Sunday, May 1, 2011

Low Sunday (Octave of Easter)

1 John 5:4-10 / John 20:19-31

Today, Karol Wojtyla, our beloved Pope John Paul II, was declared a blessed of the Church. In the presence of more than a million of the faithful gathered in Rome, and countless millions more by television, by the internet, by radio, the great pontiff of the late twentieth century, who ushered the Church from the turbulence and chaos of the 1970s, through a failed attempt on his life and his forgiveness of the would-be assassin, his struggle against and the collapse of the Communist threat to the lives of millions of Christians in Europe, through the celebration of two millennia of the Incarnation of the Word, to his painful experience of debilitating illness in the sight of the whole world, until his final moments in the light of the Divine Mercy announced through St. Maria Faustina, this outstanding man, one of the leading figures of the Church in the twentieth century, was presented to the faithful for public veneration as a holy man of God.

There are many things one might credit as a sign of his holiness and contributions to the Church, so many achievements over so many years as the Vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter. However, above them all, what most stand out was his suffering. For John Paul II, human suffering was never an arbitrary condition, never something which just happened without any cause or reason. In the face of the suffering of others, and especially of the poor, of children, of the unborn, of the common laborer, Blessed John Paul presented a challenge to those who could use their power, their wealth, their influence, to make a difference. However, more than that, he spoke to those who endured the suffering. To them he spoke words of hope. To them, he urged his ceaseless refrain, which refrain he took as right for a vicar from the Lord himself: Be not afraid! To those who suffered, he offered not merely soporific consolations, but the firm assurance that in their suffering, in the experience of suffering for the sake of and in the context of love and faith in Jesus Christ, the Lamb once slain who lives for ever, there is no defeat, but only victory. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?

Of course, John Paul did not speak of suffering as one who knew not of what he spoke. He had known the terrors of the National Socialist occupation of his beloved Poland, even as he knew, and experienced directly, the evils of Communist oppression. He knew loss in his own family from an early age, the death of his mother in childhood, of his elder brother, and at the beginning of his maturity, of his father. He knew what it was to enter forced labor, as well as what it meant to study for the priesthood in secret. While long a vigorous and athletic man, a man whose body was itself, in his moments well dubbed theatrical in the best sense of the word, a tool for the Gospel, he experienced a painful decline, made all the more obvious to see with the rise of modern communication and the spread of the internet by the time of his death.

Yet, what John Paul II knew well, what our Scriptures today remind us, is that it is not so much the public, well-known witness, the visible martyrdom that is the field of victory for the Cross and the empty Tomb, but rather the hidden, unknown, unseen, and unheralded sufferings. Because thou hast seen Me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed. For those who need help, for whom the pains of daily life, the struggles of the laborer in the fields, in the mines, in the factory, in the sweatshops, God in his abundant mercy has set before our eyes the extravagant examples of faithfulness not merely in spite of, but in light of suffering as John Paul II. Even so, it is not these sufferings that are at the heart of the victory of the Cross. Rather, it is the unknown, the untold stories of faithful men and women, who suffer in their work and who suffer daily indignities for the faith, by which the victory of the Cross shines forth.

These lives of faithfulness, these lives which recapitulate in their own way the agony of the Cross and in their refusal to abandon love witness the victory over the world, are among the many other signs which Jesus did and continues to do which are not written in the Scriptures. It is by the sweat of the workers' brows, by the hunger of a mother who goes with nothing that her child might eat to live at least one more day, it is from such as these who, despite the cruel and iron mandates of the world, nonetheless do not abandon charity for their neighbor nor sweet devotion to Jesus Christ, that the victory of the Cross shines forth in dazzling beauty.

There is no situation so dark, no dilemma so heartbreaking, that Jesus, risen from the grave, cannot enter in. He can, of course, enter in with drama and undeniable presence, as he did through the locked doors for Thomas and, in the life of Blessed John Paul II, he does for us today. More than that, though, he enters through our lives through the witness of the suffering poor and the laborer whose lives, enshrouded though they be by misery, nonetheless shine forth in the splendor of the Resurrection. All of these, the public and extravagant, and the hidden and personal, happen so that they, and we, might know that over and against the most terrifying pretensions of the grave, Christ the Lord has risen, and we have nothing to fear from sorrow or tears, from the lash of the whip or nails or spears. Christ has risen from the Tomb, and in his rising, our suffering is not the end of joy, but the way to life eternal.

But these things are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God: and that, believing, you may have life in His name.

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