In the Gospel, Jesus is getting pretty antsy at this point in his public ministry: “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” So Jesus won’t be without his anguish until he actually carries a cross for our salvation, going through all types of suffering along the way. Until then, our Lord will be anxious, antsy, in a hurry to accomplish the goal, finish the mission, seal the deal, close the door on the effects of sin.
It sort of reminds me of the Red Sox at this point. It seems like they’ve been in 1st place for an awful long time during this baseball season. And it’s to the point now, approaching the end of August, where some of us may start to get a little antsy and concerned about them finishing in first place. Are they going to carry a cross and die? Or, are they going to keep their heads above water and make the playoffs? We know what happened with Jesus. We know how that story finished; with victory from an empty tomb. But we don’t know how this team from Beantown will finish the year.
Jesus is in a little bit of a nervous rush, though, to accomplish the will of his Father, which is to bring us home. And in order to accomplish God’s will, Jesus becomes the realist. His invitation to join him in carrying a Cross and all that goes with it will at times include some rather difficult circumstances in life; a father against a son; a mother against a daughter, and so forth. Family discord, he says. A very uncomfortable Gospel indeed.
So, in these difficult circumstances that may arise within families due to God’s personal call, I extend a couple thoughts. First, what I call the great misinterpretation of these words of Christ. And second, a solemn interpretation of where Jesus is going with these strong words that can and will unsettle parents and their children, or they can lead to a joy that God extends by way of grace.
The great misinterpretation of the hard words of Jesus in this Gospel, which I have seen lived out firsthand, is that such division is somehow supposed to happen in families. A parent against a son or daughter. We’re not supposed to have discord and division in our families. Any division is not supposed to happen. But it can and will happen.
It’s not uncommon that division within families will happen because God is calling an individual within a family to a certain vocation in life. One reason for such division can be found in the words of a German Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who was killed by the Nazis just prior to the end of World War II. Bonheoffer wrote, “When God calls a man, he bids him come and die.” When God calls woman, he bids her come and die.
What can and will cause division in families are the two forms of dying; the dying here can and may be literal, like it was for Bonheoffer, and Catholic saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, or the former Edith Stein who became St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. They are all martyrs of World War II. But no one wants to see a family member die, even if it’s for the faith.
Or, dying may be realized in the living out of a vocation. Die to oneself and live for God. Be rid of the world and live for eternity. This dying will cause division because it takes a person we love away from material pursuits. Success today is measured by money and fame. Not by giving one’s life to God our Creator.
I’ve seen it and heard enough times now where God was bidding a son or daughter to religious life, and such bidding has been cause for division within a family. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. There should be support, encouragement, and love. But sometimes when Jesus calls a son or a daughter to carry his Cross on his behalf, there is division between parent and offspring. The great misinterpretation of Jesus’ words of division says this is what’s supposed to happen. It not supposed to happen. But it can and it will happen, Jesus says. Why? Because when God calls a man, he bids him come and die. And some parents and grandparents don’t like that.
The solemn interpretation of Jesus’ words in this Gospel is realized in the living out of our baptism. Very simply, there are times where we live our faith and it’s going to rub someone the wrong way. Too many Catholics today question their faith to the point of rejecting it at times, or shutting off the faucet when the waters of Baptism should be flowing forth. The old familiar term is Cafeteria Catholicism. And one of the many reasons for Cafeteria Catholicism is the fear of offending someone who may disagree with our words and/or actions in the faith.
The solemn interpretation of Jesus’ words for all of us is that we be true to our faith. We can certainly question, and I pray that we do. But the sort of questioning that will lead to a deeper faith in Christ. And that’s something no human being or institution should ever get in the way of. We see this playing out today on a national level with the religious liberty issue. A government that is trying to force religious people to participate in an immoral act, such as making available pills that will directly cause an abortion. There needs to be division on this issue, otherwise we water down our faith. And that’s not an option.
