Good Shepherd, Mitchley Road
10th June 2018 The Tenth Sunday of the Year
It may surprise you to know that as a child I longed to be the centre of attention. What’s changed? you may ask. Yes, sadly I am young enough for there to be home videos of me as a child and I loved being on camera: “Look at me!” As part of this everyone-look-at-me I remember I was mucking around once and I said to one of my Uncles, “Do you think I’m crazy, Uncle Michael?” He’s a slightly odd, thoughtful type man, who worked at the time for a mental health charity. So, in response to my question, “Do you think I’m crazy?” he stroked his beard and said, “No; you’re not crazy but the people I work with are.” It was a slightly deflating response to the nine year old who stood before him but it was a salutary reminder of those who do suffer with mental illness.
The crowds in this evening’s Gospel thought Our Lord was “out of His mind.” So extraordinary, so contrary to expected ways of behaving and being was what our Lord was proposing was that they thought He was crazy. We, my friends, are to be counter cultural, flowing against the tide of secularism and isolation and despondency and fear and self-publicity and we are to proclaim Christ and Him alone. All things, as Paul reminded the Corinthians in our second reading, are to be “to the glory of God.”
The crowds were probably serious in wondering if our Blessed Lord was indeed crazy, which he wasn’t, but I want to think this evening about suffering. Men and women were created very good because of God’s goodness and originally in Eden we see that human beings are at peace with God, at peace with each other and at peace with the rest of creation. That harmony is destroyed by our exercising our freedom to choose and choosing to sin. There are consequences to this, as we heard in our first reading from Genesis 3: the serpent is to crawl on its belly and will be henceforth at enmity with the woman.
Our suffering exists because after the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as God goes on to decree, that Eve would experience pain during childbirth; that the ground is cursed and that only through toil will humanity enjoy the fruits of the earth: “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). Thus the body falls in to decay: we get old, our bones start creaking, our back’s curving, our sight failing. It can be difficult as we see this in ourselves and are reminded of our own mortality, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we are reminded every Ash Wednesday at Mass. It can sometimes be even harder to see in those whom we love, the sufferings they endure, especially if they are young. It can indeed be particularly difficult to see people we love struggle with their mental health: frustrating because there is little that can be done to bandage them up; frustrating because they can say silly things, embarrassing things.
Atheists generally get angry about suffering because they see it as devoid of meaning; they may have created an idol for themselves in their own wellbeing and health and so when that is threatened, all seems lost. My friends, we should want to alleviate suffering when we see it but we are also to seek to find possible meaning in it, possible value. It might be that we are being tested. This is the purpose of the sufferings of Job in the Old Testament, you may recall. The Devil sees Job is a faithful follower of God but thinks he has had it too easy and does not think that Job will continue to be faithful if suffering comes. Job is beset with misfortune and ill health, his faith is tested and purified and this is a glorious thing. He reflects in the midst of his trials: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10).
For in the sufferings of Christ we see there is value and meaning to suffering. The prophet Isaiah foretold this long ago: “By his bruises we are healed … The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5,11). Christ, wonderfully and gloriously saved us by cancelling the debt of our sin. And He did this through sufferings. So when we suffer, we can unite our pains to those that Christ endured for our sake. The Apostles did this time and time again after His Resurrection in the Acts of the Apostles (5:41). As Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, who would later see him suffer and die for the sake of Christ: “[we are] heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if, in fact, we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17).
So when you are next ill or in pain, think of our Lord dying on the Cross for you: wonder what it was like for Him to die. Accept the humiliation or the suffering from that pain and see how much more Jesus, the Innocent One, suffered for your sake. You may even find yourself able to support someone to be deeper in their faith for if you suffer gladly; if you suffer well, you will inspire others. Paul realises this when he says, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking for the sake of His Body, that is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
When we suffer we are to know too what Paul was writing about in that second reading: that we are not called simply to this life: “Yes, the troubles which are soon over, though they weigh little, train us for the carrying of a weight of eternal glory which is out of all proportion to them. And so we have no eyes for things that are visible, but only for things that are invisible.” This is a wonderful privilege of our faith, to know the boundless treasures of life, which have nothing to do with treasures of this world. No matter how bad things get in this life, we know the glory of Heaven will be infinitely more wonderful.
For in Heaven, Mary is Queen. The serpent was warned in our first reading that his head would be crushed and he will strike at the heel as it crawls on its belly. Often statues of Our Lady have her crushing the serpent’s head, revealing that his power has been reversed by her saying yes to God. The Archangel says to Our Lady, “Hail Mary,” (Ave Maria in Latin), Ave = Hail, because Mary’s yes reverses the effects of Eve’s sinfulness, the disobedience of “Eva” in the Latin (A-v-e being E-v-a spelt backwards). Thus in the Apocalypse, the Revelation of St John, the dragon, the ancient serpent is thrown down having sought the child of the woman clothed with sun and adorned with a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1-6; 20:1-3).
The glory of Heaven is to be always on our minds, the glory which breaks through during this Mass, the glory which breaks through when we ask our friends in Heaven to pray, the glory which breaks through when we are in pain and do not only think about that, but think of the needs of others and rejoice that our sufferings may make us realise the height, the depth, the breadth and the length of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.