Saturday, June 22, 2013

Too Big to Ignore (11.C)

The homily this week is rather brief and not quite blog-worthy! However, I happened to look back to my homily on this Sunday in 2011 and thought it might bear a second posting.

As Christians we can never take our eyes from the cross; if we do, we’re done for.

Feel-good Christianity—Christianity without the cross—is very tempting. You get a nice group of people to pray with, the calm and peace of liturgy, and the occasional good homily. It’s like a good club where dues are voluntary.

Feel-good Catholicism, the ancient Faith stripped of the duties or teachings that are most inconvenient or most in conflict with modern thinking, is equally tempting. But we’re blessed with a visual reminder that it’s not the real thing: the large crucifix hanging above the altar tells us better than any sermon that cafeteria Catholicism is not what Jesus died for.

In this parish, as in most churches, the cross is just too big to ignore.

That’s the message of our readings this morning/afternoon. The cross looms too large in our faith for us to ignore it. Zechariah wasn’t prophesying only about Jerusalem when he said they would “look on the one whom they have pierced.” Centuries after the death of Christ, every one of his disciples is called to look on him and to contemplate his wounds and reflect on his suffering.

One way we do this is by observing Friday as a special day. It’s not by accident that our two weekly prayer groups meet on Friday. And since the men’s group meets at 6 a.m., I like to remind them that it’s not only about prayer, it’s also about penance—at least for the younger members who find it hard to get up so early.

Friday penance has almost vanished since the Church relaxed the law about not eating meat on Fridays. Many good Catholics think that rule no longer exists. But it does, even in a gentler form.

What Church law requires is this: all Catholics fourteen years of age and over should abstain from meat every Friday, except for the major feast days we call solemnities. However, a Catholic may choose to substitute other forms of penance on Friday, such as giving up alcohol or dessert, or may do a special act of charity, like visiting the sick, or prayers like the Rosary.

The important thing is not what we do but why we do it. Friday penance makes us think about the One our sins have pierced. It keeps us from taking the saving death of Jesus for granted.

It’s true that Sunday Mass is centered on the Resurrection. But Jesus would not have risen if he had not first suffered and died for us. Easter Sunday would have no meaning without Good Friday.

The Gospel this morning/afternoon has two things to say about cross-less Christianity. The first comes when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say I am?” The answers he gets remind us that the truth isn’t decided by opinion polls. The truth, easy or tough, has been revealed to the Church, not decided by the Church.

In fact, it seems that everyone’s got it wrong except Peter, speaking for the other disciples. There’s only one right answer to the question, not three. John the Baptist, Elijah and the other ancient prophets were fine figures, but Jesus is not one of them. The wrong answers might even be called flattering, but they’re still wrong.

Peter spoke the truth then, and his successor speaks the truth today. It can be an unpopular truth, which is when we must look to the cross and accept that Christian faith is not easy and sometimes is very difficult.

The second message is a tough one. We don’t just look at the cross, we carry the cross. Contemplating Christ crucified takes more than prayer, it also means imitating him. Jesus says that a disciple is not greater than his master; he’s telling us that we’ll also have our cross to carry.

What will that cross be? Jesus gives us a hint when he calls his followers to pick up their cross daily. Our cross, it seems, won’t usually be dramatic like his. Our cross isn’t likely to be one great moment of pain but an everyday thing.

The cross we pick up is simply the tough side of life: the things no-one can avoid, but which the Christian can embrace. Things that are part and parcel of a sinful world, but which are the raw material of holiness.

Certainly a minority of us have crosses that would fit on Calvary—some do face great troubles, terrible sufferings, even in our own parish. But for most of us, picking up the cross means accepting life’s inevitable trials, disappointments, and difficulties.

In other words, while some endure the pain of being nailed to a cross, for many people picking up the cross means living with splinters, smaller hurts that are still painful.

Just this month [June 2011] a young professional athlete gave us a good example of what it means to pick up an ordinary cross with extraordinary grace.

Armando Galarraga is a 28-year old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. From what I can gather, he’s not exactly a star pitcher, and he hasn’t played very long in the major league. But on the second of June, he pitched a perfect game—for those of you who aren’t baseball fans, that’s a game where no opposing player gets on base. In other words, no hits, no walks. Every batter out.

It’s only happened twenty times in 110 years. But in the ninth inning, Armando Galarraga was on his way to the record books, with just one more out to go. The batter hits the ball. The first baseman fields it. He throws it the pitcher, who beats the batter to first base. Batter out!

A perfect game! Except the umpire blows the call. He calls the runner safe.

Even I can understand Gallaraga’s disappointment, and I can’t throw a baseball from here to the choir loft. It belongs in a category all by itself. “Crushing disappointment” wouldn’t come close to describing it.

What happened next makes Armando our guest preacher this morning. As Peggy Noonan writes, it’s what follows the umpire’s blunder that makes the story great: “When Galarraga hears the call, he looks puzzled, surprised. But he's composed and calm, and he smiles, as if accepting fate. Others run to the ump and begin to yell, but Galarraga just walks back to the mound to finish the job. Which he does, grounding out the next batter.”

After the game, the pitcher praises the disgraced umpire for his immediate apology. He tells reporters he feels worse for the umpire than he does for himself.

There’s today’s Gospel in action. Armando Gallaraga chose understanding over anger. He picked up the cross. He chose the humble path—he denied himself. He took the high road—the way of the cross.

The lesson he taught isn’t complicated. Accept what happens—don’t whine, don’t shout, don’t give up. And allow God’s providence to deal with what you can’t change.

Sometimes the results of acceptance will be immediate. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this pitcher’s place in the history books will be better than if he’d got his perfect game. His story will be told long after those perfect games are forgotten.

Sometimes, we won’t see things working out. But we’ll know we did what followers of Christ are called to do, and that should be enough reward.

Sometimes our cross will be so heavy that only God’s abundant help can stop it from crushing us. More often than not, though, we’re called to cope with splinters—our everyday troubles—by accepting the things we cannot change and courageously working to change the things we can.

Either way, we live with confidence in the words of Jesus. By saving our life, we lose it, but by losing it for his sake, we save it. He is promising us happiness in heaven, and a great deal of peace here and now.

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