eventually show us, would we follow him, or would we value our home, our bed, our old habits more than we do the Lord?
- The second scene involves a man to him Jesus said, “Follow me!” But this man replied, “Lord, let me go first to bury my father.” When we hear this, we can presume that the person’s dad had just died and he just wanted to go home for the funeral and then return immediately. The text doesn’t say that, however. What’s much more likely was that the man’s father was very much alive and might live for decades still. What the man was likely communicating was, “Jesus, I’d like to follow you, but my father comes first. As soon as I’ve fulfilled all of my obligations to him, then I’ll be free to come and follow.” Jesus’ reply was strong: “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” As Jesus would say a little later at the raising of Lazarus, he is the Resurrection and the Life and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die, even if he dies (Jn 11:25-26). For us to become alive in the most important sense of all, we need to be in a living relationship to him. If we’re not following him, if we’re not allowing his life to reign within us, we’re dead, even if all our corporeal vital signs are health. He was calling this man to come fully alive and seeking to give him a participation in the Resurrection. He was giving him a choice between life and death, living and dying even while breathing, and encouraging him to let those who are “dead,” who don’t have this relationship, bury their confrères. Most often Jesus doesn’t call us to make a strict break between him and our family members. He calls us, after all, to honor our father and mother. He calls the family to be an image of the Church and the communion of persons who is God. Burying the dead is and will always remain a spiritual work of mercy. But at the same time he is reminding us that he needs to come first, so that our family life will become the life of the living rather than the walking dead. Our vocation is to a new type of familial life that will last forever and Jesus wants us to seize it, as he called this man in the Gospel.
- The third vocation scene is another one that involves the family. After being summoned by Jesus, this person replied, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” This was almost identical to what Elisha had said to Elijah and Elijah gave him permission. Jesus, who could see what was in the heart of the one with whom he was speaking, grasped what the request symbolized. The person simply was oblivious to the greatness of the request he had received to follow Jesus. As we prayed in the Alleluia verse, God wants to help us, like he helped St. Paul, to recognize that everything else is “rubbish” compared to the unsurpassable worth of “knowing Christ Jesus” and being found in him. The young man was giving a condition on following Jesus, was placing human respect, human courtesy, and family above the call to follow Jesus. Very likely Jesus also suspected that this man’s family members might have objected to his leaving them behind to follow Jesus fully. So Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” He was saying, “Don’t look to what you’re leaving,” but rather, “Look ahead to what you’re gaining, to the work you’re called to do with me.”
- This “gain” is what allowed Job in today’s first reading to respond with the faith to the temptations he was suffering and the tests he was enduring. His real love as for God, not for cattle, sheep and camels or even health, and he framed everything within the context of considering everything else as rubbish compared to his relationship with God. In today’s first reading he gives a powerful witness to God’s work in the world and in him, to God’s wisdom. These are words inspired by God that God himself will almost repeat later in the Chapter and, when broken down, Job begins to ask God to explain the reasons behind what he was doing in his case. But we can see here that Job trusts in God more than he trusts in himself and keeps his eyes forward on God rather than on what he has lost.
- This lesson plays out as well in the live of the great saints we mark today. St. Lorenzo Ruiz and his companions were living commentaries of the full, persevering response to God’s call and prepared countless others to respond to Jesus in a similar way. Today’s martyrs are among the 35,000 Japanese Marytrs (from only 300,000 Christians) who perished in Japan between 1597-1639. St. Lawrence, a Missionary, was tortured with his companions in Nagasaki on September 27, 1637, hanging them upside down by their heels over a pit. This would generally lead the weak to recant. Ruiz, instead, said, “I am a Catholic and wholeheartedly do accept death for God; Had I a thousand lives, all these to Him shall I offer.” What’s always fascinated me most about the Japanese martyrs, however, was how they formed everyone, including kids, from their first days of formation to be ready for martyrdom, to follow Christ all the way, not just to places where they would have no pillows on which to lay their heads, but even to situations where they would be decapitated. Japanese Christian parents received kids as gifts and prepared them to give their lives as gifts. Kids were taught in making the sign of the Cross to embrace God Father, Son and Holy as well as the Cross that they might give us as the immediate way to enter into Trinitarian life. When they came to Mass, they grasped that Christ was giving his body and blood for them and they might in turn be called to give their body and blood for him in return. When they prayed the Rosary, they knew that in order to live the Glorious Mysteries, they first needed prayerfully to enter into the Sorrowful Mysteries. The preparation extended to practical instruction as well. Mothers trained their kids how to be faithful at the supreme hour. They taught them how to uncover their necks, fold their hands and look to heaven, as well as what to pray when their own hour came. They breast-fed them the stories of the heroic deaths of the apostles, the early Christian martyrs, and the Japanese martyrs before of them, and inspired them to strive for similar greatness. They paid attention to what they heard and they knew that Jesus was with them at that time. They were able to remain faithful at the time of martyrdom because they had been faithful in so many little things along the way and never pretended that such an end was not a part of the faith they signed up for. They received everyone, and everything, as a gift from God and tried to respond with faith. They kept plowing with Jesus, looking forward, even when their hands and feet were bound.
