TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
Today is definitely not one of those "warm and fuzzy" gospel readings. No bunnies and squirrels or pretty daisies in sight. We often are tempted to put Jesus into a box with these other huggable things and think of Him more as a supernatural buddy than our Lord who is both Savior and Judge. He is the ultimate "nice guy." We are not entirely unjustified in doing so. After all, Jesus did some pretty nice things and had some wonderfully nice things to say. He fed people. He healed people. He said, "Be not afraid," and "My peace I give you."
But then He also says things like we read in today's gospel, from Luke 12:49-55. "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." He goes on to speak of households being divided, fathers against sons, mothers against daughters, and so on. Wow. What happened the nice "be not afraid" Jesus?
Well, He is still there. But perhaps we need to rethink our definition of "nice." We think that if we are nice to other people, then other people will generally like us, and everyone will get along, and won't that be just nice. But the problem with that kind of nicety is that it is superficial. It is shallow. And it ultimately means nothing. That sort of nicety never challenges. It never confronts. It is afraid to make waves. It is willing to sacrifice principles for the sake of getting along. It ends up being a mask for all sorts of sins and flaws that we dare not mention because it wouldn't be "nice."
Nice does not equal holy. Some of the holiest people on record were notorious for being not nice. Padre Pio reportedly was not a very nice man (I never met him). St. Benedict was so ornery that his own monks tried to poison him! I am not saying that holy people have to be mean - meanness is no sign of holiness, either - but we need to realize that our modern concept of a "nice person" is no guarantee of sanctity.
What are signs of sanctity? Well, we can start by looking at the virtues. The four cardinal (pivotal) virtues outlined in the Catechism are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. (See 1805-1809 in the Catechism). Let's look just at fortitude for the moment.
Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause (CCC 1808).
For those trying to live out their Christian faith in an authentic way in the world today, fortitude is not an optional virtue. Especially on a college campus, we find challenges to our faith and morals around every corner. If we are to remain true to our faith, true to Christ, then we will often find ourselves having to say "no." And that can feel lonely. It can make you feel isolated. It can make you feel uncool, unliked, and not respected by your peers. And that stinks.
Jesus today tells us, "So what? You don't need them. You have Me." He gives us in the first reading today the example of Jeremiah, His faithful prophet who was thrown into a cistern full of mud and left to die of starvation; all because he dared to speak the truth. Jesus today tells us that Truth is a greater good than being nice. But truth will create division. Some will accept it and live by it. Others will not. The fact that some will not accept the truth cannot be reason for you to abandon it. Pray for them. And hold fast to the truth yourself. Be resolute. Have fortitude.
Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today says, "let us... persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith." This is my prayer for all those beginning their college career today. That for the next four years - and for the rest of your life - you will keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.
Distractions will be everywhere, and not just where you think they will be. Sex, drugs, alcohol, yes all those will be temptations. But sometimes they can be the easier ones to resist. Academic success can also be a temptation. "I can't come to Mass because I have to study." "My class schedule is too full, I don't have time to pray." I have heard these things over and over as a campus minister. Being a Catholic minority can also be its own cross. "I know I should be going to Mass, but I don't know any other Catholics and all my friends go to the non-denominational church... and church is church, right?"
Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Don't worry about others' opinions. Don't worry about "being nice." Accept that standing up for what is true and right will cause division. Jesus knows it will, but He also guarantees that if you remain true to Him, He will fill your soul with His peace. Not peace as the world expects it - but His peace - the peace that comes with integrity of mind, body and spirit. This is sanctity. This is being a friend of Christ.
Keep your eyes on Jesus. Pray every day. Make time. Put it in your schedule now, today. Look at your class times and figure out when each day you will dedicate yourself to prayer. Come to Mass. Do not neglect God. He wants to be in relationship with you. Make an effort to spend time with Him. Seek out fellow Catholics and build good, virtuous relationships with them. They will help you. Do this, and your four years at college will be a wonderful time in your life; a time when you will grow in maturity of faith, in holiness, and in relation with the Lord. Start that journey now. Pray for fortitude. Be courageous. Keep your eyes on Christ.
May the Lord bless you and keep you,