Normally, on September 8 each year, the Church proclaims the readings from the birthday of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If she was conceived on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, then we go forward 9 months to the day of her birth, September 8.
But falling on a Sunday this year, as will December 8 also, we blow out the candles for Mary’s birthday and light the candles for Jesus’ resurrection, as we do every Sabbath. Thus, our readings direct us toward that great event that will consume our lives on the day of the Lord, the day Jesus returns in glory and comes to snatch you out of your grave, to snatch you from the jaws of hell, to raise your undefiled and never again to be corrupted body to the place where Blessed Mary prays and waits for us.
Along the way, meaning now, we seek to build a tower. Building it through the countless blessings that God extends to us as we journey as pilgrims. And we’re all in different places on this road to salvation. A father who’s supposed to hate his children according to the words of Jesus – can you believe we still worship him after speaking those words? – the father is further along the path than the child. We’re all in different spots on this journey, as long as we make it to old age. And that’s no guarantee for some of us.
Remember when our past President spoke what became a popular phrase during his Presidency, “You didn’t build that!” Well, there is some truth to those words. You didn’t build your body. God created you. You were created in the mind of God. You had no say in your existence. So you didn’t build your nose, your legs, your voice, or your brain. I suspect if we all built our brains, we’d be someone else right now. I’d be John Paul II. I wouldn’t just look like him, I’d think like him.
But, constructing our tower, and making sure we have enough tools to finish the job, is not beyond our talent. It is within the circle and reach of our talent. We have much say in how this tower continues to be built. God does not control us. But he does, in his unconditional love, provide the tools to finish the work we’re responsible for, each of us in a unique way particular to our lives.
First, the hating family teaching by Jesus in this Gospel does not mean hate your family literally. These words of Christ do not give free reign to family strife. God is always the God of love. These words – at least in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church of Jesus Christ – we do not take literal. They’re spoken for the purpose of loving our Creator and Savior above all. Christ teaches radical love, not pure hatred. The hatred here in the Gospel points to a prioritized love. The priority of eternal concerns over temporal goods, which includes our families.
Second, the tower we build, and have so much say in building it, must be finished by the time the angels come for our souls. It must be completed, even if the angels show up unexpectedly or unannounced on a day and hour we don’t know. There are many spiritual and physical directions to travel with this tower-building image that Jesus speaks. But I offer you just one. And we’ll use today’s second reading as a proper example.
Paul is in prison. No big shocker there. Prison was his second home for preaching Christ as Lord. Paul has a guy from the outside serving his needs while in prison. Back then, if there was no one to serve your basic needs in prison, you would die in prison by starvation and thirst. There were no 3 square meals a day in the prisons of the Roman Empire. The guy serving the basic needs of Paul, ironically, is a slave. The slave is free, he’s not in prison, and Paul the free man who is a slave for Christ, has lost his physical freedom.
The slave’s name is Onesimus. Paul writes a letter to the master of Onesimus, whose name is Philemon. And Paul basically says, “Philemon, I’m sending Onesimus back to you, although I need him more than you do. When he returns after be AWOL from you,” – literally absent without permission from his master – “I want you to treat him kindly because his kindness toward me has saved my life.” And then Paul writes this one point of tower-building for every Christian. He writes, “In fact, Philemon, I not only want you to be kind to Onesimus, but if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” Welcome this slave equally as you would welcome an Apostle of the Lord.
What Paul is teaching Philemon is that this fellow Christian, Onesimus the slave, has the very same dignity, worth, and equality before God. Paul has finished constructing his tower. He will live for more years. But his tower of Christian love is built, and will be standing on the day the angels appear and take his soul to God. For our tower to be finished and ready for the day and hour when the angels come by, it is fundamentally Christian to live the truth that Christ died for all. Or, as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “for the many,” which means all. He did not die for any of us more than he did for someone else, such as someone in prison. He died for all of us, every person, equally, with unconditional love. Our Christian tower is completed when we treat all people as having equal dignity in the eyes