May 9, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday of Easter
Reading I (Acts 14:21-27) Reading II (Revelation 21:1-5a)
Gospel (St. John 13:31-33a, 34-35)
In the second reading today from the Book of Revelation, we see Saint John’s vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. It is adorned as a bride for her husband, it is beautiful and spotless, it is without sin, and it is God’s dwelling place with men. It is the place that He Himself has chosen to create for us. As Saint John told us, the former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and God had now created a new heavens and a new earth. The reason for that is because our bodies will rise from the dead and will be reunited with our souls, and in that glorified state they will live forever. That means God will have to make a place that will be prepared for our glorified bodies, and that new heaven is something that is beyond our comprehension as to exactly what it is going to be. But what we do know, as we are told in Scripture, is that the heavens and the earth as we know them (by “heaven” we are not talking about the dwelling place of God; but rather “the heavens”, implying the whole universe: the planets, the stars, and all of the things that are out there) are going to pass away in fire and then God is going to make something new, something which is beautiful and perfect beyond our wildest imagination. He is going to create that because these bodies, which were conceived in the wombs of our mothers, are going to be reborn. We have already endured that rebirth in Baptism, but now there is going to be something that is even more profound when our bodies rise from the dead to be reunited with our souls and share in the very glory of the Risen Christ forever.
In order to be able to share in that glory, we have to be prepared. So we see in the first reading that Paul and Barnabas, as they retrace their steps through the churches they had founded, went about preaching to the people and encouraging them by saying, We must endure many hardships in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we stop to think for a moment about all the things Saint Paul must have told the people in these churches, there was only one thing that the Holy Spirit wanted to make sure we understood, and that is in order to be made perfect, in order to be prepared to enter into eternity, we must suffer many hardships. This is not, of course, the typical American way of thinking about things. Tragically, by many who have been affected by non-Catholic ways of thinking, it has become the way that many Christian people also think things should be. They reason things out by saying things like, “Jesus suffered for you, and therefore He doesn’t want you to suffer. Jesus wants you to be happy and rich. Jesus wants your life to be easy and fun.”
Now it is not like Our Lord is up there trying to concoct ways to make us suffer; He is certainly not a sadist. Yet, at the same time, when we consider what needs to happen in order to make us perfect – and that is what He wants; recall that is a command He gave to each one of us: to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and to be holy because God is holy – we have to go to the Cross. When we look at the Cross objectively, of course, we recognize the beauty; when we are on the Cross, however, we tend not to notice the beauty quite so much. We even tend, in our humanness, in our weakness, to complain, to scream out, to wonder why God is doing these awful things to us. Sometimes we even ask Him to take it away or we threaten to quit, as though that is really much of an option for us.
But what we find in the midst of the suffering is really just how weak we are. How we would like to be able to boast of our holiness, to boast of our strength, to boast of our virtue! But anyone who has been allowed to share in the suffering of Christ knows better than trying to do something like that because they know fully well that they cannot. They become aware of their weakness. They become aware that there is nothing they can do on their own, which is exactly what Our Lord tells us (but most of us do not really believe Him anyway) when He says, Apart from Me you can do nothing. Tragically, most of us do not really understand that or believe it until we are crushed, until there is no other possible way that we can weasel around it, and therefore we finally turn to the Lord because we have tried everything else and nothing else has worked, and so maybe we will give that a try. When we see it that way, we have to acknowledge that there must be something that is lacking in our faith since turning to the Lord is usually the last thing on the list rather than the first.
It is through these sufferings that the Lord purifies us, and at the end of that second reading, we hear those beautiful words: Behold, I make all things new. It is a new creation. Not only is God going to re-create the heavens and the earth, He is going to re-create each one of us, in essence, because our bodies are from the earth. Therefore, if there is going to be a new earth, a glorified place, it will be for our glorified bodies. We look at the Gospel reading today and Our Lord tells us, Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him. These words were spoken at the Last Supper, immediately after Judas had received the Eucharist and had betrayed Our Lord. The glorification of Christ came through His suffering. The greatest glory He received upon earth was to be lifted up on the Cross so that He could draw each one of us to Himself. He tells us that God is glorified in Him, and in fact that it is in this way that God has glorified Christ. So we see the pattern for ourselves. It is through the suffering that we are purified to become true members of that Mystical Body of Christ, to be fully incorporated into Christ and perfected in Him so that we are made to be that bride who is pure and spotless, who is beautifully adorned for her Spouse. We become that new creation and we share, then, not only in the suffering of Christ here, but we share in His glory. That is the pattern the Lord has laid out for us. It is the pattern of holiness that every saint has walked. It is the same path of holiness that Our Lord invites each one of us to walk upon.
