Fourth Sunday of Easter: Sunday, April 22, 2018
Fr. Phillip Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
We see in the news what seems to be a proliferation of public protests in response to innocent suffering – school shootings, discrimination, and the situation with immigrant families with children, just to name a few. How do we respond to these very real injustices in our society? We, as Christians, are called to promote justice, to root out injustice, and to care for the poor and the most vulnerable, but our response must be more than just political – fighting for a change in law or campaigning for greater public awareness of these issues. All those things are good and need to be pursued, but, as Christians, we are called to more. Changing laws and education are good, protecting the innocent is obligatory, trying to eliminate suffering is noble, but they are not the way we are saved from injustice or the way that we can bring happiness where happiness is not. We often turn to these noble works when faced with injustice, but in the process forget the path to redemption, what is the essence of Christianity – the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in today’s Gospel, reveals the Christian response to innocent suffering – how he responds to the attack against the sheep. “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This offering of himself in response to sin – his sacrifice on the cross – is something he does freely and consciously. He is active, not passive. No one forces Jesus to do it. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”
In the face of the cross, in the face of the injustices that we are presented with, we can have three different responses: 1) We can run from it. This is the response of the “hired man” who is not a shepherd. He doesn’t have an intimate connection to the sheep – a oneness with the sheep, so he runs away when trouble comes. We are like the hireling every time we ignore an injustice because we think, “I did nothing to contribute to the problem.” Or, “that is not in my job description” or “that’s beyond my pay-grade.” Or “That is not my responsibility.” With this first option, we can just accept it blindly – “that is just the way things are, there is nothing I can do about it” and just suffer through hoping for things to someday change. 2) We can pull out the proverbial or not so proverbial sword and fight the injustice with a more powerful justice. It is up to me to fix this problem. The response to the injustice becomes a grab for power and control. This is the political solution. I need to become stronger and take power away from the other. This is what is played out in the political scene and in our public discourse, but we end up just trying to shout each other down and to beat the opponent at their own game. 3) But there is Christ’s response, which is scandalous to us, that through suffering and the embrace of the injustice, the active and conscious embrace of the suffering and evil, the offering of oneself – laying down one’s life freely for those who suffer, new life comes to the world. It is striking how in the passion narrative there are many false accusations and injustices thrown at Jesus, but the only one he corrects and tries to stop is Peter’s attempt to stop him from embracing the cross. “Peter, put away the sword.” And earlier when Jesus predicts his Passion and death and then Peter tries to stop him from going to Jerusalem, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does but as man.” He is telling Peter, “follow me. Take up the cross and follow me. My ways are not your ways.” Our vocation as Christians is not merely to oppose injustice, but to atone for it, by taking up the cross. To make our lives an offering for others. This is why the martyrs are the “seed of Christians”. The way to get rid of Christianity, is not to kill Christians, but to distract us from the cross, to get us to reject the possibility that suffering can be redeemed and be redemptive for ourselves and for others. Turning to ideological solutions as the first response to injustice is one way to minimize the faith and its ability to make a difference in our world.
The priest who gave the retreat I attended Easter week recounted his experience as a newly ordained priest in 2002. He is a religious priest who was assigned to Boston, and as someone getting a graduate degree in higher education, as part of his program, he taught in a Boston public school. As you might remember, Boston was where the priest scandal exploded in 2002. There were hardly any Catholics in the school of this Boston suburb and only a few Catholic faculty members. He said, “I felt despised. I was insulted because of a sin I did not commit. And then it dawned on me that I had developed a “they versus me” way of speaking about priests that had abused children as if they were separate from me. But I am part of the body the Church. There is no “they versus me” or “us versus them”, it is only “we.” And therefore, in as much as I participate in the life of the church, I am called to atone for it and experience the pain and suffering that it carries. Just thinking more laws and tighter controls are the solution, allows you to deal with the problem from a distance. We want to avoid the suffering, but what if our pain or suffering plays a greater role than that I can imagine? Not simply “purifying” myself but saving the world. This suffering in itself is without value if it is not inserted into the suffering of Christ. It must be offered. Otherwise, that suffering is a loss to the one who suffers and to all of humanity. Fr. Jose, our retreat master, drew from the writings of Fr. Carlo Gnocchi, a priest who worked in a children’s hospital who wrote a short book entitled, “The Pedagogy of Innocent Suffering.” Fr. Gnocchi wrote: “A Christian is not a man resigned, but a man who takes up suffering with charity and joy, aware of its meaningfulness. Because of Christ, pain has become the means of resurrection. And every action, every gesture, even the apparently most insignificant, even the most “against” the goodness of God, can acquire the nobility of a great gesture. Every gesture is for the salvation of the world. However, this is only possible if you and I act in the awareness of the ultimate motivation of that gesture, accompanying one another in discovering joy, the resurrection, in those places where happiness was stolen.” We cannot offer ourselves without Jesus, and it is at the Mass where we offer our sufferings in union with those of Christ crucified. Love is the law of existence, but its dynamic reality is in offering, the gift of self. “I give my pain and wretchedness to God in imitation of you, O Christ.” We don’t offer ourselves as an immolation but as an identification with the one we love. The crosses we face can’t be seen as our work to do for Jesus, but they are the way Jesus invites us into the Paschal mystery. We have to agree to be taken there. I need to allow myself to be embraced by the mystery of the cross. I will be led to the resurrection, not only as personal fulfillment, but for the salvation of the world.
Everybody in the world knows how the Gospel ends. He dies. And then is risen. But we often short-cut the paschal mystery, and therefore we avoid the cross and consequently don’t experience the resurrection. When we do that, we reduce Christianity to just a noble human attempt to be good and to do good. Just another ideology. We pull out the swords when we don’t trust God’s plan and don’t trust how much he loves us. St. John says with amazement, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are! We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” The cross is the path through which we become like Christ and see him as he is, not in the image we’ve created of God. There is no other way to be saved. Let’s ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and like Peter, witness to the resurrection by not rejecting the way of the Shepherd. http://archphila.org/remain/