Sunday, May 2, 2010
Making All Things New (Easter 5.C)
One of my favourite places on the planet is the Abbey of Monte Cassino, about 130 kilometres south of Rome. It stands on top of the mountain where St. Benedict wrote his rule for monks, and where he died in 547.
Both the architecture and the scenery are breathtaking, but the abbey’s recent history was what really enthralled me on my first visit, in 1982, because the baroque cloisters, the massive stone walls, and the rich marbles of the basilica were no more than thirty years old when I first set foot in the monastery. In 1944 nothing remained of the magnificent structures rebuilt during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Allied bombers reduced the massive monastery and its church to a pile of rubble in a single day because military commanders wrongly believed it was being used by German troops.
Less than forty years later, I could barely accept that just about everything I saw on my first of many trips to Monte Cassino was a modern reconstruction. It seemed almost impossible.
But as I learned more about the history of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, I discovered that the monks were old hands at rebuilding. The Abbey was pillaged and burned in 580, and restored in 718; in 883, the Saracens invaded and sacked the monastery and burnt it down. It was subsequently rebuilt, but then destroyed by an earthquake in 1349.
Are you starting to think that God didn’t really like the monks of Monte Cassino?
Actually, when you consider that the Abbey was only levelled an average of every 400 years or so, it’s not that bad.
To me, Monte Cassino is like a living homily on our second reading today. It stands more glorious than ever despite its tribulations; it is, in short, a monument in stone to the Lord’s promise to make all things new.
And don’t we need the occasional sign to remind us that God is constantly at work making all things new? Sometimes we feel more like the monks huddled in the Abbey cellar as bombs fell on them than we do like the present-day visitors admiring its graceful structures.
We wonder: Is God really wiping away our tears and fears, or is that just a lot of religious talk?
I’d like to offer two answers. First, yes, it is religious talk—the vision that St. John recounts in today’s second reading is a vision of what will be, not what is. It won’t be fully realized until this earth passes away. In the meantime, we will still experience sorrow and pain.
This is clear partly because John quotes the voice from the throne in the future tense: God will dwell with humans; he will wipe away every tear; death will be no more.
The second part of the answer is, yes, God really is at work—not just in the future, but now. He says—in the present tense, not the future, “See, I am making all things new.”
God is making all things new! His work of restoration and comfort has already begun. Tragedy and trial still afflict us, but much of their power is gone—stripped from them by Christ’s victory on the cross.
If we miss these points, we’ll make two big mistakes. The first is demanding more from God than He actually offers. Faith in him, and faith in miracles, cannot guarantee the answer to every prayer we make, however fervent. If it could, no-one would die before a hundred at least, and our parking lot would have no handicapped spaces since we’d pray away every trouble. Or perhaps it would have no non-handicapped spaces since the average age of our pious congregation would 110!
Until the earthly city meets the heavenly Jerusalem, suffering, death, and sorrow will be part and parcel of human existence.
The second mistake, however, is concluding that nothing’s changed by the death and rising of the Lord. That’s not true. From His throne of victory he is making you new, and me new, and all things new, even now. He is taking our tears and pain and doing something new with them—using them to strengthen and purify us, making sure they are not wasted but absorbed into His glorious passion; sweetening even life’s most bitter moments first by sharing them and helping us bear them, and second by transforming them into ways of knowing Him and knowing ourselves.
In other words, while God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain and death is heaven, His shorter-term answer is bringing good things from these bad things, even now... if we allow Him to do that.
I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before, but we need constant reminders of how God is at work in our trials and sorrows. And especially during this Easter season we need to connect that work with faith in the Risen Lord, who is the living proof of God’s power.
The renewal that flows from God’s grace is an every day reality; the miraculous healing of illness, on the other hand, is exceptional, even if it is part of our faith in Him. We need to be more aware of how God is constantly working to shape and change our lives—to turn weaknesses into strengths and trials into triumphs. Too often we tell God exactly what we want him to do, when a better prayer is “Go to work, Lord! Make something new with my pains and problems! Use them for my good and the good of others.” And, of course, take them away if that is what’s best.
In this spirit, we’re going to try something new on First Fridays. The 2:30 Benediction will be followed by a brief healing prayer service that will include the laying on of hands for the sick or simply troubled—and aren’t we all! This is not to be confused with the Sacrament of the Sick, which will not be administered on this occasion, and which remains the priority for those who are seriously ill.
An opportunity for healing prayer and the laying on of hands, in accordance with the Church’s liturgical books, will also be provided at the end of a time of “Praise and Worship” style prayer that will take place on First Fridays at 9 p.m.
We hope that these times of prayer and intercession will help many open their hearts to the Lord’s work in a new way, allowing him to transform our troubles in accordance with His healing will.
I’d like to conclude with an interesting footnote about something I stumbled across while writing this homily. It never occurred to me that the monastery of Monte Cassino that was levelled in 1944 was anything but perfect, or its destruction anything other than tragic. Yet the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia speaks rather unkindly about its art and architecture. The only possible conclusion is that the rebuilt monastery, paid for with tragic loss of life and heaven knows how much sorrow, is considerably more beautiful than the one it replaced.
The voice that says “I am making all things new” proclaims to us a great mystery. But it is a mystery filled with hope, a mystery that promises light from darkness and joys that follow sorrows. Let us take heart from these words in all our personal struggles, and apply them as well to the Church as the Spirit continues to renew, reshape, and reform her.