There is only one way we are going to be able to do that, and that is once again shown to us in the Gospel when Our Lord says, I give you a new commandment, that you love. Again, when we just stop and ponder that for a moment, we begin to see just how tragic the effects of sin are in our lives. God created us to love, and sin has so harmed our ability to do what we were created to do that God Himself had to come into this world in human form and command us to do the very thing that He created us to do. In order to be able to truly love – because love by its nature is something which is selfless; it is a total giving of self – requires that we have to die to self. And the only way to die to self is through the crucible of the Cross, to suffer. He is asking us to share in His love. That is the invitation He is giving us. And if we are going to say “yes” that we are willing to love Him and love the people around us, that means we have to walk the same path He did. When you look at the Cross, what you find is the perfect act of love; and each one of us is invited to share in the very love of God. Love, as we know, is demonstrated in suffering. We can think that we love someone; but then when things become difficult, we begin to notice the doubts creep in. We wonder if we even want to stay around and deal with this person anymore. So we begin to see how weak we really are and how little we actually love. In this new creation that God makes of each one of us through the suffering that we accept, what He is really doing is remaking us in the true image of Himself. He is making us to love. He is purifying us so that we will be able to do the very thing that is the most dignified and the most perfect, to be able to do the one thing that will glorify God the most – that is, to love.
Now we should not be surprised by any of this because it follows exactly what happens on the natural level. As we celebrate today this wonderful day in honor of mothers, we just stop and think about what a mother has to endure. What is even most amazing is what a woman will willfully accept – and even embrace and desire – for the sake of a baby, all of the suffering she has to endure throughout the time that she is with child: being ill, being in pain in many ways as her body is stretched in a variety of different forms, and then to endure the single most painful thing a human being can endure, that is, giving birth. She carries the pain of her child in every little thing that happens in that child’s life: every time the little baby falls down when he is trying to learn to walk, the heartaches the child endures as he endures the various rejections of people at school and friends, even all the difficulties as we grow into adulthood and throughout our lives. Our mothers carry all of that right in their hearts. And it is when we see that within ourselves that we are able to say, “Look at how much she loves me.”
All we have to do is look at our own lives from the beginning. Conceived in love, each one of us comes into this world through suffering. The process of childbirth is not something that is fun for the baby anymore than it is fun for the mother. And then there are the various difficulties and struggles that we have to endure right from the beginning of our lives. We see the pattern is there on the natural level. If we are going to be born, it is in love but it is also in suffering. If we are going to be reborn, it is in love and it is to share the suffering of Christ. And if we are going to be glorified with Him, it is going to be in suffering, it is going to be to share in His Cross. But it is not suffering for the sake of suffering; it is not suffering like a wounded animal suffers. It is human suffering. It is something which is entirely dignified because it is a share in the very suffering of Jesus Himself; therefore, it is love. So our conception is in love, our birth is in love, our rebirth is in love, our glorification is in love.
That is what Our Lord is calling us to, to be able to share in His love, to be able to love as He has loved us. He tells us that is the way people will know we are His disciples: by our love. Not by gushy feelings, not by mere emotion, but by true virtue, to pour ourselves out, to die to self, to give even when it hurts, to have the exact same kind of attitude toward the people who would consider us their enemies, and who, on the natural level, love us the least as we have toward the people who are the closest to us and love us the most. That is the love Jesus has demonstrated to us, and He is asking us to love one another in the same way that He has loved us. Just take a moment and think about your life, your day-to-day life. Think about the people in it. Maybe it is one of your neighbors, maybe it is someone at work or someone at school, maybe it is someone inside your own house. Who are the people that are most difficult for you to deal with? Our Lord is telling us that we will know we are His disciples by the way we love those people, by the way we treat them, by our attitude toward them. When we are able to love those people the way that we love our own children or our own parents, then and only then can we say that we have been perfected. Then we can say that we are loving as Jesus loves, and then we can say with Jesus that God is glorified in us because only then are we doing what we were created to do: to love and to be loved, to share in the very love of Christ, to be created anew, to be made perfect.
That is what Our Lord desires for each of us if we are willing. He will not force it on us, but He invites us to walk the path to Calvary and to be made anew in the image and likeness of God so that we can love as we were created to and as we have been commanded to so that God will be glorified in us.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.