Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on August 17 and 18, 2013 for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C at the 6:00PM (Vigil), 8:00AM and 10:30AM Masses
When you visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. you cannot help but notice the mosaic behind the altar. It is made up of about 3 million tiles, covers 3,600 square feet, and the top of it is 15 stories above you. It is called Christ in Majesty and at one time it was the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world. But the size is not what gets your attention, what gets your attention is that Jesus is portrayed differently than how we normally see him. Christ sits on the Throne of Judgment draped in a red garment that exposes the bulging muscles in his arm and chest, a flaming halo surrounds his blond hair, and his blues eyes seem to pierce right through you, into your very soul, as he sternly gazes at you.
Many people have called it angry, scary, or even creepy. The mosaic is really quite different from most pictures that we are used to seeing of Jesus: the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, or the Good Shepherd. I mention the Christ in Majesty mosaic because it is similar in tone to today’s gospel. Jesus speaks very differently from how we normally hear him in the gospels, almost angry or scary: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”After we hear statements like that from Jesus we might ask ourselves, “Did Jesus really say that? OK, maybe he said it, but he really didn’t mean it, did he?”, because Jesus says things in today’s gospel that are very different from the messages of peace, love, mercy, and forgiveness that we are used to hearing.
I often watch evangelists on TV and sometimes I even debate them as they preach their sometimes distorted view of Christianity. It’s easy to see why they fill large auditoriums and arenas with followers because their basic message is that being a Christian is easy. Become a Christian and suddenly our life is different, suddenly every day is a Friday (to borrow a title from one of their popular books), suddenly God has made you the center of the world. But every day of our life as a Christian is not Friday, in fact often it can seem like a month of Mondays. And as Christians God does not make us the center of the world, quite the opposite, we are to make God and others the center of the world.
They make it seem all “unicorns and rainbows.” I love that expression. When someone makes things out to be simple and easy, without problems or difficulties, who makes everything seem wonderful, they are said to be all “unicorns and rainbows” because they are either living in a fantasy world or distorting reality. Today’s gospel reading is not all “unicorns and rainbows.” Today Jesus is not distorting the truth for us, he is telling it like it is. Being a Christian is not always easy; in fact, sometimes it can actually be quite difficult. Being a Christian is not all “unicorns and rainbows.” The gospel lets us know that there are things about being a Christian that can be difficult.
First, being a Christian involves sacrifice. In today’s gospel Jesus says, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” Jesus is not talking about his baptism by John in the Jordan, that event had already happened earlier in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is talking about his sacrifice, his doing his Father’s will and not his own, giving his life on the Cross for us. Being a baptized Christian is about following the example of Jesus Christ, so being a Christian involves our own sacrifice, to do God’s will for our lives and not our own, to give ourselves in service to God and to others, to make our faith the center of all we do.
A week ago there was the story from Missouri of the “angel priest” that miraculously appeared at the scene of an accident to pray, anoint, and calm a young woman trapped in her severely damaged vehicle. It was seen as a miracle, an angel sent from God. But this past week a priest came forward to say that he was the one that had prayed with the woman, not an angel. Suddenly it was no longer a miracle. But just because it was a man and not an angel does not mean that God was not at work. God does most of his work through ordinary human beings like ourselves. When we sacrifice time from our busy lives to stop to help those in trouble or in need, God is working through us.
Next, as a Christian we suffer opposition. While we are certainly not going to suffer crucifixion as Christ did or be thrown into a cistern to die as Jeremiah was in today’s first reading, but Christians do often suffer opposition for their faith in today’s society. We certainly can attend Mass each week without having protestors outside hurling rocks at us or burning the church down, which has unfortunately been happening in Egypt for the past week, but except for the occasional prayer service after a disaster or other tragedy, society is uncomfortable with faith. But as Christians are called to make faith part of who we are, to make it part of our society: how we build our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses, and how we shape our communities and the world. It would change everything.
Lastly, being a Christian separates us from others. The message of being a Christian is often so different from the rest of the world. But pressures against our faith should not deter us from standing up for what is right, because as Pope Francis reminds us, people of faith must also be people of justice in the world. We must protest abortion, support the dignity of life, and protect the sanctity of marriage. We must stand up for what is right and just. We are called to set the earth on fire with our faith, even when it is not popular.
Our faith does indeed divide and separate us, and on the day we stand before the Throne of Judgment it will again separate us, separate us from those that will see the angry and scary Christ in Majesty depicted at the Basilica in Washington, D.C., and put us with the loving, merciful, and forgiving Christ and all his angels and saints for eternity. Being a Christian in this life is not all “unicorns and rainbows,” but it leads to eternal rewards beyond all imagining in the next life.
So as we come forward to receive our Lord in the Eucharist today, let us be strengthened by our God who knows what it means to suffer and sacrifice for what is right and just. Let us accept him into our hearts and into the world and into society so that each of our days this week can be days that the Lord has made and so that one day we can rejoice and be glad, for all eternity.