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A homily on Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
When I took Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Stanford hospital years ago, I discovered a hospital secret. The dead are moved around the public parts of the hospital in false-bottomed gurneys. This practice made it possible to keep alive the illusion that no one dies in the hospital. If I were to ask, “Who’s wearing the clothing they’ll be buried in?” all of the Dominicans would raise their hands, yet in a discussion the other night of the spiritual benefits and pitfalls of wearing the habit, no one in our two-hour conversation mentioned that it is a reminder of our death. What makes this all the more surprising is the fact that at least three times a day – and often more – we sit beneath a stained-glass depiction of the last judgment. Flanking a Christ in judgment are two stern angels and a depiction of the damned descending to hell on one side and the blessed entering heaven on the other. It rather optimistically shows two Dominicans at the head of the line into heaven.
We are to remember so our behavior and attitude is that of those who will die and be judged. This is a very different sentiment than what we find in our Wisdom reading – The wicked remember their death, but reject immortality and righteousness alike. Wisdom 2:1-3 puts these words in their mouths. “Brief and troubled is our lifetime; there is no remedy for our dying, nor is anyone known to have come back from Hades. For by mere chance were we born, and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason a spark from the beating of our hearts, when this is quenched, our body will be ashes and our spirit will be poured abroad like empty air.”
Jesus is very conscious of his death. And the remarkable thing is, his behavior after he tells his disciples three times about his being handed over is the same as before: he continues to heal, to teaches, and to confront those who only pay lip service to God and who make religion a show. The only difference is now he is on his way to Jerusalem, the place of his execution. It seems to me that this indicates that from the very beginning of his ministry with his baptism in the Jordan – and likely even before - Jesus knew that the result of his ministry, his righteousness, his obedience to his Father, would be death. Just as it was for the prophets who preceded and foretold him.
Because his genuine holiness and love of the Father reveals the self-serving nature of the legalistic Pharisees, Jesus is obnoxious to them. His behavior itself is a reproach to them. They embody the words of the wicked in the book of Wisdom, “Let us beset the just one, for … if he be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.”
Jesus’ friends, the disciples, aren’t much better than his foes. After his first prediction of the Passion, Peter argued with Jesus – unable to believe that the man he had realized was the promised Messiah would be put to death by his own people.
After the declaration of the Passion in today’s Gospel, they still don’t understand, but they’re afraid to ask him about it. But as they continue their journey, they begin to argue who’s they greatest among them. When Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about – they are silent and ashamed. Why? Jesus had not said anything yet. Perhaps, since Jesus has already told them twice that he is going to die, then – just maybe - it might be true.
In that case, who would become the leader of their group? When Jesus asked them what they had been talking about, they could hardly say, "Well, since you are going to be killed in the near future, we were wondering which of us should take over."
Apparently they didn’t hear the part about Jesus rising after three days. Or, perhaps like the wicked described in our first reading, they didn’t really believe in life after death. Instead, they act like the people described in the letter of James - given over to jealousy and selfish ambition. Jesus lives and teaches the heavenly wisdom that makes peace; a wisdom that is forebearing, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. Jesus, through his healing, forgiving and teaching is forming a new community that shows no favoritism or pretension; in which the leaders are servants and the last are given preference.
The letter of James goes on to name the source of conflict that was dividing the disciples. In the ancient world, moralists reduced wickedness to four main vices: pleasure, fear, grief and desire. St. James reminds us that the roots of evil and sin are within us. Temptation comes, not from God, but from our desire – and anger and hostility over competing desires between people lead to quarreling, murder, and wars between individuals and nations. The disciples have given in to ambition, and forgotten Jesus’ teaching and example. They quarrel over who’s greatest Who will be the next master when Jesus is gone? It is easy to fall to the temptation of ambition over things that are fleeting. Society promotes ambition: the corner office, the fat salary, the newest toys. Ambition is no stranger to the cloister, either. The desire to learn can become the desire to know more than someone else, or to have more degrees, and the honor that might come from them and from being a teacher. The poor souls heading for hell in our stained glass window were successful in their ambitions. They are accompanied by falling jewels, crowns and miters.
Jesus offers his disciples an alternative to the ambition of being first. The child he embraces and identifies himself with had no power, no say, no influence in Jesus’ culture, or in ours. Even today, a child can easily be controlled, abused or neglected, and is dependent upon others for justice. But, Jesus says, to accept, to welcome such a person is to welcome him. To "welcome" is to have reverence for the other and to serve, in the way a host welcomes a guest, even a stranger. It is to be concerned about the wellbeing of another person; to focus on them rather than on myself and my imagined dignity and status. The child represents all those in our society who are powerless and easily manipulated, who are easily abused, neglected and marginalised. The poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the immigrant, the unborn…
This is the same concept expressed in Matthew 25, when Jesus tells us that those who are welcomed as the sheep of his flock into heaven are those who fed the hungry, attended to the sick, visited the prisoner and clothed the naked poor. It is they who are ascending the steps into heaven in our stained glass window.
So who is the greatest at St. Albert's Priory – Fr. Reginald, who serves us as prior? The Latin root of his title means “first”. Or is it Br. Peter, who washes our dishes? Even to ask the question is to venture too near to temptation. Instead, let us ask ourselves what our ambitions tell us about our goals. Are we ambitious for heaven? As a friar preacher, am I seeking to help others become ambitious for heaven?
The wicked who speak in the second chapter of Wisdom are right about one thing: “Our lifetime is the passing of a shadow; and our dying cannot be deferred.” If we “remember our death” as the last Judgment stained glass urges, how do we want to live? How much will remembering my mortality temper my enthusiasm for college football, or neutralize my frustration when the brothers don’t behave exactly as I want? Catherine of Siena said, “all the way to heaven is heaven.” So if I’m ambitious for heaven, shouldn’t I focus my attention on those I hope to share heaven with: my family, friends, and my brothers in the Order? If I’m ambitious for heaven, might I not want to hang around the margins of society in order to serve and receive Jesus in the last who will be first?
If we remember that Jesus’s obedience to His Father - even though it led to suffering and death at the hands of the wicked – opened the possibility of heaven for each of us, how can we be anything but grateful? And how empty will seem ambition for anything but union with Him who loves us so! If our life ends tomorrow – in a car accident, an earthquake, a heart attack – will we be able to say to our Lover and our Judge, “I have only sought after you and your kingdom”?