The Heart of the Matter

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

When I was a sophomore at UW-Madison, I lived a remarkably unbalanced life. I got really good grades, but that’s because I stayed up studying every day until one-thirty in the morning. At one-thirty, I would put my pencil down, close my notebook, and spend some time in prayer before going to bed. Besides an examination of conscience, two prayers were a regular part of my bedtime routine: a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a prayer to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. After the year ended, later that summer, I was attending a Mass in Appleton, WI. It just so happened that at that Mass the parish was consecrating themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary. And it just so happened that at that Mass I experienced my first definitive call to the priesthood.

Because it was such a special Mass, the bishop of Green Bay had been invited to celebrate it. As the bishop was incensing the altar at the beginning of Mass, he also incensed the large crucifix—not unlike our crucifix—that hung on the back wall of the sanctuary. And as he did so, as he gazed at the crucifix and swung the incense back-and-forth, a thought came to my mind that pierced me to the heart. God opened my eyes to what was really happening in that moment. As the bishop gazed at the crucifix, God showed me that, in a very real way, the bishop was looking at a reflection of himself as a priest, as if in a mirror. A priest is a man who has been configured to Christ crucified—so radically configured, that He can say with Christ: this is my Body which is given up for you; this is my Blood which is poured out for you. When a priest looks at a crucifix, he is looking at himself. This sudden and unexpected insight pierced me to the heart, and a deep desire welled up in me to be a priest.

This experience at Mass the summer after my sophomore year became a guiding light to me on my journey toward the priesthood. I knew from that moment onward that the priesthood is inseparably connected to the cross. There were so many moments on this journey when I was tempted to give up. There were so many moments when I was tempted to pick another path in life. But I always knew that to do so would be to run away from the cross, to flee the suffering and the sacrifice that God was calling me to. When people asked me in seminary how I knew I was called to the priesthood, I would often tell them—often receiving very confused looks in response—that I knew that I was called to the priesthood because I knew that that was where I’d find the cross, and I knew that God was calling me to the cross.

When I was ordained a priest in May of 2019, I knew that I’d experience suffering and sacrifice as a priest. I fully expected that, and I was fully prepared for it. What I was not expecting, and was not prepared for, was how much joy I would experience as well. I love being a priest; even on my worst day, I would not choose to be anything else. For I have experienced as a priest the truth of our gospel today: that there is no cross which, if embraced, does not lead to the resurrection; that there is no grain of wheat which, if allowed to die, will not produce much fruit.

Friends, when faced with the cross—and we are all faced with it—we only have two choices in the end: to reject the cross, or to embrace it. Now there is, of course, a certain amount of suffering that we can and should eliminate and even avoid in the first place. Christianity does not call us to enjoy suffering, aggressively seek it out, or passively endure it like a doormat. Jesus does not say, “Find the biggest cross you can, pick it up all by yourself, and follow me.” No, He says “Pick up your cross daily”—in other words, the cross that’s right in front of you, the one you can’t avoid—“and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). There is a great deal of suffering in life we can’t avoid. And there is a great deal of suffering in life which, even if we can avoid it, we shouldn’t because to do so would cause even greater suffering. Sometimes in rejecting the cross that’s right in front of us, we end up having to carry an even heavier cross. The cross of the present moment, the one we can’t or shouldn’t avoid—this is the cross we’re called to embrace. This is the grain of wheat which we must allow to die.

The alternative to this is not pretty. A grain of wheat has a hard outer shell. And if the grain of wheat is not allowed to die, the hard outer shell remains and the life within cannot spring forth. This is what happens to our hearts if we do not embrace the cross. If we reject the cross, our hearts become hardened. Because we do not or will not allow our hearts to be broken by suffering, they become unbreakable. And the life that is within our hearts—Christ’s own life which has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—cannot spring forth. Even as the death of the grain of wheat is inseparably connected to the new life that comes from it, the cross willingly embraced is inseparably connected the resurrection that comes from it. There’s no denying that a heart broken by a cross willingly embraced is a painful thing. Jesus own heart, after all, was broken and pierced by the cross. But far more painful than this is a heart that becomes unbreakable because of a cross that is rejected. For to reject the cross is to cut off the hope of the resurrection.

Our world today tells us to avoid suffering at all costs. But to avoid suffering at all costs, costs us our hope. And it costs us so much of what is true, good, and beautiful about life. Because we live in a fallen world, there is almost nothing true, good, or beautiful—whether our faith, vocation, job, or family—that does not come with its fair share of suffering. To reject all suffering is to reject all of these other things as well. If we love our life so much that we never want to suffer, we will end up losing our life. But if we love God more than our life such that we are willing to suffer, we will preserve it for eternal life. This is the truth and hope of our gospel today. And if we live by it, as Jesus lived by it, then we too will experience the glory of the cross and the joy of the resurrection. We will die, but new life will spring forth, and we will bear much fruit. Amen.