The Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, the Lord Jesus assures us of a time of persecution before he will, at long last, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. He seems to warn us that each and every one who bears his names, who is sealed with the sign of his Cross, each and every one who acknowledges him as Savior and Lord, will be persecuted before we see him coming on the clouds with his angels (cf. Mark13:26). With such a stern warning given us today, several questions rightly come to our minds and hearts. How do we face such a persecution? How do we prepare for it? Is such a persecution to be welcomed?
Because we have grown rather accustomed to living in a more or less Christian society – though it is certainly becoming less and less so – in which a certain ethical and moral code was presumed and even expected, the promise of a coming persecution may seem foreign to us. The persecution of Christians is, we think, something that happens in faraway lands such as Iraq and Syria, Nigeria, and India, and so we think of persecution as something we need not be concerned about. I daresay this is a mistake, for the Lord Jesus does not see it this way; he does not tell us that persecution may come to us, but that persecutions will come to us. “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (Luke 21:16). It is, then, not a possibility, but a certainty.
As strange as it may seem, the Lord Jesus assures us that being persecuted for the sake of his name is not a curse, but a blessing. “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me,” he says. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12). Why? How is it Jesus can describe a persecution as an occasion for happiness?
Being persecuted because of fidelity to Jesus is a blessing because only those who are close to him, only those whose lives reflect his teachings and his goodness, are persecuted because of him. To be persecuted, then, is a sign of a life of fidelity, of one who serve the Lord with constancy and does not flee from the Cross. To be persecuted for Christ is, then, a mark of honor, not to puff ourselves up or become arrogant or obnoxious, but to unite us more closely to Jesus and counted among his friends.
Saint Peter knew something of this promised persecution and of the joy and blessedness that comes with it, if willingly endured out of love for Christ. “But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently,” he said, “you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps” (I Peter 2:20-21). He went on to tell us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:12-13).
In the end, of course, the Romans crucified Saint Peter – upside down – because he followed in the footsteps of Christ, because he lived in “the constant gladness of being devoted to [Jesus]” (Collect). By his perseverance in his friendship with Christ to the end, Saint Peter, like Saint Agnes and so many others, secured his life (cf. Luke 21:19). While crucifixion may not be the end of any of us here, this does not mean we will not experience a persecution of a lesser – though no less important – degree. Indeed, some form of persecution, however large or small, will come to everyone who is devoted to Jesus. But what does it mean to be devoted to him?
Our word “devoted” comes from the thirteenth century Old French word devocion, which comes from the Latin word devotionem, a form of devovere, which means “to dedicate by a vow, to sacrifice oneself, to promise solemnly.” Each one of us has been dedicated to God by a sacred and solemn promise, by the promise made in Baptism and renewed each time we recite the Creed and receive Holy Communion; we are, then, called to be devoted to Christ to be filled with constant gladness.
Ordinarily, when we use the word “devoted” today, we use it in reference to very close friends, particularly to husbands and wives. He was very devoted to her, we say, recognizing that in marriage he promised himself to her and placed his own desires after hers. To be devoted, then, is both a matter of a solemn promise and of a deep friendship. It is just such a friendship that each of us is called to have with Christ Jesus.
Just before he ascended the throne of his Cross, he said to the Apostles, as he says to us, “You are my friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15). We know that “a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter,” that whoever finds one “has found a treasure” (Sirach 6:14). Truly, Jesus himself is that “treasure hidden in a field;” he is the faithful friend who loves us to the end and gives himself entirely for us (Matthew 13:44).
Saint Damien of Moloka’i recognized Jesus as “the one and only companion who will never leave me.” He found in the Eucharist “the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please him.” This is why he encourages us, saying, “Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.” Father Damien served Jesus with constancy all the days of his life because he knew the constant gladness of being devoted to him.
It is to this same friendship with Jesus that each one of us is called. Sadly, though, recent surveys indicate that only 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God, in a God with whom they can have a relationship of friendship; 29% of Catholics called God an “impersonal force.” Nothing could be further from the truth. How, then, can we foster and deepen a friendship with Jesus so that we can know the constant gladness of being devoted to him?
There are many simple ways we can do so. Chief among them is arriving at the Holy Mass with enough time to spend some quiet moments in prayer to open our heart to the Lord before the procession begins. Another way is to remain in the church after receiving Holy Communion to thank Jesus for giving himself to us and being so close to us. Jesus desires to be our friend and friends do not force themselves upon each other. Likewise, Jesus does not force his way into our lives; rather, he stands at the door of our hearts gently knocking (cf. Revelation 3:20). But if we never quiet ourselves, if we never spend time in silent prayer, we cannot hear him knocking and cannot welcome him into the home of our hearts.
Many do not spend time in silent prayer, either at church or at home, because it makes them uncomfortable. When we are still, we begin to recognize our faults and our sinfulness; we do not like this and so we do everything we can not to be still. This is most unfortunate because we rob ourselves of healing. We should, rather, allow Jesus to stir up within our hearts an acknowledgment of our sins so that we can then to go to confession. When we confess our sins to him and receive his forgiveness, he restores us to the joy of his friendship, which allows us to begin anew and makes silence no longer uncomfortable. Then, having been reconciled to the Lord, we will receive the greatest reward of all, the experience of his life and love within our hearts.
Let each of us, then, humble ourselves before the Lord. Let us be still in his presence. Let us seek in the Blessed Sacrament the most tender of friends and the one companion who will never leave us. If we do, we will begin to serve with constancy and devotion the author of all that is good and we will know full and lasting happiness in his presence. Amen.