When God bids us, he bids us to come and die. Whether in priesthood, religious life, or out in the world. And we embrace the whole of our baptism. These are not supposed to cause division. But Jesus the realist lets us know that there are times when they can and they will.
Many times I find it so easy to fall in love. (No need to worry. I’m not leaving the priesthood). It’s easy to fall in love with the teachings of our faith because of where they will lead us.
But sometimes it isn’t easy. Like, “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” It’s very difficult to love that fundamental Christian truth. It’s much easier to divorce ourselves from such words than it is to fall in love with them. Yet, if we were to fall in love with those hard words, those nearly impossible teachings of our Lord, we would be spiritually rich.
But some teachings of our Catholic faith are easy to walk side-by-side and hold hands with. What we celebrate today is one of those teachings that makes it easy to love the ways of God.
In the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, body and soul into heaven, we are given a future vision of ourselves. Not the moment of our death, but the vision of Jesus returning in glory. It’s so easy to fall in love with this revelation of Christian faith, where God’s power will raise us up to enjoy the fruits of our Christian labor. That this is what awaits those who serve God so faithfully in this world in like manner of Mary, who is the best of all servants.
Yet, there are folks who have a difficult time seeing themselves as being part of what we celebrate on this holy day of Mary’s Assumption. That our bodies will one day be assumed into the glory of heaven, whatever that looks like, and enjoy the gathering that awaits. “Could God really be that nice,” they wonder? “Could God really be that powerful,” they ask? Well, if God can bring the Red Sox a World Series title or two, then nothing is impossible for God.
The feast of the Assumption of Mary is a celebration every year on August 15 of why the body, why our bodies, are at the heart of our eternal destiny. I wonder if we are too much in the false mindset and unfinished belief that after our death and prior to our resurrection is the final statement on our condition. That when we stand face to face with God in our spiritual bodies the moment after death has done its work, that there’s nothing else significant to come. The Assumption says that there is more to come.
The importance and significance of what we do in our present bodies is backed up in Mary being assumed into heaven. Actions such as reaching out to those in need, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, holding a door for someone, saying the good things that people need to hear. All these actions of the body correspond to Mary being assumed body and soul into heaven. God is not negative on the human body, and neither is our Christian faith. The many good works and acts of love that come from the heart moving the limbs of our bodies to raise up the fallen and give comfort to the dying, these are necessary for entrance through the Pearly Gates.
It’s easy to fall in love with the teachings of our faith, especially those connected to Mary. They are beautiful teachings. They raise our souls in the present so that our bodies will come to Mary’s condition in heaven. What Mary has eternally, every one of us should want. No need to fight it or doubt it. It’s easier to accept the fullness of our condition reflected in God’s favor to His most holy Mother.
Wisdom 18:6-9 Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19 Luke 12:32-48
In medical circles it’s called the NDE, or the near-death experience. And those few people who actually have one, or I should say those who are blessed to have one when a medical emergency takes place in their lives, they almost always come out of it with a more meaningful, more positive, less fearful attitude toward the afterlife. There’s no false bravado. But rather the attitude of “I can’t wait to get back there!”
The things that supposedly happen are the typical experiences associated with what we call the near-death experience; a white light; going down a tunnel; meeting relatives who have previously died – at least the ones not in Purgatory or that other place; a feeling of peace that cannot be known in this life; joy; happiness; a loss of any fear of dying, just to name a few. Sounds like an experience all of us should be envious of, minus the medical emergency. But it seems the medical emergency is the only door that opens to the near-death experience and all that follows.
For those few people who go through such a life-altering event, they are blessed with a special grace from God for whatever God’s mysterious reasons happen to be. The chosen few don’t have to be saints. God doesn’t restrict such graces to those trying their best to live lives of faith in Jesus his Son. He loves the sinner and the atheist as much as He loves the saintly person doing works of charity and sustaining an active, strong daily prayer life. This is a reflection of God’s love and not the standards of human love. God is forever inviting the great sinners and unbelievers of our time back to His love by way of graces that lead to conversion. And a near-death experience could be one of those graces. It’s a wake-up call, and God knows many folks are in need of one.
