IN DYING WE ARE BORN TO ETERNAL LIFE
- St. Augustine was born in 354 AD in Africa. His mother, St. Monica, was a devout Christian, who raised her son with a Christian education; however, he was not baptized. Augustine’s father was a pagan who did not convert to Catholicism until on his death bed and he had taught his son to be more concerned with worldly goods and pleasures. At age 16, St. Augustine stole fruit he did not want from a neighboring garden simply because it was forbidden, as described in his autobiography, The Confessions. “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error.” (Confessions 2:4).
St. Augustine’s friends were boys that bragged about their sexual conquests. He himself had a lover for fifteen years and fathered an illegitimate son. Throughout these experiences, St. Monica continued to pray for the conversion of her son and husband. At the age of 32, St. Augustine heard a young voice tell him to take and read St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. St. Augustine was converted. He received baptism from St. Ambrose, returned home, and gave all to the poor. He was consecrated Bishop of Hippo in 395.
St. Augustine’s story reminds us first and foremost, that hope is never lost. God can work and move in the most hardened of hearts for conversion, perhaps when we least expect it. All sin, no matter how grave, can be forgiven if we repent. Like St. Monica, we should never tire of praying for the conversion of family members, friends, and acquaintances just as St. Monica prayed unceasingly for the conversion of both her son and her husband. St. Monica’s prayers were eventually answered.
- Alexis Carrel was born in 1873. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 pioneering blood-vessel surgery in humans, organ transplants in animals, and in keeping alive tissues from warm-blooded animals. Additionally, with the assistance of Charles Lindbergh, he developed the heart pump making bypass surgery possible.
For most of his life Carrel was an agnostic. In 1902, a colleague, when unable to make the trip at the last moment, convinced Carrel to go on a “white train” to Lourdes. The white train carried scores of sick from Lyons to Lourdes. Twenty-three year old Marie Bailly was dying of tubercular peritonitis and through the ruse of a nurse she was snuck on board a few seconds before the train departed. During the night, Carrel gave Bailly morphine injections so she would not die.
When Marie Bailly was taken to the grotto and baths, she was literally dying. After her hugely swollen abdomen had been washed three times with water from the baths, she began her spectacular recovery. By the evening she was sitting up, talking, eating, and not vomiting at all, although she had hardly been able to keep any food down for the past five months.
On the next morning, she got dressed and, a day later, with no one’s help, she boarded the train back to Lyons, getting better and better on the 24-hour train ride. On arriving in Lyons, at noon on May 31, she walked through the station without leaning on anyone, took the streetcar to the home of her relatives who could not believe that it was Marie Bailly—and threw herself in their arms. There was no medical explanation for the change. Carrel had witnessed a miracle.
By 1942, Carrel had expressed his faith in the Catholic Church. He had experienced a miracle, but it took years for him to profess a belief in God.
From Carrel’s example, we should learn to discern the miracles that occur in our own lives.
- St. Constantine the Great’s journey to Christianity began far from home and amidst great intrigue. The Roman Empire was in transition. After series of successions in which rule was passed from one Caesar to another primarily as a result of murder, Emperor Diocletian devised a plan of divided rule in which power was split amongst four rulers. However, the peace would only last so long.
Constantine was son of Constatius the co-emperor of the Western Roman Empire and heir to the Western throne (located in modern day Britain). Constantine was a gifted leader and soldier serving far from home on the Eastern edge of the empire when the co-emperor Galerius attempted to seize power. Suddenly finding himself in grave danger, Constantine requested permission to travel home to see his sick father. For reasons which we do not know, Galerius granted the request. Perhaps he never intended to keep his promise.
Seeing his opportunity, Constantine waited for Galerius to go to bed. He then proceeded to the stables, jumped on a horse, and departed at break neck speed. All through the night, he rode his horse at top speed from outpost to outpost. At each stop, he would select the best horse and hamstring all the other horses in the stable so that he could not be followed.
