Each day, we make promises. For those of us who are married, we made promises to our spouses on the day of our marriage. “I promise to be true to you.” For those of us who are ordained, we made promises to our bishop on the day of our ordination as we placed our hands in his. “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” Even if we’re not married or ordained, a majority of us have affixed our signature to a loan document to obtain a car or home mortgage. Our signature assures the lender that we’ve promised to repay them over 3 or 10 or 30 years. Over and over, we make promises to spouses, bishops, lenders, children, and co-workers. And by quickly checking boxes on websites, we even make promises to vendors that we’ve meticulously read their terms & conditions.
In 1968, a song was released entitled “Promises, Promises” that was written by Burt Bacharach and sung by Dionne Warwick. Like all Bacharach-Warwick arrangements, it was catchy and memorable, so much so that the mere mention of it has likely set that tune off in your head. A couple of the verses remind us of promises that don’t bear good fruit and lead to disappointment, disillusionment, and personal destruction. But then there’s this verse: Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises can lead to joy and hope and love. And it’s this verse that, if the duo of Bacharach and Warwick had been around during the times of the early disciples, would likely have resonated with them.
For in the Acts of the Apostles (8:5-8, 14-17), we see St. Philip the Deacon going down to the city of Samaria and proclaiming his joy—Jesus Christ—-to the people.
Why? Because as God always does—-He has kept His promises through the covenants made with us. In Acts, however, these people were rejoicing in the fact that Jesus had Risen from the Dead! In the NRSV-CE, there are 43 results of the exact word, resurrection, used from as early as 2nd Maccabees (7:14) through the Book of Revelation (20:5-6). So, this is the first time in human history that ordinary people, like you and me, had experienced the reality described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:55): “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
And so, St. Philip rejoiced and spread the Good Word despite the reality that enemies of Jesus continued to surround him and the other disciples. In the end, however, they had no power over them. What could they do to them? Kill them? In the event of such a fate, they would become martyrs for Jesus and live with Him in eternity! Given this, with courage and conviction and belief in the Resurrection, Acts tells us that unclean spirits, crying out in loud voices, came out of many people. And that many paralyzed and crippled people were cured. And there was great joy in that city! Having predicted the joy that would be experienced by Philip and the early disciples centuries before, the Psalmist (66) admonished that we should “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name; proclaim his glorious praise.”
But today, I wonder. How many of us can truly say that we are experiencing that same joy? Sure, we experience God’s joy on the occasions of marriages and births and graduations. But do we experience joy in our disappointments, illnesses, and losses?
For those I’ve spoken with through the years, a majority categorize such “low” events by the year in which they occurred. For some of us, perhaps the current year is “the” year.
For me, the year was 2005. Early March began with great joy. For it was during that month my wife and I learned that a new member of our family would soon join us. Not long afterward, we found that it would be a son. Now as the father of four daughters, this news brought a special joy and very soon thereafter, I began preparing his nursery. Having painted blue the walls and set “boy” things in a house filled with “girl” things, I dreamed. As the great St. Teresa of Avila said: “May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.” And at that moment, my wife and I felt we were exactly where God had meant us to be.
As the months rolled by, to quote another saint, “All was well.”
Until the day before the Feast of All Souls when a final ultrasound revealed a field of darkness. Our son had died. And we returned home. That afternoon, a priest friend visited. In a private moment in our living room, he told me: “Kurt, don’t worry about your son. He is in good hands.”
That evening, my wife and I wept and barely slept knowing that which awaited us.
The next day, shortly after we settled into the delivery room at the hospital, a doctor solemnly entered our room and administered an ultrasound. And as he did, I remember bargaining with God in the quiet of my mind. “Restore our little boy’s life.” Or, “If only one of us can live, then take me.”
Shortly after my silly petitions, they broke my wife’s water and the hours passed by. At one point, I remember noticing that my wife was praying and asked her what she was praying for. She told me “that she was joining her suffering to the suffering of Christ.” My thought? I was in the joyful presence of a saint—a saint trusting in God when all hope seemed to have evaporated.
And just before midnight, I remember her being surrounded by doctors and nurses as our son was delivered and placed in his grieving mother’s arms. In the quiet of that moment, we did not experience the joy of a newborn baby’s cry. But we did feel the presence of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. And we did rejoice in the Resurrection and God’s promise that in the end, we would one day see him again and that in the end, “All would be well.”
Returning to Philip and those early disciples, they spread the joy of Jesus Christ among the people knowing full well that their lives were in jeopardy. But they were living in Christ!!! To repeat the words of Teresa of Avila, they trusted in God and believed they were exactly where they were meant to be.
These many years later, isn’t the same true for you and me? Aren’t we exactly where God has meant us to be? In our families. In our parishes. In our communities. And aren’t we, Jesus’ present-day disciples, called to be His eyes and arms and feet?
As St. Peter (3:15-18) has told us, when it comes to Jesus, we are in a special relationship. Jesus has given us life and given up His life so that we might have life—-abundantly. And we should always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our love and hope and joy.
In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi wrote these words to those entering his growing religious community. Today they are also for us: “Let the brothers [and sisters] ever avoid appearing gloomy, sad, and clouded, like the hypocrites; but let every one of us be found joyous in the Lord, happy, amiable, and gracious.”