Sunday, March 29, 2009

April Fools

(5th Sunday of Lent-Year B; This homily was given on 29 March, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Letter to the Hebrews 5:7-9 and John 12:20-33)

We are about to enter the month of April in just a few short days; this Wednesday will be April 1st, a day commonly known as “April Fools’ Day.” April Fools’ is the day when many people will play games or jokes on those around them to “fool” them; hence the name. Now, some April Fools’ jokes are funny, and some are not so funny, depending upon the circumstances.

It was back in April of 1998 that Burger King published a full page advertisement in USA Today announcing the introduction of their latest product: the “Left-Handed Whopper.” That ad spoke about how the lettuce, tomatoes, onion, all the condiments, had been rotated 180 degrees under the bun so that millions of left-handed customers could now enjoy that great burger even more!

Do you know what happened? Thousands of customers that April came to Burger King and requested the Left-Handed Whopper! Many other customers also asked for Whoppers, but they clarified that they were right-handed, and wanted to make sure they received the correct one. It was a hoax, an April Fools’ joke, and thousands of people were fooled by it.

On April Fools’ Day in Copenhagen in 1965, a bit closer to where we are this morning, a local newspaper reported that parliament had passed a new law requiring all dogs to be painted white. The reason, that article clarified, was so that motorists could spot them easier and the animals would be safer near the roadways. Obviously, it was a joke, but many people hid their dogs in basements or the garage, fearful that the government wanted to paint their dog white! Many were fooled by that prank.

But as I mentioned a moment ago, not all April Fools’ jokes are funny. Some of them, in fact, can be quite awful. In April of 2000, in the country of Romania, the newspaper Opinia announced that political prisoners were going to be released from the Baia Mare prison. About 60 people made the long journey to the prison and waited anxiously outside the gates, only to learn that the paper had played an April Fool's joke on them. Opinia later apologized but by that time the damage had already been done. There is nothing funny about that April Fools’ joke.

But even worse than that, on April 1, 2002 in the Netherlands a law came into effect for the legalization of a practice that had already been happening for years: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. The legislation had already been proposed on 28 November, 2000, but on 1 April, 2002 the “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act” finally came into force.

Of course, it was never meant to be an April Fools’ joke, but it fooled many people, and still does today. Many people were—and still are—fooled about the misplaced meaning of suffering and death and its consequences for eternal life. Many people were—and still are—fooled about the loss of meaning and inherent value of every human life created in the image and likeness of God.

Some argued that the practice of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in the Netherlands had been going on for years already. What harm could be done in making it “officially” legal? Certainly that would only help to regulate it better. No harm there.

Yet less than two months later, on 28 May, 2002 here in Belgium the “Act Concerning Euthanasia” was passed by the Belgian House of Representatives and within four months it came into force. Belgium, which at one time had been one of the most Catholic countries in the world, became the second country in the world to legalize Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide.

Just two weeks ago, on 17 March, 2009, Luxembourg became the third. If you look at that geographically, it is quite startling: the Netherlands is due north of Belgium. Bordering Belgium on the south east is Luxembourg. They are falling like dominoes, and it is not just here.

Switzerland and the State of Oregon in the U.S. do not allow Euthanasia. Yet Physician Assisted Suicide has been accepted and practiced in those places for years. And you may ask, “What is the difference between the two practices? What is the difference between a physician taking the life of a patient upon that person’s request and the physician who prescribes a lethal dose of drugs with the intention of taking the person’s life?” The answer, sadly, is the same as the question: what’s the difference!

Both actions are contrary to the moral law and violate the dignity of the human person created by God. They both hold to a radical autonomy which considers suffering something to be eliminated at all costs, even the cost of taking one’s life. And there are many who are fooled by that mentality. There are many who come to believe such a practice is a fundamental right.

But God would not have us become April Fools, believing such a lie about the human life He gave us. He would not have us be fooled by the Culture of Death that is so radically vocal and successfully active in the world around us. God challenges us to be wise and faithful followers of Jesus Christ who understand what He has taught and revealed about suffering and death, and about so much more than that.

This is the time of the year in a particular way that we focus on suffering and death and, ultimately, on the resurrection. God has something to say—especially in this time of the year—about those things.

