After listening to the readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, it is hard to say: “thanks be to God” or “praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” For each deals with pain and anguish: death, fire, baptism in the sense of a plunging into the very core of sheer pain, separation, division, shedding of blood, and so on.
It might be hard also for you to get an idea of how often, in my 47 plus years of priesthood, I have heard anguished parents talk about their children leaving the Church, their family, their faith, doing crazy or shameful things. The pain of the parents is palpable and their darkness thick. Yet, the pain and darkness of my anguished parishioners, in many cases, have a different source than the pain and darkness depicted in our readings (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53).
- A couple who pride themselves on being “orthodox Catholic” confessed with much embarrassment that their 14-year old daughter convinced another girl to strip topless and the two of them ran down a sloping meadow, half naked, before a bunch of ogling boys.
- Or of listening to a distraught father report that his daughter has left home and become totally promiscuous.
- Finally, a mother shared with me that, daily, she is in pain thinking that her two sons have joined a religious cult; and, what is worse, they seem to be brainwashed and exploited by the new group.
Alas, many of you are familiar with similar stories, either first hand or indirectly. I might have shocked some of you by stating that the pain and darkness stemming from the division mentioned by Jesus and these cases might be quite different.
Our passage from the Gospel of Luke (12:49-53) speaks only of the painful separations caused by Jesus, not about those caused by misguided good intentions, by pride, by oppressive religiosity, by youthful foolishness or personality conflicts. The separations caused by Jesus are good and necessary because of who Jesus is and what he stands for. The separations caused by us can be senseless, devastating, messy and with dreadful consequences as they are the result of our weakened, sinful nature.
Jesus causes fruit-bearing, although painful, separations basically for three reasons: his Gospel, his cross and his power.
His Gospel: the wounds of original sin in us are such that it is possible to go through our entire lifespan without living out a single page of the Gospel. As we might have noticed already from our Sunday exposures to it, authentic Gospel must feel always, at every moment, either incredibly comforting or radically challenging, unreasonable, paradoxical and disturbing.
His cross: Jesus’ entire legacy is summarized in the new commandment of loving those he has placed in our life without measure, without limits, but rather with the possible prospect of having to forfeit our life out of love just as he did. Courageous and patient acceptance of our cross proves the authenticity of our love.
His power as Risen Lord: through his resurrection, Jesus fills us with courage and hope that his victory over all sorts of evil is improving this world regardless of what evils we still have to contend with. It also proves that we have to stand up to evil trusting blindly in God’s power to protect and to save. They require a constant surrendering of oneself into the hands of the Father, just as Jesus did and steady docility in listening to what He wants of us at each moment of each day.
Silent concentration rather than emphasis on multiplication of words in order to get to know ourselves and to listen to God is also crucial. In such a setting, as suggested by our reading from Hebrews (12:1-4), we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Inevitably, he will become the reason for the separations that would cause us pain; but that are good and profitable spiritually, mentally, emotionally and even physically. Furthermore, we would slowly but surely decrease or even reverse the cases in which we caused needless, painful separations in our lives. We should concentrate our efforts on becoming well-rounded human beings and on helping our children and young people to do the same. To do otherwise means building on flawed foundations.
We need to seek and cherish silence, we need to place ourselves in a listening mode in order to become aware of, identify and correct our flaws and defects and help our children to do the same. Remember, our goal should be the one of becoming, first, well-rounded, well-adjusted, balanced human beings.
The next step should be the one of being open to the work of God’s grace (Sacraments, Holy Scripture, prayer life, etcetera) to make us good disciples of Christ, keeping humbly in mind that the Holy Spirit alone can make us holy people, i.e., saints. Often, what is happening is the opposite: so many well-intentioned, pious people multiply religious practices and impose them on their children to become “quick saints.” If our human foundations are flawed due to a manipulative, controlling, troubled, obsessive, arrogant nature we become the cause of those separations, our children rebel and wind up rejecting God, Jesus, the Church and everything else.
This is what today’s readings seem to suggest mindful that we are supposed to share in the painful “baptism” of Jesus and experience His brand of fire within. We ought to work together as a family to create personal relationships with Jesus based on faith, trust and surrender to his light and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We can do this until our children turn 18. Past that age, if we insist on imposing our ideas, ways and preferences, we might simply deepen those useless and painful separations. Once our children are adults we can only love them, encourage them, accept them and entrust them to the Father and to our Blessed Mother every single time we think of them.
If we put into practice today’s template of God’s Word, we could lessen the pain of the separations that we have caused ourselves and be ready for the fruit-bearing separations that Jesus generates once our personal relationship with him is well established.