Love is Strong as Death

(Nineteenth Sunday, Year C)

As co-executor of Fr. Mike Holland's will, I had the melancholy duty of sorting through some of his personal possessions. They consisted mainly of books, pictures, religious articles, clothes and some documents. Few of his things had much intrinsic value, but to Frs. Magano, Pastro and myself, they were loaded with emotion. We also were aware that many other people would value a memento of Fr. Mike so we made an attempt to separate them out: a crucifix, a foto, a rosary, a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Myself? I took one of his books: a collection of biblical and Patristic readings for each day of the year.

When I opened it during my morning prayer the selection was a meditation on the Song of Solomon "Love is as strong death." (Song 8:6) This is what the author said:

"Death is strong for no man can withstand it.
Love too is strong, for it can conquer
death itself, soothe its sting, calm its
violence and bring its victory to naught."

I have been turning those words over in my mind. Death does appear to have the final word, to mock all of our aspirations and projects. When Fr. Vince and I finished the sorting, we visited Fr. Mike's grave. It was easy to spot because of the mound of dirt which rose over it. In the coming weeks it will slowly sink to the level of the rest of the cemetery.

A few month previously Fr. Mike had taken us by. "There is where I will be buried," he told us. He said it so matter-of-factly that it startled Vince and me. Now it seemed like we were turning the final pages in a novel. But we had only read tiny snatches of the story and we did not understand the plot. We talked about the odd and lovely ways our lives had intersected with his.

Then Father Vince said, "Let's say a Padre Nuestro and an Ave Marķa for Mike." So we recited the Lord's prayer and the Hail Mary in the language he loved so much. What had appeared like closing a book took on a different flavor. It was now like we had been privileged to read the opening sentences of a beautiful adventure story. True, they were hastily, even clumsily written. But they showed marvelous promise.

"Love is as strong as death."

The love in question is not our own halfhearted and (let's be honest) self-seeking efforts. The love which conquers is Jesus' alone. The meditation from Fr. Mike's prayerbook continued:

"Love is as strong as death because Christ's love
is the very death of death. Hence it is said,
I will be your death, O death! I will be your
sting, O hell! Our love for Christ is also
strong as death, because it is a kind of death:
destroying the old life, rooting out vice and
laying aside dead works." (from Baldwin of Canterbury)

That reflection brings us to this Sunday's readings. They likewise speak of God's victory over death. They begin with a visible, earthly sign of victory--the Exodus (cf. Wis 18: 6-9). The Psalm sings of the Lord delivering his chosen ones from death. (Ps 33: 19). The author of Hebrews tells about patriarchs who went gladly to their death because of their trust in God's promise. It gives the classic definition of faith: confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see. (Heb 11:1)

In the Gospel Jesus urges us to be like men waiting for their master's return. We do not know when he will come. When I was a newly ordained priest, my pastor, Fr. Joseph Petosa, went on vacation and left me in charge of the parish. He didn't say the exact day he would be back although I had a general idea. When it got near I tried to make sure everything was in order. I even cleaned up my room! It was not that I was afraid of him. Well, maybe a little bit because he was (and is) such a good, upright man. But it was more that I admired him and wanted to please him because I was grateful for the care he had shown me. I certainly did not want to be sloughing off or fighting with someone when he arrived. My hope was to be calmly about my duty, but not so immersed in it that I would be unable to quickly put it aside to greet him.

When Jesus told the apostles that the Son of Man would come at the moment least expected, Peter asked a logical question: "Is this warning just for us or for the whole world?" Jesus, as he is somewhat in the habit of doing, answered the question by asking another question.

In this regard Jesus is a bit like the stereotypical Irishman. When someone asked him, "Why do you Irish always answer a question with a question?" He replied, "Do we now?"

Jesus does something similar--not because he is Irish as some people think. But rather because he wants to open up broader horizons. "Who is the faithful, farsighted steward...?" When all is said and done, we will each have to stand before the Lord. People today spend too much time comparing themselves with other people. "Why should Jesus expect so much of me when there are people in the world who have barely even heard of him?" Jesus cuts thru all that talk. To the man much has been given, much will be required. But something will be required of everyone. St. Paul makes that crystal clear in his introduction to Romans. At the same time it is futile to ask about someone who lives in Tibet or who lived thousands of years ago. There is only one person you will have to answer for.

You are the one Jesus tells, "Be on guard. The Son of Man will come when you least expect him." Now that we are so close the year 2000 there will be a lot more talk about the end of the world and Jesus' return. My own position is neither to discount it nor take the particulars too seriously. Recently I was told a rather haunting prophecy. It involved three days of darkness in which all electric and battery operated sources of light would be useless. According to this person, the only thing which would work would be blessed candles. This strange prophecy brought back memories of when I was in Peru and the the power would go out unexpectedly. I would be groping in the dark with my hands on the sides of the walls trying to remember where I had put the candles.

The woman who told me about the prophecy asked if I would bless some candles for her so she could always have them in her purse. I hesitated, but did so. At the very least the candles would be a reminder to take seriously the Lord's words, "Be prepared. The Son of Man will come when you least expect him." One might not be inclined to carry a blessed candle in the pocket, but we do need a steady reminder of the only question which counts in the long run: Am I ready to receive Jesus if he comes for me this very day?

**********

From Archives (19th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Be Prepared
2010: Hour Least Expected
2007: Salvation and Damnation
2004: No Hurry
2001: Life Is Unfair
1998: Love is Strong as Death

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

My bulletin column(Aug 1, 2010)

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(July 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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World Youth Day 2013

(about 40 pictures in a slide show)

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

(new, professional website)

KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)

A Homilist's Prayer

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