The purpose for addressing the topic of the near-death experience connects to the Gospel story of vigilance and being prepared and ready. Ready for what? Any guesses? Ready for the return of the Son of Man, as the Gospel says. Ready for the return of Jesus. The same religious belief that some religious fanatics today place their whole belief system on. They put all their Christian eggs into the one basket of Jesus’ return, when there’s so much more to enjoy in our faith.
However, in our faith, from the very first community of believers shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, into the first generation of Christian believers, they had been expecting Jesus to return. Apostles and all. Peter, Paul, and all of them expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes. This is both historical accuracy and theological belief. The theology of the first century Christians was that Jesus loved them so much, that he would return and rescue them – believers – from the waywardness and evil of the Roman Empire and the many false pagan gods. The same false pagan gods we see being resurrected and worshipped today. Along with the false pagan gods that have always been here with us; money, possessions, sexual practices, etc.
But Jesus was expected to return. And in our 2000 year old Catholic faith, it’s an
infallible teaching, divinely revealed and not of human origin, that Christ will return and hand over his Church to his heavenly Father. “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” Sounds like a fearful proposition, except if you’ve had a near-death experience. Then you’re not afraid of anything. “Bring it on, Jesus!”
Bu the return of Jesus can be seen in another healthy spiritual light of interpretation. The Gospel says gird your loins and light your lamps. Except the lamp here is not your typical lamp. An oil lamp will run out of oil. A bulb will eventually blow. And we can’t hold a match for years on end. The lamp to be lit is the human heart, Jesus says. A heart that is lit for Christ will stay lit, and what keeps it lit is the grace of God that is so generous and abundant to the heart that seeks God in this world.
So another way of seeing the return of Jesus is not only through the near-death experience, but through the actual, your time is up, real and true death experience. Where’s there’s no coming back. In our death, Jesus returns. He comes to us. This is what returning is; Jesus coming to us. He embraces us. He invites us. He welcomes us. He tells us, “Do not be afraid.”
In the early Church, the first Christians prepared for the Lord, who would come at an unexpected hour, by way of looking up to heaven expecting to see Jesus coming on the clouds to bring them home. We still live in that time. It’s a fundamental, unending teaching of our faith until Jesus does return.
But today Jesus can also be seen returning to us when we leave time and enter eternity. Our going to him is also his return to us. Our death is a transformation that brings our Lord to us in the most explicit form. And because most of us are not aware of when that moment will occur, a moment that can and probably will sneak up on us like a thief in the night, we are to be prepared.
Preparation is of the lamp, to keep our hearts lit in anticipation of our Savior coming to us. It shouldn’t take a near-death experience, or even a tough battle with disease. Just faith the size of a mustard seed. For our Lord is risen and so are we.
If you take a ride down Grove Street just past the North Works heading toward downtown Worcester, you can see a couple new buildings going up. When they started building them, the construction workers and anyone associated with building the structures, I remember thinking and asking myself, “What’s going up here?” If we don’t know, and we see a new building going up in Worcester, what also goes up is our level of curiosity. We’re a big small town here in Central Massachusetts, and whenever a project – a new project – is started, we want to know all the details. “Who’s building it? Why are they building it? What’s it going to be used for? How much in the way of finances and employment is it going to benefit our city? How tall is it going to be?” And so forth.
We’re a big small town here in the heart of the Commonwealth, which is why I can’t wait to retire to Myrtle Beach one day. But I’ll more than likely die with my boots on right here in the big small city before I can build my “barn” in Myrtle Beach. So maybe I’ll just buy a condo instead.
