Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
16 September 2012
My dear friends,
Before heading south towards Jerusalem, Jesus travels northwards towards the villages surrounding Caesarea Philippi. On the way, he puts a key question to the disciples – “Who do people say that I am?” They list what people are saying – John the Baptist returned from the dead, Elijah come back from heaven, one of the prophets. Then he presses further, and in a more personal way, he asks directly –“Who do you say I am?” As usual, Peter took the initiative and replied, “You are the Christ.”
Jesus appears to accept this answer but then he begins to instruct them. He tells them strictly not to talk to anyone about this, probably because he knew there was a lot of instruction to be given before they would have an accurate picture of the Messiah (or the Christ) who was to come. He began to explain that the Messiah was not going to be a glorious and victorious political leader who was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. He was going to suffer, to be rejected by the Jewish leaders and to be put to death before rising again. This was too much for Peter to swallow, so he protested, which earned him a particularly sharp rebuke. He was told in no uncertain terms that he had a lot to learn. A terrible fate awaits Jesus, and he makes it clear that a difficult future likewise awaits those who follow him as disciples.
Many years ago when Nikita Khrushchev was in power in the Soviet Union, he was speaking in front of the Supreme Soviet, with delegates there from all over the nation. In his speech, he was severely critical of Stalin. While he was speaking, a note was sent up from the audience to the platform. It read, “What were you doing when Stalin committed all these atrocities?” Khrushchev read the note and shouted, “Who sent up this note?” Nobody moved. “I’ll give him thirty seconds to make himself known to me.” Still there was no movement. “All right,” said Khrushchev, as the time ran out,” “I’ll tell you just what I was doing. I was doing exactly what the writer of this note was doing – nothing! I was afraid to be counted.”
In the second reading of today’s Mass, the apostle James talks to us about the importance of good works and charity. These are a reflection of real and authentic love and faith on the part of the doer. Without such works, faith is dead no matter how passionately it is professed. This is a continual challenge to the believer. Religion can become a self-centred pursuit and many New Age religious groups focus solely on personal fulfilment and self-improvement. True Christianity is more challenging; whatever we say has little force unless it is backed up by the good example of our actions.
The most challenging lines in today’s readings are those that close the gospel reading. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We have a fondness for cosy, pain-free Christianity and we live in a world which generally shuns pain in all its forms. The reality is that following the example of Jesus is not easy. Doing the right thing, loving and forgiving our neighbour is not easy and generally demands a high level of self-sacrifice.
We can draw much encouragement and inspiration from the witness of so many people who through their lives have shown us how to persevere, how to be patient and loyal. Apart from the officially recognised saints of the Church, we all have neighbours, some of them maybe in the church today, who are just as inspirational if rarely featured in the headlines. Many of them have carried crosses so lightly that they make it seem like nothing at all. Yet many so called ordinary people face truly awesome challenges in their daily lives.
Raising a family and accepting all the personal sacrifice that goes with this responsibility can be immensely demanding on a person’s patience and generosity. There can be great hardship in supporting a family member or friend in a struggle with addiction. Others devote a lot of their time and energy to care for disabled or elderly family members at a considerable cost to their own lives, careers or wealth. Difficult choices may have had to be made in relation to drink or drugs, choices that may have serious consequences for personal comfort and relationship.
Recent research has shown that the person most likely to be cited as a hero by people is not a politician or soap star or footballer or pop star but one’s mother. “The term hero is universal” say the researchers from the department of psychology at the University of Limerick, “and the most frequently mentioned hero is one’s mother.” When the research participants were asked to list the characteristics of a hero, they said self-sacrifice and moral integrity. The real heroes are people we can look up to because they teach us how to live, not in a shallow or meaningless way, but in a true and authentic manner. They have taken up their cross, and despite the pain, they have known its reward and given genuine hope and inspiration to the rest of us. The Christmas tree is not meant to be our model; we are meant to be more than a decoration. The fruit tree might be a better model; we are meant to produce, at least to the level of talents given to us for our own use, and as near to a hundred fold as we can manage.
+Liam S. MacDaid