This Sunday’s readings show two aspects of God: love and punishment. Most of us like to hear about God’s love, but very few want to hear about punishment. Yet the two are inseparable. Let’s start with the account of divine punishment described in the reading from the second book of Chronicles.
The Chronicles contain a meditation on God’s action in the history of Israel, beginning with a lengthy genealogy, then an account of her kings from David until the Babylonian exile. (587 B.C.) In spite of some wonderful achievements, the overall record is sad. The Chronicler sums it up in these words:
The punishment was terrible beyond description. The people had to watch helplessly as the Babylonians tore down the city walls, looted the buildings (including the sacred temple), slashed to death both the young and the old, then set the entire city on fire. (vv. 17-20) Those who had useful skills (scribes, artisans, builders, etc.) they took to Babylon where the exiles “sat and wept.” (Ps 137:6)
How could God allow his chosen people to suffer such horrors? And when the Chronicler tells them that their sufferings are punishments, is he not adding salt to their wounds? Yes, but salt can purify and heal.
Growing up on Camano Island, I would sometime suffer a cut when fishing with my brothers. We didn’t bring band-aids, but by immersing the hand in salt water, it cleansed the wound and helped it heal. However, at first it stung something awful. The Chronicler’s words must have stung, but they also held out hope of healing. George MacDonald gives this explanation of divine punishment:
It is no pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer… His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing. Unspoken Sermons
At this point I must lay my cards on the table. I do not have the courage to say such words to a person in great anguish: a mother who has lost her child, a man younger than me diagnosed with cancer, someone whose companion has betrayed them. And I cannot claim to have yet born suffering such as others experience. So what do I do? Fortunately, Jesus has given a response:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
In two weeks we will reenact what that “giving” meant. With the Masses of Palm Sunday we begin to walk that path of divine humiliation.
This year we celebrate Holy Week in mixed circumstances. Our nation is involved in a horrible war – and I would like to now give some reflections which I hope will help guide your prayer during these final weeks of Lent.
First about the pope’s statements. Some have the impression they have been one-sided in favor of Iraq. It is true the Holy Father pleaded with President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and the other coalition leaders not to enter the war without U.N. backing. However, he also urged Saddam Hussein to fulfill his decade old agreement by eliminating certain weapons. The pope knows it is an evil regime. He probably knows it better than most world leaders. Although Iraq is a Moslem nation, it has a significant Christian minority, about 3% of its 23 million people. Most Iraqi Christians are Catholics who belong to the Chaldean Rite. Their patriarch Raphael Bidawid has provided the Holy Father with detailed information about the situation in Iraq.
To understand the importance of this, let me make a comparison from when I was a missionary in Peru. There was considerable repression at that time and we priests, sisters and other church workers often knew about violations that never appeared in the news. For instance, one of my catechists was arrested and taken to the police station for interrogation. The police submerged his head in a barrel of foul water until he fainted. They repeated that torture - and others which I would prefer not to describe. When released, he was filled with fear and did not want to talk with anyone. Finally he told the parish sister and me what had happened. We saw the scars, not just the physical but also the emotional ones. Of course we let the bishop know about this and other abuses. The bishops of Peru reported to the Vatican on the situation of their county. Something similar has happened in Iraq. For that reason I say the Holy Father is probably better informed about human rights violations in that country than most world leaders.
Now that the war has begun, I am praying for a rapid resolution. As Christians we are not pacifists. Some great saints like Francis of Assisi might be called to a complete renunciation of violence, but that is not the norm for most of us. Our world is marked by original sin and sometimes we must use force even violence - as Jesus did in cleansing the temple - to combat evil. If someone were to attack my sister, I would have the right, and the duty, to do what I could to defend her – even if it required violent means. (Of course, in my case my sister would have a better chance defending me, but – if she were attacked – I hope I would at least go down fighting.) The Jewish and Christian tradition has always understood the fifth commandment – thou shalt not kill – to refer to the taking of innocent human life. There are circumstances when one might be required to use force, even mortal force.
Like you, I am praying for our soldiers. My niece’s husband is an officer in the Army. I pray for him and for the military people involved in this war. They are confronting a great evil – and they need our prayers and support.
I am also praying for the people of Iraq. Last week we had confessions of our school children. After each class completed their individual confessions, we gathered around the statue of the Infant of Prague. Before Him we prayed for the children of Iraq. Modern war is horrific because it is not just army against army, soldier against soldier, but often those exposed to mortal danger are children, the elderly, innocent people.
Over here we face a personal danger – not so much physical, but to our souls. Watching the war unfold in real time, we can be awed by the technology, forget these are real human beings. It can seem like a video game. We can begin to exalt ourselves, start thinking how great we are because we have such powerful weapons. Sadly, I have heard young people make arrogant comments. Weapons do not make us great – only humility, service, openness to others can do that.
I conclude with something practical we can do – besides prayer which of course in the most important. By a coincidence – to me a providential one – on the Fourth Sunday of Lent we always take up the collection for the American Bishops Overseas Appeal which supports the work of Catholic Relief Services. Even as the war goes on, CRS is at work through Caritas Iraq providing supplemental food, potable water, medicines and even vocational training. By giving to this collection you will be assisting the Iraqi people and after the war is concluded, helping in the rebuilding of the country.
In the Chaldean Rite Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad, they have been praying the rosary continuously for 24 hour periods. Let’s join our fellow Catholics in praying for peace.
From the Archives:
Year A (RCIA):
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Homily on 1998 Strike on Iraq
Bombs Explode Near Chaldean Patriarchate
Papal Nuncio Visiting War Casualties
Partial-Birth Abortion Ban "One Step Closer" After Panel's OK
Catholic Relief Services in Iraq
Parish Picture Album
(Fr. Narciso Valencia and Fr. Bryan Dolejsi)
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MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
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National Petition to Stop HHS Mandate - important updates
Conscience Protection - Bishops Vow to Fight Coercive HHS Mandate
HELEN ALVARE, associate professor of Law at George Mason University and formerly with the USCCB's Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, on the recent open letter she co-wrote, opposing the HHS Mandate and signed by thousands professional women