Rev. Joseph Keating
5th Sunday of Easter (C)
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? We all know the classic test for this question is to look at a partially-filled glass and to ask whether it’s half-full or half-empty. The optimist says it’s half-full, and the pessimist says that it’s half-empty. But in Eastern Europe, they have a different explanation. For them, the pessimist looks at the world, shakes his head in disgust and says, “Things can’t get any worse.” But the optimist responds, “Oh yes they can.”
After a bout of binge-watching Fox News or reading the newspaper, we look at the world and its problems and we are tempted to think the same. We may even begin to think, where did it all go wrong? When did the wheels of civilization fall off the proverbial wagon? If only we could go back to a time when things were better or simpler, when the world was less crazy than it is today! Some would come to the conclusion that the cultural upheaval of 1968 and the sexual revolution was the moment when everything went wrong. Some would say that the start of World War I and the Russian Revolution was when the world fell apart. Some would say that the French Revolution damaged civilization beyond repair. Some might say it was the Protestant Reformation that ruined everything. Theologians might say it was the writings of William of Ockham that messed up the perfect anthropological system that St. Thomas Aquinas built. And we could keep going further and further back, looking for that perfect time and place before things went crazy.
In fact, the discipline of children got so bad at one point that one observer remarked:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
That was Socrates, in the year 400 BC. That goes to show that the world has been crazy for a very long time.
And now it’s time for my quasi-typical movie reference for this homily. While I’m not generally a fan of romantic comedies, I have to admit that I really love the 2011 film Midnight in Paris starring Owen Wilson and directed by Woody Allen. Here’s the gist of the story: As Gil, the main character, explores the modern city of Paris, he becomes more familiar with the legacies of so many artists and writers of bygone eras that have left their mark on the city. Now, I don’t want to spoil the plot gimmick that makes this movie so charming, but I will reveal the moral of the story, which is that there really wasn’t a certain, perfect time period when everything was right with the world.
Things have always been crazy, and we Christians know when the craziness all began—it all started in a garden, a long, long time ago. That was when our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They figured that they wanted to decide what was good and evil instead of receiving their morality from their Creator, who knows what is good for them and what was bad for them. So they ate the fruit, and lost that original innocence and justice.
If there ever was a true utopia and a perfect Golden Age, it was in the Garden of Eden—the Paradise now lost. If we ever hope to get back there, we need someone to show us the way. This is why we need a Savior. This is why God planned to become one of us, to suffer with us and to die for us, to give us a way to salvation. More on that in a moment.
Ever since the Fall of our first parents, the world has not been “all-as-it-should-be.” There were consequences for that Original Sin:
The cursing of the earth,
The burden of work,
The pains of childbirth
In short, suffering entered the world, and ever since then, we have been trying ot understand it. Is suffering really a necessary part of our existence? Must we endure hardship to enter the Kingdom of God? Isn’t there an easier way?
In our second reading, Sts. Paul and Barnabas visit the burgeoning churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. The Scripture states:
They strengthened the spirits of the disciples
and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying,
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
St. Paul was no stranger to hardship. In his many missionary travels, he encountered all sorts of challenges and setbacks. In the Book of Acts, we get a taste of just what St. Paul had to go thru:
• Fellow Jews plot to kill Paul in Damascus (Acts 9:23).
• Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, (Acts 9:29).
• Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
• He faces arrest and stoning at Iconium, (Acts 14:5).
• He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
• Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
• He is arrested, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
• He is attacked in Thessalonica, (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
• Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
• He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
• Paul is apprehended and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
• He is opposed by a riot of silversmiths in Ephesus, (Acts 19:23-41).
• Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
• He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
• Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
• He barely escapes being scourged again (Acts 22:24-29).
• Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, (Acts 23:12-22).
• Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
• He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
• Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
• He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).
• And Tradition holds that he was martyred in Rome. (excerpt from: http://blog.adw.org/2019/05/sufferings-st-paul-price-gospel/)
But for St. Paul, this laundry list of sufferings was not a list of complaints—rather, it was his cause for joy! But how can that be? It is only possible to find joy in suffering if we understand what our suffering means.
From our observation of the world, it is clear that suffering is part of human existence. Some suffer greatly, others only a little. Some suffer in silence, others complain and make sure everyone knows about it. What, then are we to do about suffering? I’ll lay out a few options, and then I’ll say which one I think is the best.
