August 14, 2022 – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Words from our 2nd reading today from the 12th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
Our readings today challenge our usual ways of thinking, for they do not present the Christian lifestyle as full of a sweet peace nor is our way of life an easy observance of the commandment of love. Rather, they speak to the intensity that marks the climate proper to an authentic Christianity. This should make us stop and think: What are our readings tell us? What is happening here? What can they add to our understanding?
In our first reading, the nation of Israel is in full blown crisis mode as they are about to be conquered by the Babylonians after years of fighting and continuously yielding up influence. All the while, the prophet Jeremiah has been going about lamenting how the nation of Israel has ultimately gone astray by abandoning God and God’s ways and so preached repentance. As a result of speaking such difficult truth to power, political power plays are made against Jeremiah and he is thrown in a cistern and is left to die. The civil unrest in the Kingdom of Israel is tangible and the great tensions are unleashed upon people of good will. How very much like our own times, when we feel the unrest in our country over many issues, while the good truths of religion are continuously disregarded, such as the presence of Christ in the sacraments, Jesus’ teachings, and our work of service to humanity, to name a few – each important aspects of our identity and all swept aside and forgotten by more and more Americans amid the heavy scrutiny of immoral men. It is not easy today to be prophetic, let alone be a person of faith.
This is reinforced furthermore, by the picture Jesus paints of himself in this gospel. This passage is troubling if we think of Jesus only under the image of a gentle Messiah who comes in peace and yet, here Jesus insists that his coming can also be comparable to a dramatic prophetic visitation that will set the world on fire. As such, his coming will force the issue of adjusting our priorities based primarily upon faithfulness to God and his Kingdom. It is not that Jesus is eager for these disturbing events and resulting divisions to unfold; rather, he himself burns with such zeal for the accomplishment of his mission for the conversion of souls to God, which in calling for radical change, will inevitably include such consequences. Some years ago, Karl Rahner prophesied that the Christian of the future will either be a spiritual mystic or will not exist at all. We too must be baptized, be immersed deeply in that zeal, be set on fire for the Lord or risk joining all those who have drifted away from their faith altogether.
The Christian journey of faith is long and arduous, and we will need help along our way. Sometimes, this help comes from the most unlikely of places. We heard today how Jeremiah’s life was saved through the intercession of Ebed-melech, who was actually the foreign ambassador to Israel of all people, and was appalled by the rampant injustice he found within Israelite society. And just as we may come to realize that those closest to us are unfortunately not supportive of our goals and our values, so we can also discover others who belong to the family of Christ, brothers and sisters of the Lord who truly appreciate the stands we take and the directions we set for ourselves. The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. These are the saints living and deceased who make this journey alongside us. We can think of the many heroes and saintly figures who have personally impacted our own lives by the sacrifices they have made and the great care that they exhibit towards us. I can name them for myself: grandpa, my parents, Mr. Morcelle, Ron Adamczak, Ms. Kor, Fr. Jim Walter, Fr. Walt Szczesny, Fr. Bryan, and many others besides. Studies show that those who have five or more people who come into their lives to help them grow in discipleship will successfully integrate and authentically practice their faith going forward. I hope you can name your own heroes of faith who are the “saints next door” as Pope Francis calls them. Additionally, we have the many patronal saints who champion certain causes before the Lord, and we can pray to them for their assistance. St. Anthony helps us find lost things. St. Peregrine stands for those battling the plague that is cancer. St. Francis is concerned for animals and our pets. St. Jude is there to help those in hopeless situations. St. Catherine of Siena is the patron of nurses. There are thousands of saints who are praying for us. And every time we gather for the Eucharist, they are here present too all around us for our encouragement. Just as parents cheer on their kids their sports games and performances and just as the Buffalo Bills tout having a 12th man on the team when they play in front of their fans at New Era Field, the communion of saints is our own Catholic version of people cheering us on and tangibly supporting us in our journey through life. Most importantly, the real support and assistance we receive is from Jesus himself who came to set our hearts and the world on fire. He himself struggled through this life and rose from it victorious. He is our leader and the perfecter of faith. Having gone before us, he is our hope, that we may not grow weary or lose heart while likewise running towards our goal. The French Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously declared: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. May we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as our forerunner and goal, so that together with him and all those who joined to the Body of Christ, we may harness the energy of love and set the world afire.