Overcoming Bitterness

(December 29, 2013)

Message: Like Joseph we need to know our place in the Big Story, but in the end the only way to overcome bitterness is by submission to God in an act of faith.

You have probably noticed that I have been quoting a lot from Pope Francis. He is an extraordinary gift to the world and especially to us Catholics. Not that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not great popes. Many of us feel deeply blessed to have served the Church under such a man as Blessed John Paul - and Pope Benedict who many consider to be the most brilliant theologian to hold the Chair of Peter.

Still, Francis - the first pope from the New World - has brought something radiant: a humility and joy that shine from him. On this Holy Family Sunday I would like talk about how he teaches us what St. Paul says: Avoid bitterness.

Bitterness poisons the human heart. It destroys relationships - especially in the family - and it condemns a person to a self-made hell. When the devil plants the flag of bitterness in the human heart, he says, "This soul belongs to me." For that reason, St. Paul says, "Avoid bitterness."

Before giving the prescription for bitterness, I would like to point out the example of Pope Francis: Bitterness often results when we fight battles. A person may be totally in the right and come away bitter. Pope Francis, however, shows that it is possible to fight great battles and not grow bitter. Let me briefly mention three.

The first battle was as superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. Many of the priests were so distressed at the misery caused by poverty that they wanted that fight to become the full purpose of the order - to concentrate on eradicating unjust social structures and to put salvation of souls in the background. That was the first battle.

The second battle was with the Argentine government - a government that became so concerned with preserving order and combating violence that it allowed torture and other abuses.

The third battle was with the culture - a world-wide culture so concerned with an image of tolerance that it was willing to change the meaning of marriage.

As superior of the Jesuits and Cardinal of Buenos Aires, the future pope fought these battles with great energy. But he kept communication and respect for the other side - and by prayer, sometimes hours of prayer, he overcame the temptation to bitterness. The world sees that peace and respect in the pope's soul and has acclaimed him Person of the Year.

Avoid bitterness. Pope Francis gives us a shining example and today's readings provide a prescription for overcoming bitterness. It has two parts.

First in the Gospel: We can go a long way to overcoming bitterness if we know how our lives fit into the big story. If I am wrapped up in my own life, my own aches and pains, all the unfairness I see around me, I can easily become bitter. That could have happened to a family like one in the Gospel - driven out of their home and into exile in Egypt.

But Joseph and Mary knew the big story - how their ancestors wound up in Egypt and how God freed them.* They knew they were part of a larger picture - a drama much greater than themselves. That's why Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

So knowing the Big Story (the Bible) and how our lives relate to that story is a huge step in overcoming bitterness. There is something even more radical. Paul presents it in today's second reading. It's a word we don't like to hear today - submission. St. Paul tells us to submit to one another and to God in Christ. Submission is a hard word, but an essential one. For Muslims it is the heart of their religion. Islam means submission, surrender to God. It is also a Christian word: Christ completely submitted his will to the Father - and through that act we come into union with Father.

Like Joseph we need to know our place in the Big Story, but in the end the only way to overcome bitterness is by submission to God in an act of faith.

It's not easy. On New Year's Day we will be talking about how Mary did it. And I will share a beautiful image of Mary - Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. More next Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

For now I would like to conclude with St. Paul's words: "Put on...heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one... another as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And above all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. Amen.


*I gave a series of homilies on the Geography of Faith.

Spanish Version

From the archives (Holy Family Sunday, Year A):

Holy Family Sunday 2010: The Flight from Bethlehem
2007: Honor Your Father and Mother
2004: The Most Diverse Family
1998: How to Avoid Bitterness

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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