Sunday, March 17, 2019

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

(Second Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 17, 2019 at St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9: 28b-36.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2019]

Someone sent me this story a while back, via e-mail:

Two travelling angels stopped to spend the night in the home of a very wealthy family.  The family was rude and refused to let the angels stay in the guestroom of their mansion.  Instead, the two heavenly visitors were given a small space in the cold, damp basement of the house.  As they were making up their beds on the hard floor, the older angel spotted a hole in the wall and proceeded to repair it.  When the younger angel asked the older one why he did it, he replied, “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

The next night the pair came to rest at the house of a very poor but very hospitable farmer and his wife.  After sharing the little food they had, the couple allowed the angels to sleep in their bed so that they would get a good night’s rest.  When the sun came up the next morning, the angels found the farmer and his wife in tears: their one cow, whose milk had been their only source of income, lay dead in the field.

The younger angel was infuriated, and later that day he said to the older one, “How could you have let this happen?  The first family was unkind and had everything, yet you helped them!  The second family had very little—although they were willing to share whatever they did have—and you allowed their cow to die!”

“Things aren’t always what they seem,” the older angel answered.  “When we stayed in the basement of the mansion, I noticed there was gold stored in the wall, which had been left there many years ago.  Since the man and his family were so obsessed with money and unwilling to share their good fortune, I sealed the wall so they wouldn’t find the gold.  Then, last night, as we slept in the farmer’s bed, the angel of death came for his wife.  I gave him the cow instead.  Things aren’t always what they seem.”

I’m not so sure that’s how God’s angels would actually deal with such situations, but—theological accuracy aside—the main point of the story is definitely a valid one: things aren’t always what they seem.

This is a truth which stands behind the Gospel passage we heard a few moments ago—that famous text from Luke 9.  In fact, I would call it one of the crucial lessons that Jesus wanted Peter, James and John to learn prior to the events of the first Holy Week.  And so—to drive home the point in powerful and vivid manner—our Lord took these men up Mount Tabor one day, and gave them a glimpse of his heavenly glory: he was transfigured before their eyes, and seen in conversation with Moses and Elijah.  After the experience was over, I can imagine Jesus saying to these 3 apostles, as they were descending the mountain together: “Remember, gentlemen, things aren’t always what they seem!  I know in many ways I may seem to be an ordinary man: I eat, I sleep, I laugh and I cry just like you all do.  But the fact is, I am NOT an ordinary man.  You just saw that truth attested to in a powerful way on this mountain.  Never forget it!”

Here Jesus was training his apostles to face the disappointments and trials of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  In order to deal with the tragedy of those days successfully, these men needed to understand that things were not always as they seemed to be when it came to Jesus.  Because—let’s face it—on Holy Thursday and Good Friday Jesus and his mission seemed to be finished!  When he was hanging on that Cross, for example, Jesus seemed to be guilty and full of sin; he seemed to be a criminal; he seemed to be a total failure; he seemed to be powerless; he seemed to have been abandoned by his heavenly Father.  And yet, in reality, the exact opposite was true: he was not guilty, he was innocent—completely innocent!; he wasn’t a criminal, but he was dying for criminals; he seemed to be a failure, but he was in fact accomplishing the mission the heavenly Father had given him—and he was doing it to perfection; he seemed to be powerless, but this was actually the moment when he demonstrated his greatest power by atoning for the sins of the whole world; it seemed that his heavenly Father had abandoned him, but in truth his Father was right there, ready to receive his spirit after his perfect act of sacrifice and atonement. 

To the naked eye Jesus seemed to be finished, but in 3 short days he would rise from the dead and begin to give hope to the entire human race—the hope of sharing eternally in the glory of his resurrection.

Things are not always what they seem!

We, like the apostles, need to learn this crucial lesson—because it applies to so many dimensions of our lives.

For example, when we suffer, it may seem like God has abandoned us—but he hasn’t!  Suffering is not a sign that God doesn’t love us anymore.  The truth is, suffering can actually bring us into close union with the Lord.  As Mother Teresa once put it, “Suffering is a gift of God—a gift that makes us most Christ-like.  People must not accept suffering as a punishment.”

On the other hand, those who seem to be healthy and peaceful on the outside, may in fact be gravely ill on the inside.  In the mid-19th century, a man in this condition came to the town of Ars in France to do some duck hunting, and to catch a glimpse of Fr. John Vianney, who was becoming known throughout France for his holiness and his work as a confessor.  He came out of curiosity, not out of repentance.  He was crossing the street with his dog, when he finally ran into the holy priest.  Fr. Vianney (who at times had the gift of being able to “read hearts”) stopped, looked at the dog, then at the man, and he said, “Sir, it is greatly to be wished that your soul were as beautiful as your dog!” 

Things were not as they seemed to be!  By the way, this young man went to confession to Fr. Vianney shortly thereafter, and eventually became a religious brother.

This lesson also applies to many experiences in life which we would hastily call “failures.”  I’ll give you an example: a seminarian I know is currently teaching CCD to a group of 6th graders and having an awful time of it.  Apparently, he’s dealing with a very difficult class; the students are driving him crazy!  Jokingly he said to me one day, “Fr. Ray, I think God’s getting even with me, for what I put the nun through who taught me in the 6th grade!”

That nun—35 or so years ago—probably thought that she had failed with this young man.  She probably thought that she had wasted her efforts, and made no difference in his life.  But little did she realize—she was planting some of the seeds of a future vocation to the priesthood!  Things were not what they seemed.  Please hear that, frustrated parents and teachers!

And how about the application of this idea to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist?  Before the consecration of the Mass, the elements on the altar look like bread and wine.  After the consecration, the elements STILL look like bread and wine!  But the truth is: after the consecration the elements are no longer what they seem to be!  they are the very Body and Blood of the Savior of the world, given to us for our spiritual nourishment.

Jesus, at the Transfiguration, wanted to help his apostles to see things as they were—that was his desire!

Let’s ask the Lord for the same grace at this Mass: the grace to see ourselves as we really are—even if it means coming to terms with some serious sins; the grace to see Jesus as our powerful, loving Savior who has paid the full price for the forgiveness of our sins; the grace to see our sufferings as stepping stones to holiness; the grace to see how God can use even our apparent failures for his glory; the grace to recognize the presence of Christ in the sacraments—especially the Holy Eucharist.

Lord Jesus Christ, in all these different dimensions of life, help us to remember that things are not always as they seem to be, and give us the vision to see things as they are.  Amen.