Next weekend, with Passion Sunday, and throughout Holy Week, culminating with Easter, we meditate on and thank God for the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our readings this weekend allow us a deeper insight into those mysteries as we enter more deeply into this holiest of seasons in the Church’s liturgical year.

In our second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear about Christ that:

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.
—Hebrews 5:8

What an odd thing to say about the Son of God! Yet we know that there were things in Jesus’ human nature that He had to learn as He grew “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

For instance, the Divine Son of God did not know—immediately in His human nature—what it was like to be rejected. But He learned it; over and over again he would learn that. He did not know, in His human nature, what it was like to be misunderstood, or not be loved and accepted as He should have been, but he learned all those things, and painfully so.

In the same way he also “learned obedience.” Now to understand that requires that we know the full meaning of the biblical word for “obedience.” That word, in the Greek language, as well as in Latin, means more than merely “following the rules.” The Letter to the Hebrews is not saying that Christ was rebellious and needed to be taught a lesson. The word obedience means literally “to have an open ear to.” In Latin it is ab-audire, to listen to.

In other words, in His suffering Jesus Christ learned all the more keenly how to listen to the voice of the Father. When He was rejected, and misunderstood, and not loved or accepted the way He should have been, Christ learned—even and especially in those places—how to listen to the Father and follow more intimately the Father’s will for Him and for our salvation. In the moment of His agony in Gethsemane, Christ kneels in the garden with his heart and ears wide open, and He cries out “Father…not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). That is what it means to say that Christ “learned obedience from what He suffered.”

The question is, “Do we?” Are we able, when we are rejected, or misunderstood, or not loved and accepted the way that we should be; are we able, when we are frustrated or struggling or going through difficulties great or small, are we able to learn obedience, to have an “open ear” to God the Father? Are we able to listen to Him saying to us:

I would never abandon you. I would never leave you. I will help you and assist you and guide you to an eternal home with me. Follow me, and let me guide you in the way you should go.

Are we able to do that?

In the Gospel of St. John we come to discover that not only is God able to teach us and lead us in our suffering, but also that our suffering and even our death can bear fruit. That is the exact opposite message of those who advocate for Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. They say that there is no meaning in suffering and it should be avoided at almost any cost. But Christ tells us:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
—John 12:24

He is talking, of course, about His own suffering death, and how that gift of Himself in love will bear fruit in His resurrection from the dead; it will bear fruit also in our eternal salvation. The redemption of the world comes through the love of God in the midst of suffering and death.

We who are united to Him by Baptism and place our faith and trust in Him also share in those same fruits. We share in His resurrection and life. That is an entirely hopeful and meaningful understanding of suffering, especially for those who face the prospect of death.

And finally Christ teaches us how to live right here in this world so that we can share that eternal life with Him. He says:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.
—John 12:25

Like so many of the paradoxes in the Christian life, this one forces us to see things from God’s perspective, and to be docile to a way of living and acting that is open to learning the things that please God and lead us to eternal happiness.

Such a docility and openness is completely the opposite of what we find in the Culture of Death regarding the issue of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. Instead what is argued for is a radical autonomy which sets itself up against everyone and everything. The person says, “I will determine how and how long I will suffer, or even if I will suffer; not God; not the Church; not a member of my family. I will die on my own terms, and in my own way.”

To live like that is to fall short of the very life God is offering to us, to separate ourselves from the people who love us most, from the community and even from God. It is to love our lives on our own terms, and to risk the prospect of losing them because we have isolated ourselves from the very source of life, who is God.

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.
—John 12:25

I would like to close this homily by illustrating this point with a quote from a Christian missionary named Jim Elliot. He came from Portland, Oregon many years before Oregon legalized Physician Assisted Suicide. Jim’s passion was to bring the Gospel message to those who had never heard of Christ. He and several companions died doing exactly that, trying to proclaim the Gospel to the native people of Ecuador.

Years before his death, in a journal entry he had written as he reflected on the call of God to give his life as a missionary, he wrote the following:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.”

God is challenging all of us this Lent and Easter not to become April Fools. He is calling us to be wise and faithful followers of Christ who have an open ear to Him, even in the midst of the challenges and difficulties we face in our daily lives. He is asking us to trust in Him and to never forget that all who put their hope and faith in Christ—even though they fall to the ground and die—will be raised up again to eternal life in Him.