- And they planted the seeds so well that, even after most of the known Christians were killed, the others were able to keep the faith alive without priests for the next 200 years. After a 42-year bloodbath, basically all the leaders — priests, religious and catechists — had been massacred. Most of the rest of the adults had apostasized, abjuring the faith lest they suffer the martyrs’ fate. The government had no fear of the thousands of Christian orphans they had made as well as the perhaps few Christian adults they had missed. They believed the Christian faith would die without teachers to pass it on, not to mention without Churches, bishops, priests, and sacraments. Christianity had been wiped out, they thought, just as they had intended. For two centuries, from 1639-1854, Japan was closed to all foreign influence. The few missionaries who succeeded in smuggling themselves into the country were quickly arrested and executed. In 1854, for economic reasons, Japan once again opened its borders to allow foreign businessmen to enter. The more Christian traders arrived in Japanese port cities, the greater they pressured the Japanese government to allow them to have tiny Churches to minister to their needs. The government acquiesced, but the Churches would be only for foreigners; they reminded the Japanese that Christianity was still illegal and punishable by death. In 1865, something happened that I think is one of the most moving scenes in the history of the Church. It is so gripping that I remember as if it were yesterday where I was when I heard it and what were the emotions that ran through me. I was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome listening to one of then Monsignor, now Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s eloquent monthly rector’s conferences. Msgr. Dolan combined his training as a Church historian with best talents of Irish storytelling. He told the amazing story related in diary entry of Fr. Bernard Petitjean, a French priest in the Society of Foreign Missions, who came to Nagasaki to serve the foreign businessmen. After celebrating a private Mass on March 17, 1865 about a month after consecrating the Church, Fr. Petitjean went to the Church door where he was met by a group of Japanese on the steps. I’ll let Cardinal Dolan take it from here: “In a remote corner in the northeastern part of the country, Jesuit missionaries were flabbergasted to discover a tiny village where the hundred or so inhabitants gathered every Sunday to pray the Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Acts of Faith, Hope, Charity and Contrition, and recite the ten commandments and eight beatitudes. Shocked, they asked the people where this custom came from, only to be told by the Japanese villages that, sometime in the distant past, men whom they called ‘fathers’ had taught those words to the people, and, anticipating their martyrdom, instructed the people to memorize those formulas and gather every Sunday to recite them together. The ‘fathers’ had also assured them that, one day, other ‘fathers’ would return to teach them more about Jesus and his way. Ecstatic, the new missionaries blurted out, ‘We are those fathers,’ only to be met by a stony, suspicious silence. The village leader came forward. ‘It has been passed down, too, that, when men come back claiming to be those “fathers,” we must ask them four questions to be sure they are from the true Church.’ A bit nervous, the newly arrived priests responded, ‘Go ahead. Ask us the questions.’ The village leader came forward: ‘When you enter your Churches, what do you do?’ The Jesuits replied by demonstrating a genuflection, which was met by excited gasps from the crowd. ‘Second, does your Lord have a Mother?’ ‘Yes,’ assured the priests, ‘and her name is Mary,’ whereupon more electricity spread through the people. ‘Where does the earthly leader of your Church live?’ continued the village elder. ‘In Rome,’ answered the missionaries, as the crown neared unrestrained joy. ‘Finally,’ anxiously inquired the chieftain, ‘do your “fathers” have wives?’ And, as the priests smiled and responded, ‘No,’ the villagers broke into a tumult, hoisted the missionaries on their shoulders and led them into the little church for they had not seen a priest for two-and-a-half centuries.” So great was the trust in God and in his Church by those who were being killed in the 1600s that they prepared the people for the time when Catholic priests would return to Japan, and their simple instructions were passed down by the kakure Kiristan, the clandestine Christians, for a dozen generations. They had the foresight to know that Protestant missionaries might be the first to arrive, and so they taught their children the four marks of the Church to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants: belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the importance of Mary, the papacy and the priesthood. Word quickly spread among the hidden Christians of Japan that their long advent for Christ to return to their country in the Eucharist was over. Within a month, on Good Friday, fifteen thousand Christians emerged from the villages and presented themselves before the priests in Nagasaki. Many of them would die for the faith again before Christianity was decriminalized in the 1880s. This is the type of faith we celebrate today, the type of discipleship to which we’re all called.
- The same Jesus who called in the Gospel calls us anew today. He reminds of the cost of discipleship but wants to strengthen us by himself on the inside to help us to follow him wherever he goes, to keep our hands on the plow and our eyes ahead, fixed on Jerusalem, fixed on Him on the Cross, so that we may be strengthened to respond in faith like Job should we have to suffer economic, familial and personal hardship, or should we have to die, like the martyrs we celebrate today. Let us ask Him to strengthen us with the spirit that can help us like them be faithful to the end.
jb 9:1-12, 14-16
but how can a man be justified before God?
Should one wish to contend with him,
he could not answer him once in a thousand times.
God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?
he overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth out of its place,
and the pillars beneath it tremble.
He commands the sun, and it rises not;
he seals up the stars.
and treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning.
should he pass by, I am not aware of him;
Should he seize me forcibly, who can say him nay?
Who can say to him, “What are you doing?”How much less shall I give him any answer,
or choose out arguments against him!
Even though I were right, I could not answer him,
but should rather beg for what was due me.
If I appealed to him and he answered my call,
I could not believe that he would hearken to my words.
ps 88:10bc-11, 12-13, 14-15
Daily I call upon you, O LORD;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work wonders for the dead?
Will the shades arise to give you thanks?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
Do they declare your mercy in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?
Are your wonders made known in the darkness,
or your justice in the land of oblivion?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
with my morning prayer I wait upon you.
Why, O LORD, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face?
R. Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
on their journey, someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
And to another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
Jesus answered him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”