Homily for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
When I made the decision to enter seminary, the fall of my junior year at UW-Madison, God gave me several signs that I had made the right choice. The most significant sign was that I was asked to play the part of Jesus in a live-action version of the stations of the cross. Interesting, another student who was asked to play the part of one of the soldiers later decided to enter seminary and is going to be ordained a priest this coming May. His name is Deacon Matt Kirk, who is a member of this parish.
In preparation for this role, I decided to watch Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It was my first time seeing it, and it was honestly hard to get through. And although I haven’t seen it again since, it has left a lasting impression on my mind and heart.
There is one particular scene which has stuck with me. I remember weeping openly when I first saw it. Jesus is just about to be scourged by the soldiers. And before the crack of the first whip, Jesus prays to His Heavenly Father in the words of Psalm 57: “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready.” I wept because these words summed up so beautifully the attitude of total surrender Jesus had in the face of His suffering. It was the will of His heavenly Father that He should be crushed in infirmity, as foretold by Isaiah the prophet in our first reading. And Jesus willingly surrendered to this. He did not rebel in the face of His suffering, nor did He merely resign Himself to it. Rather, He was pleased to bear our guilt and give His life as an offering for our sins. “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready.”
The question for us is: What is the attitude of our heart in the face of suffering? Is it rebellion? Is it resignation? Or is it total surrender? Most of us rebel when we first encounter suffering. We say things like, “This is unfair. This was not supposed to happen. I can’t stand this. I don’t want to feel this way. I refuse to accept this.” Now as Christians, we are not, of course, called to accept passively each and every suffering that comes our way. Nor are we called to seek out suffering on our own initiative. Jesus isn’t a sadist. Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and get the largest cross you can find, pick it up, and come follow me.” Rather, He says, “Pick up your cross”—that is, the cross that’s right in front of you, the one staring you in the face—“pick up that cross and come follow me.”
That being said, there is a great deal of suffering in life that we can’t get rid of. And there is a great deal of suffering in life which, even if we could get rid of it, our attempts to do so would end up causing even more suffering. This is the suffering of the past, which is no longer in our power change. This is the suffering of the present, which is beyond our control. This is the suffering of the future, which is looming on the horizon, but which is not yet upon us. This is the suffering that we rebel against—the suffering that we just can’t get rid of. And our rebellion against it ends up causing more suffering than if we had just accepted it in the first place.
But even if we don’t outright rebel in the face of suffering, the attitude of resignation—although a step in the right direction—is still not the attitude of Christ. When we resign ourselves to suffering, we say things like, “This is just the way it is. I guess I just have to live with it. I know there are people worse off than me, so whatever. I should probably just grin and bear it.” If rebellion means rejecting the cross, resignation means dragging it behind us and making as much fuss as possible in the process. Resignation is not a nice word. It may be a virtue for the atheist, but not for the Christian. Resignation cuts off all possibility of joy in the midst of our suffering. It doesn’t reject the suffering, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It is committed to making the whole experience of suffering as miserable as possible for oneself and others.
The attitude we are called to have in the face of unavoidable suffering is surrender. This is the attitude of Christ. When we surrender ourselves to this kind of suffering, we make our own the words of Jesus: “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready.” And if our surrender is total, we will even dare to say the words which come next in this psalm: “I will sing, sing your praise.” Suffering that we rebel against is the most painful. Suffering that we merely resign ourselves to is only slightly less miserable. But suffering that we surrender to, opens the door to peace and joy. And we see this in the lives of the saints who, although they suffered greatly, seemed to radiate peace and joy. Just think of Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II. Suffering that is surrendered to is a powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel: the truth that if we unite our sufferings to Jesus, and accept them willingly, the peace the surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds.
So, what is the attitude of our heart in the face of suffering? Is it rebellion? Is it resignation? Or is it total surrender? If we turn from rebelling and resignation, if chose surrender, we will find ourselves cooperating with Jesus not only in the salvation of our own souls, but the souls of many others. We heard in our first reading, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” And the will of the Lord is the salvation of souls. So, let’s not miss the opportunities we are given this week. Let’s not miss the opportunities to surrender to the unavoidable sufferings that we will all face in some form or another. Let’s not miss the opportunities to cooperate with Christ in His work of salvation. Let’s not miss the opportunities to bring peace and joy to a world filled with division and despair. May the words of Jesus be ours this week: “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready. I will sing, sing your praise.” Amen.