I believe those buildings going up next to the Veteran’s Shelter are associated with WPI, a school that has been very generous with our city, in this area especially, along with the Mass College of Pharmacy. They keep on building buildings or buying buildings. And it’s all good. On a community level, it’s very good in a number of ways.
But on the personal level of building more barns, and where Jesus goes with this Gospel story along with the first reading from Ecclesiastes, it is called it vanity. There exists the potential that building bigger structures for ourselves may not always be good. Jesus does not sound like a capitalist. But not to worry, he wasn’t a communist either, or a socialist for that matter. Jesus is a Savior. And the parables and images he uses to convey a sense of what’s important, of what matters in the end, are stories whose purpose is to bring us home. His love and concern for each of us on the personal level is so real and so true, that he comes right out to inform us, respectfully, that any desire and determination to build bigger personal barns in this world is a danger to our souls.
Jesus does not say, “Don’t do it! Don’t put up that bigger structure! Don’t buy that condo in Myrtle Beach!” He doesn’t say, “Sell that house on Cape Cod, in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Florida,” or wherever we happen to enjoy our time away from the big small city. Jesus, of all things, is not negative on the fruits of our labor. Our Lord supports the fruits of our labor that come by way of sweat, toil, stress, and anxiety, the daily struggle for many people to make ends meet. “Enjoy,” he says. “Enjoy what you have honestly worked for. But avoid the bigger barn theory. Stay away from the bigger barn personal project, because it can adversely affect our spirits and souls.”
Interestingly, (and I’ve heard this story a couple times) when the rectory here at Immaculate Conception was about to be built, Fr. Connors had the plans drawn up. At the time, Bishop Wright saw the plans and instructed Fr. Connors to downsize the original size of the rectory. My guess is that at the time Bishop Wright didn’t want Fr. Connors having a bigger and better house than he had on the west side. It was probably a personal thing. But the Spirit was still at work, and despite the downsizing, we still have a nice palace over here.
One reason why Jesus warns against the bigger barn theory is when any individual is driven so passionately to build a bigger barn for themselves, a “barn” here meaning a structure that is concerned solely about one’s own prestige, our Savior’s concern is that there could easily be no regard for charity and the poor. This is why Jesus calls attention to the person’s soul in the parable.
One of things I love about Pope Francis is that he so very much wants us to be a poor Church. It’s a call back to simplicity, and an invitation to serve the downtrodden. He believes the finances of the Church are best used when addressing the needs of the needy. “Care for the poor,” he says. Any Church that does this is going to be rich. There will be an abundance of graces for that community. And that one singular approach to living out our faith will draw 1000’s of people back to the practice of their faith. The heart of the Catholic Church is meant to be a generous and caring heart for all God’s children. When we get away from that, we lose people. This is why the Pope is trying to bring us back to the roots of the faith.
A second reason why our Savior is so concerned about the individual bigger barns is the reason of vanity. All is vanity. The word vanity pertains to our inability to take our material riches with us after we stop breathing. I’ve never seen a dead person packing a suitcase. We all know this. But we don’t always live like this, including yours truly.
The bigger barn theory tries to fool our souls. It attempts to draw us into a way of living and lifestyles where our concern for our possessions surpasses our vision of eternity. And it’s destroyed many families in the process. The guy in this parable lost sight of his own possible death, thus his eternal destiny. It took God to so shockingly remind him that he was mortal.
In modern times, I think of the prosperity gospel of televangelist Joel Osteen and see it as a spiritual contradiction to Jesus’ parable. I know there are many individuals who buy into his interpretation of the Gospel. It’s very, very, attractive. But it’s an interpretation that plays right into the bigger barn theory, where the greater attention is given to gaining, and not to giving. The greater attention is given to this life, and not so much to eternal life.
We are all carpenters and contractors. We all build. Every day we build. We build either bigger barns, or we build bigger hearts. Jesus always prefers the heart, while putting to good Christian use what’s in the barn.