Here in America, we love heroes. They are the shining examples of what we’re supposed to be. This past summer, a movie called The Avengers was extremely popular. This is a group made up of “Earth’s mightiest heroes”, called in to defeat alien armies and save the world. But the last time I checked, we don’t have too many 1940’s super soldiers, men wearing custom-fitted and armed suits of mechanical armor, or Viking gods running around, as is suggested in the movie. So it got me to thinking, who are our real heroes? And I think the answer is pretty clear in our society. Our heroes are the firefighters, the law enforcement personnel, and the men and women of the armed forces. Have you ever seen someone mocking a firefighter for running into a burning building, or mocking our armed forces for protecting someone? These are the kinds of heroes we have – they’re people who stand to protect and serve. The natural human instinct, of course, is to run out of the burning building, so for someone to run into a burning building strikes us as noble, selfless, and heroic. It’s a real challenge to be selfless, standing up for something outside ourselves. It’s so easy to look on someone and say how heroic or noble they are, but for some reason, it’s more difficult for us to do it. Preaching the truth and sacrificing our reputation can often be seen as bad. So can suffering – we don’t like to see it, or feel it, or talk about it. In fact, there are a lot of Christians out there who love the cross, but hate the crucifix because it seems too brutal or too “in our face.” None of us want to suffer, but there is something redemptive, something heroic, about suffering. And it teaches us about the heart of Christ. But if we don’t understand suffering, it’s hard for us to understand these readings.
In fact, the first reading comes out guns blazing! “The Lord was pleased to crush him into infirmity”? What is that supposed to mean? But if we read on, we understand what’s going on. This isn’t someone whom the Lord is smacking around just for some kind of disturbed fun fun. This is someone who has freely chosen to embrace that suffering. This is someone who says, “I am willing to go through this suffering, so that my kids will be blessed.” He is suffering, but at the same time, he is still loving – and that’s heroic! It shows us that suffering isn’t always a terrible thing. Obviously, none of us wants to suffer, and none of us should go out of our way to seek suffering, but it shows us that something good can come out of it. That’s a tough thing to grasp. Most of us want heaven, and we want the good things that accompany it, but nobody wants to die!
We run into that in the Gospel today too. James and John get pretty bold and ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left in the Kingdom of Heaven. They’re seeking the power and authority of these high positions, but without the suffering, without working or sweating or bleeding to get there. But Jesus’ response to this is to say, “Look, if you want to be great, you have to serve here on earth!” If we want to be great, we have to go through the difficulties, and trials, and sufferings, even putting others in front of you. And actually, just a few pages later in Mark’s 15th chapter, we see what it means to be on Jesus’ right and left. Only on Golgotha, when Jesus is abandoned and broken, and when those on his left and right are in the same condition, only then does the deep irony of the request of James and John become clear. Jesus lets them know that they don’t understand what they’re asking for, but he takes their willingness seriously, and that they will indeed drink that cup of suffering. In fact, James is the first of eleven other apostles to be martyred. John didn’t experience martyrdom like the others, but he suffered persecution, and abandonment, and rejection.
If we’re really going to be serious about being disciples, we have to learn for ourselves the meaning of redemptive suffering. Our bodies, when joined to the Body of Christ, can be transformed into instruments of redemptive grace for others. Here’s an example: Fr. Andrea Santoro was an Italian priest who lived in Turkey. Parts of Turkey, as you might remember, are not always friendly to Christians, especially priests, and Fr. Santoro was assassinated by extremists in 2006. But despite the danger of his life and the suffering, and ultimately the death that he would experience wasn’t an obstacle for him, but it was his way of bringing Christ to those people. He wrote, “I am here to dwell among these people and enable Jesus to do so by lending him my flesh.”
Sometimes it can be hard to lend our flesh to Christ, because we don’t think he understands. But I was reading something in preparation for this homily that said, “God had only one child on earth who lived without sin, but he didn’t have any that lived without suffering.” He knows what it’s like. There is nothing that you could throw at Jesus that he wouldn’t understand. If God allows suffering for our lives, it’s because he knows we can handle it. It becomes a golden opportunity to exercise our trust in him. Think about a young man who is interested in studying for the priesthood. He has to give up a hope of a family for his own. Maybe he has to say goodbye to his girlfriend. But it’s only because of the difficulty and the suffering involved that he can say to God, “You know, this is tough. It’s painful. But because you love me, I know that whatever you ask of me will be the right thing, so I’m just going to follow your lead.” Or think about a happily married couple where one of the spouses falls terribly and seriously ill. That’s devastating – to both of them! The other spouse has to support and run the household, while at the same time caring for the needs of the sick spouse. But they still pray, “Lord, I don’t get this, but if you give me your grace, I will carry this cross for you, just as you carried your cross for me.” In both those cases I just mentioned, it’s because of the suffering and hardship and pain involved that those people are heroic.
The most important thing we can do in the midst of all this is to pray. Looking out at this community gathered here today, I realize that there are many of you who have suffered four or five or ten times as much as I have. I also see that there are some among you who have allowed me to share in that suffering with you – the death of a loved one, serious illness, or spiritual turmoil. Thank you for that privilege to be with you in that suffering and to pray with you. The most important thing that we can do, and really, the only thing that we can do, is to pray. It’s really hard to trust God and understand his will if you don’t pray. And I’m not talking about praying before meals or praying the rosary in the shower or something. In this case, we need to take time alone and in silence to be still with God and present him our needs and sufferings. A great opportunity exists for this at All Saints with our Tuesday evening adoration. It’s quiet, the lights are a little dimmed, and there’s nobody asking you to do anything. Whatever the case may be, prayer is essential for learning the redemptive value of suffering in our lives.
As we’re gathered together today, I’m sure most of us can think of a few ways in which we’re suffering right now. But brothers and sisters, now is also the time for us to do something about it. So let us call those things to mind, commending them to the love of God, and let us go to join Christ at his left and right; not in prestige or power, but at the foot of the Cross. And let us receive him now in this Eucharist with thankful, loving, and trusting hearts.
FYI, my reflections for this homily were guided by the “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday” podcast by Mark Hart, seen here.