One option is to escape from the suffering. In this scenario, we disconnect from people, going off the grid, refusing to interact with others, keeping to ourselves, building a virtual wall around ourselves and closing off our hearts from others. From within these walls, we may feel safe, but the drawback is that there is no one else in there to love but ourselves.
Another, very popular option is to drown out the suffering with distractions and pleasures. This is called hedonism—pleasure seeking. It is all too easy in our day and age, with so many distractions available to us, to numb the pain and suffering we encounter in our lives. Whether it’s thru alcohol or drug abuse or some other addiction, we try to escape reality and escape thinking about our suffering and our mortality. The problem with hedonism is that the pleasures we seek only end up becoming our masters, and we lose the freedom we desired in the first place.
Moving to a less selfish option, one could embrace a sort of humanistic altruism. By this I mean the sort of person who is a do-gooder. She gives to charitable organizations, helps alleviate the sufferings of strangers, and tries not to offend others. She wants the world to be a better place, and tries to be part of the solution. This person is moving in the right direction, but in her heart of hearts she knows that there is just so much suffering in the world, that no amount of extra personal effort will eliminate it all.
Then there is the somewhat more religious route of self-abnegation, and this is what the Buddhists attempt to achieve. They see desire as the cause of all suffering, and so we just deny ourselves all desires and all pleasures, then we reach a state where we won’t suffer any more. But this approach denies the goodness of creation and the flourishing of persons.
Lastly, there is the theology of the cross, which goes like this: We have a God who became one of us and allowed himself to suffer, just like us. In doing so, he showed just how far he was willing to go to show his great love for us. As a blameless victim, Jesus stepped in, and took the punishment that was due to us, thus atoning for our sins. In doing so, Jesus transformed the cross, an instrument of torture, into an instrument of redemption.
The cross we kiss and embrace on Good Friday symbolizes the cross Jesus embraced in order to redeem us from a life of sin. By his cross, Jesus has given meaning to suffering. It is no longer absurd; it is the means of redemption.
Therefore, while the crosses we Christians bear in our lives today cause us mental or physical suffering, they can become our personal means of redemption, if only we would pick them up daily and follow Jesus.
Now, there are many more “easy” answers to the problem of suffering, but there’s not enough time to speak of them here. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all of these alternatives are equally acceptable ways of dealing with suffering. All but one of them is deficient in a major way. It should be obvious by now which way I follow when it comes to the problem of suffering. It is the way of the cross.
We, the disciples of Jesus, will have crosses to bear in this life, and the cross means suffering. If we are young, and we have a good family, perhaps we haven’t yet discovered what our cross is, or perhaps our cross is simply to obey our parents and love our siblings—a challenging task. If we are young adults, perhaps we understand our cross, but we have come to despise it. We are tempted to reject our cross in favor of comfort, convenience, and pleasure. If we are older adults, perhaps we are worn out from carrying our crosses, and we are tempted to despair or to retreat from the world.
As Christians, we can expect the same. For we are members of Christ’s Body, and if Christ our head suffered, so will the rest of the Body suffer. Let us not forget the sufferings of our Lord Jesus himself, who, after being mocked and scourged, carried his own instrument of death up a hill, was stripped and nailed to it, and then died. This is how our Lord and Master perished, and, as he warned all of us, “No servant is greater than his master.” (John 13:16, 15:20)
There is no escaping suffering in this world, but there is a way thru it. We must take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus. Those who do so may expect to see the vision that St. John gives us in the second reading today—a new heaven and a new earth, a new holy city Jerusalem, and God dwelling with his people forever.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
for the old order has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
The promise of Heaven and the compassion of Jesus make our suffering bearable and even meaningful. The new covenant that St. John promises in the Book of Revelation has already been established by Jesus Christ in his Church. We already enjoy, today, as in every Holy Mass, the presence of God among his people in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This Holy Communion is truly a foretaste of our full union with God that we will enjoy when we enter the gates of his Kingdom.
The promise of Heaven is no mere optimism. It is not just “glass-half-full” wishful thinking. We know it to be true by the virtue of hope. We place all our hope in Jesus today, who is the true way back to Paradise.