Galerius awoke at noon to find Constantine gone. There was little he could do, Constantine had a 15 hour head start and the only uninjured horse at the Roman outposts. Constantine fled across the whole Roman Empire (at that time nearly the whole known world) and made his way to his father in Britain.
Constantine returned to Italy a short time later at the head of an army. On the way to conquer Rome, he looked into the sky and saw a cross and the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” He took the cross as his standard.
Constantine united the Roman Empire under his rule. He legalized Christianity and ended the period of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire.
Before his vision, Constantine had no great love for Christians. His subsequent conversion, rise to power, and role as protector of the church are largely unexplainable apart from his own explanation, that Christ Himself chose him. (Account adapted from Carrol, W. The Founding of Christendom: A History of Christendom vol.1, Christendom Press, 1985)
We can learn from Constantine that God has a plan for each one of us. We each have a specific role to play in the Kingdom of God.
In the First Reading Jeremiah seems to regret that he was called by God to be his prophet. “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced.” As a result he became an object of people’s ridicule, “everybody’s butt”. Every time he opened his mouth, he had to warn of violence and disaster coming on God’s people. In return he got nothing but insults and derision. He decided he would not speak about God. “I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more.”
But that did not work. “There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart… The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not stand it.” He just had to go on speaking God’s message, which was like a fire in his heart, to his people whatever the cost to himself. It is a situation like this which explains why a person would risk insults, suffering and even death in order to witness to Truth and Love. Many people languishing in jails today for expressing their religious and political beliefs know this feeling. We have seen how political or religious dissidents released from jail show no signs of “conversion” and continue the struggle for human dignity. It is something which those who see life in terms of material comfort and power simply cannot understand.
Paul, in the Second Reading, also knew all about this. He urges his fellow-Christians to offer their “living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God” and not to “model [themselves] on the behaviour of the world around [them]”. They need a “new mind”, the way of thinking which Jesus had and which Peter certainly did not yet have in today’s Gospel.
In last week’s Gospel, we saw the disciples riding high. They had, through Peter, acknowledged that Jesus, their teacher and friend, was no less than the long-awaited Messiah-King of Israel. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It must have been a really exciting moment for them. This, in turn, brought from Jesus a commission of the highest responsibility to Peter and his fellow disciples. Through Jesus, they were to be given the authority of God himself within their future communities. Peter himself is spoken of as a rock, firm and unshakeable, on which the ekklesia, the Church community, will be built.
It is hard to imagine that this was not a moment of particular joy and satisfaction for the disciples. They now were thinking that Jesus, in line with Jewish expectations, would be a glorious and powerful king. And they, of course, as his followers and companions would have a special share in the glory and privileges that went with it. (Later, would not two of them go so far as to ask, rather cheekily and behind their brothers’ backs, for special places in the Kingdom, to sit on the right and left of Jesus?)
However, the euphoria was not to last very long. Very soon after this, “Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.” This, undoubtedly, comes as a terrible shock. This was not at all part of the scenario for the coming of the Messiah! What is worse, the agents of Jesus’ humiliation and death will not be some hostile outsiders (like the pagan and barbaric Romans) but the leaders and most distinguished people of their own community. The elders, chief priests and scribes were the people who formed the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews in Palestine.
Furthermore, it would happen in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the Temple where God dwelt among his people. It might be remembered, however, that Jerusalem was the city where prophets died. (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!’ – Jesus’ words to the Pharisees [Matthew 23:37].) The disciples must have felt very disturbed and confused indeed.
So, it is not surprising that at this point, Peter, still flush with his newly-acquired status, takes Jesus to one side, speaking to him almost on equal terms. “Heaven preserve you, Lord! This must not happen to you.” How can this happen to the Messiah-King of Israel? The angry reaction of Jesus must have come as somewhat unexpected, to say the least. Turning to face Peter, Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” These are strong words for someone who just now was being given leadership of the community Jesus would leave behind. It is not to be understood that Peter is literally a demon but the disciple’s words are understood as a real temptation to Jesus to turn away from the path he is to follow. Unwittingly and with the best of intentions, Peter is doing the devil’s work – trying to steer Jesus away from the path laid out for him by his Father. How often have we been such a temptation or stumbling block to others? Perhaps more often than we care to think.
