Hi everyone, here is my homily for the FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT - March 25, 2012. The readings for today can be found at: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/032512-fifth-sunday-of-lent.cfm . As always, thanks for reading and your feedback.
Fr. Jim Chern
So I’ve been pretty out of sorts this past week. Just returning from Rome - which was not only my first time going to the eternal city, but the first time I’ve ever left the country (!!!) Whenever someone asked “how was it?” I couldn’t seem to put it into words all week. Not that pictures would make it any easier to express what this whole experience meant to me (I took over 1,000 pics on my iphone). I kind of got to the point of saying to some family and friends that the best description for me was that I had “Spiritual Whiplash.” There was just this avalanche of sights, sounds, stories, history, art surrounding our Catholic-Christian faith for most of the week I just kept saying it was “mind blowing.”
Praying though with this Gospel all week brought some things together for me in an important way that made me realize why this Roman Pilgrimage was more than just a trip or vacation... Here we are nearing the end of the season of Lent... Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, where the Church will turn it’s focus on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ in anticipation of the triumph of Easter where we celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection. So today’ the Church proclaims this Gospel which is almost a “Prelude to the Passion.” In terms of chronology, it’s a little out of sequence. This passage takes place right after the excitement of Palm Sunday crowds greeting Jesus in Jerusalem took place. The crowds were coming to see this man who some were claiming was the Messiah - the guy who was performing these fantastical miracles. So they’re excited. Would this be the beginning of the end of the Roman oppression on the Jews. Would Jesus begin establishing his “reign” by raising up an army to take over Jerusalem? What amazing, miraculous displays were in store?
Instead Jesus gives this speech, indicating what was coming. Something far less immediate in its results (like an instant healing) - and rather than miraculous, what the people will witness - Jesus being “lifted up” on the cross - will be scandalous to behold. Jesus is trying to prepare them for all of this, which is about to happen, as he says, “Unless a grain of wheat shall fall upon the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”
As Catholic Christians, we know that the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ - His pouring out of His life for humanity... this is central to our faith. But the thing that struck me in such a deep way on this whole Roman Lenten Pilgrimage was that everywhere we went, it bore witness to the truth of this Gospel. That Jesus’ earliest followers, did the same thing as Christ did - laid down their lives - in order for us to receive this Good News, 2,000 years later:
- We went on what is called the “Scavi Tour” - where you saw the excavations of what was underneath the Vatican which finished with seeing the actual bones of St. Peter, our first Pope. Here we were, staring at the remains of the man Jesus declared would be “the rock” upon which he would build the Church. One of the tour guides reminded us how St. Peter had laid down his life by being crucified upsides down (since he didn’t think he deserved to die the same way Jesus did), and that after the Romans killed him he was buried in the potters field of the time, a poor man’s grave. The Romans of the time, thought quite simply they were throwing out trash. Yet, Peters life, laid down for Jesus Christ and His Church was a “grain of wheat” it was a seed and to this day you can see what has grown - both physically and spiritually out of that very tomb...as you see the spectacular richness of the magnificent St. Peters Basilica - just a visible expression of the richness of our faith...
- Visiting the Catacombs, the burial place of some of our early brothers and sisters in the faith, who were persecuted, martyred in the hundreds of thousands simply because they would not stop talking about this Jesus, they would not offer worship to the Emperor, they would worship Christ alone... So we stood in the spot where Pope Sixtus II was beheaded by Roman Soldiers as he celebrated Mass at those catacombs. Then you turned your head and saw where St. Cecilia was entombed after her martyrdom. Trying to imagine how for all these thousands upon thousands of individuals, who went to their deaths for their faith – did they even imagine at the time that anyone would know or care about their sacrifce? Or did they feel as insignificant as a seed or grain of wheat. Yet as pilgrims visiting today, we know how their blood fertilized the faith that was growing in Pagan Rome... and within just a few hundred years of their deaths, Christianity would become the official religion of the entire Roman empire - all that was incredible to consider.
-Moving away from death – just seeing the works of some of the greatest artists - Carvaggio, Raphael, and especially Michaelangelo who gave their lives in different ways – Michaelangelo spending 4 years painting the Sistine Chapel; and the very last 14 years of his life, not in retirement as he had planned, but rather working as an architect designing and supervising the building of that magnificent dome in the middle of St. Peters Basilica (till the day he died at the age of 88) all for the glory of God. (14 years! I find it hard to remain focused on something for 14 minutes) These individuals have created breathtaking sights that lift our hearts and minds and souls to imagine the beauty of God by pouring out their lives to those tasks.
It just seemed that from every corner of the city you had reminders, testimonies, witnesses of people who had followed Jesus - who had laid down their lives to wholeheartedly live for Him alone and it continues to this very day – as we toured the City at the same time you saw lay catechists volunteering their time to teach tons of children the faith at these holy sites (talk about CCD field trips!) to seeing a young sister (from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity) kneeling down and attending to a poor woman on the street – all the way to seeing our current Holy Father, the successor to Peter, Pope Benedict at the age of 85 still emptying his entire life to follow Jesus Christ and to share that to the entire world (traveling all the way to Mexico and Cuba this weekend - I’ve been moaning about jet lag all week - at 85 I don’t know how he does what he does – well I do actually) - the whole week just helped reshift or rather renew my focus or perspective to recognize that these words of this Gospel passage are living words... And that Jesus isn’t simply giving us a flowery, poetic way to deal with the drama that will ensue with the Passion. Jesus is laying out the heavy burdens of discipleship - that to follow Him costs us everything.
We might not be asked to lay down our physical lives as St Peter and those buried in the catacombs did (maybe not, considering the days we're living in) Seeing the work of the artists of the past might intimidate us to thinking “we can never do that.” But we’re not being asked to get into some competition with those from the past. All of their witnesses are meant to encourage us, that when we face a persecution or a minor martyrdom in our day and age - that when we sacrifice of ourselves for the Lord and His people in seemingly small ways, then we too follow the examples of our ancestors by living these challenging words of the Gospel and contribute as members of the family of believers in using our lives to glorify God. May we never waver in laying down our lives and becoming “grains of wheat” that produce the fruit that still nourishes our world with the saving Gospel message of Christ.