21st Sunday of the Year C (22 Aug 2010)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Unlike the letters of St. Paul the Letter to the Hebrews is read in church infrequently. The first hearers of the Letter faced temptations not to live their Christian, prophetic vocation. Their temptations ran from imprisonment, loss of life and property to daily pinpricks, which lured them not to proclaim [God’s] glory among the nations and fulfill Jesus’ desire: Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.1 Today’s selection speaks to temptations adversities work and affirms that difficulties educate us, and God works in them for us. My mentor’s story from early in my priesthood illustrate what I mean.
My mentor was superb. Denny shared his life’s experiences in a way which placed me in them. Denny opened a window on my future. One story was a lasting education, which scripture meant by discipline, and the Letter to the Hebrews conveyed with athletic imagery: strengthen one’s body pointed to strengthen one’s character; but I get ahead of Denny’s story.
Denny helped a couple prepare for marriage. The wedding day arrived. Denny waited as the last guests took their seats. At the appointed time the first bridesmaid did not take her place; no bridesmaid did. Denny waited patiently but not for them. The groom had not arrived! The groomsmen had but not the groom. After several minutes, which to the wedding party seemed like eternity and to the bride even longer, Denny walked to the bride’s room. Denny told her the groom had not arrived, and he asked the bride what to do. She cooly replied they ought to wait for him, so they did.
After several minutes Denny repeated his walk. He asked the bride what she wanted to do. She replied they ought to wait some more. Denny concurred; more waiting. After another interval Denny repeated his walk and his question. The bride paused. Denny asked her if she wanted him to do anything. The bride said they had waited long enough. She asked Denny if he would inform her waiting guests. Denny calmly did.
His experience illustrated two aspects of our Christian, prophetic to me. First, the bride endured her personal cross in that time. Talk about embarrassment, shame, pain and feeling abandoned! All tempt us not to proclaim the Good News by our lives. Second, Denny stood with her. You noticed as did I that Denny did nothing without her consent and direction: he asked her if she wanted him to do anything.
The bride was not totally surprised by the groom’s failure to appear, nor was she as angry as she might have been. She was invested in her wedding, in her plans for her future, which soured at the final moment. She didn’t rage, blaming him on the spot for ruining her life—her day, yes, but not her life. If she had raged, she would have impeded her suffering, suffering which offered her education for her life.
My education in Denny’s story connected me with an ancient Greek, wise saying well-known to early Christians: to learn is to suffer. The ancient Greeks intuited it in reverse: suffering is learning, teaching valuable lessons about life. Not at all masochists, ancient Greeks were realists, who puzzled about suffering in the world and found lessons for endurance. Our saying, “no pain, no gain,” captures their sense, less something from outside us and more from within, essential to strengthening character, to which the Letter to the Hebrews’ athletic imagery aimed.
The bride left alone at the church by her no-show groom probably did not know that pithy phrase, to learn is to suffer. Yet, she tasted its truth, and I’ve long hoped she profited from it instead of choking on it. The words of this truth the Letter to the Hebrews applied to Jesus: Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. Jesus learned from what he endured. His cross was not only his glorious education; Jesus made it our identity; our present; and its glory our future.
In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week, compose yourself within the Trinity. Ask Mary and the saints to present you to Jesus. In your words praise Jesus for enduring the cross to be raised in glory as Messiah and Lord. Ask Jesus for the grace to stand against temptations to numb sufferings instead of to learn from them. Close saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ words, lead us not into temptation, on our lips remind us no one is exempt from challenges or suffering. His words also dispose us to allow Jesus to do what we cannot and gain his victory by imitating his faith. Along the way we can profit from adversity rather than choke on it.
1. Mark 16.15, Jesus farewell to his apostles.