“You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but that of a human being.” Peter is seen as an obstacle, a scandal, a stone in one’s path which causes one to stumble. Ironically, the ‘rock’ which Jesus just now had said would be the foundation of his ‘church’ is now seen as an obstacle to Jesus’ work and mission!
The mind of Christ
Jesus is angry for, though his disciples may have acknowledged that he is the Messiah, they clearly have no idea whatever what kind of Messiah-King Jesus is going to be. They are, as he says, thinking in purely human terms and have not yet got “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).
They shall have to change completely their ideas about what the Messiah is going to be like. He will not be a great political and military leader who will sweep away all of Israel’s enemies. Even after the resurrection they were still thinking in those terms. “We had hoped that he was the one that would redeem Israel”, said the two fellows on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:21), not realising the irony of their words. “When will you restore the kingdom of Israel?” the disciples asked Jesus as he prepared to leave them at the Ascension.
Yes, Jesus will be a King, but he will be a King of love, a King who will rule by serving. Because he loves and serves them, he will, if necessary, be prepared to die for them, for this is the greatest love that a person can show for his friends. This is not to say that Jesus wants to die on the cross but he is totally prepared to suffer and die, if the service of love demands it – and it will. Ultimately, the disciples will see that the death of Jesus was the source of his greatest glory and power. “When I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross and into glory], I will draw everyone to me” (John 12:32).
Walking with Jesus
Today’s Gospel goes further than just asking us to understand why the glory of Jesus our King and Lord was to be found through suffering and the shameful death of the Cross. There is a further call for us to walk the same road with Jesus. “If anyone (not just the heroic martyr or the saint) wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus is asking each one of us to dedicate our lives in totally loving and serving others even if, at times, this involves misunderstanding, ridicule, pain and even death itself.
It would be altogether wrong to think that Jesus is asking us to lead miserable lives in order to be good Christians, although one gets the impression that some people interpret the passage in that way. To follow Jesus fully, we must be able to see life as he sees it, we must have that “mind of Christ”.
When we have the mind of Christ then we can only see our lives in terms of loving and serving others and not in the pursuit of purely self-centred or even family-centred ambition. When we have the mind of Christ, the whole direction of our life changes. Our whole concept of happiness changes. Jesus is calling us not to a life of sacrifice and suffering but rather to a life of total love and freedom. The person who can go to jail for his beliefs is more free and usually a lot happier than the one who is tied to the pursuit of material things, social position, pleasure and the fear of pain.
“Renouncing oneself” is not a suppression of one’s personality. It is rather to let go of oneself so that one can really find oneself.
This is what today’s readings are saying, namely, that Jesus is calling us to where true success and happiness are. Maybe when we walk the way of Jesus there will be people who criticise us, think we are stupid and even attack us. Yet those who have chosen the way of Jesus again and again confirm that their lives are full of freedom, happiness and peace. Isn’t that what we all would like to experience?
In simple terms when Jesus says whoever loses his life for my sake will find he is talking about following him rather than following after your own desires. This is covered in verse 24 of this section saying, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” There are three distinct points to this verse. Firstly he says, “If any man would come after me,” meaning to follow Jesus. If they are to follow him they must be prepared to do what follows. The second point is to “deny himself.” By denying oneself a person puts the needs of the Lord before their own needs. There are times in following the Lord when we must put our own needs second to what the Lord may require of us. Which brings us to the third point, which is to “take up his cross.” This is a representation of the need to suffer and as Christians we will go through suffering from time to time for our walk with Christ. As Peter wrote, “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.” (1 Peter 4:12-13) We must be prepared to suffer for Christ if that were needed in our endeavour to follow him.
The principle of “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” is bound up in the need to follow Jesus. Everything else a person can do is secondary to this requirement. As Jesus said to the rich young man, “Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) Perfection in Christ is attainable only by following him. We must be prepared to give up everything for his sake if we are to achieve life, for all other things are distractions.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.