Homily given at St. Mary Cathedral
Published on the Archdiocese of San Francisco Web site
This morning you get to listen in on an Archbishop’s temptation—well, really a preacher’s temptation. The voice of the tempter sounds like this in my ear: “These two readings are not really good for today. This is the special Mass in the Cathedral before our annual Walk For Life. Yes, it’s true, the Church did choose these two readings for Saturday of the Second Week of the Year, but you can substitute some others—that’s allowed. Just look at the second reading: two verses from Mark’s Gospel telling us that a crowd surrounded Jesus and that some of his relatives came to drag him home because they thought he was clearly out of his mind. You can do better than that! Pick something else.”
That’s the voice of the tempter. And, it is tempting, but “no.” Remember what St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent for every good work.”
Our problem with this reading may not be that it is so brief, but that it is so uncomfortable, painful and embarrassing. The relatives of Jesus were wrong about him; he was not insane or possessed by a demon. Indeed, they used the same language about him that the Scribes and Pharisees, his enemies, were using. As a matter of fact, next Monday the Gospel at Mass will be the very next verses after these in the third chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, verses in which the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being possessed by a demon.
On the contrary, it is our faith that Jesus Christ was sent by the Father, led by the Holy Spirit, and was carrying out his mission to preach, proclaim and establish the kingdom.
So the relatives were wrong, but it is still important to understand them. Why did they say and do what they did? First of all, the relatives of Jesus were looking at a hectic scene: people were jammed into the little house, shouting and making demands of the Teacher. It was not possible even to eat, Mark tells us. Nothing was normal or usual.
Besides, Jesus had given up a good trade, carpentry, to become an itinerant preacher. Also, his family could tell that he was headed on a collision course with the Scribes and Pharisees, the people with power and influence, and that he would lose his struggle with them. He did eventually lose it, as the world sees things. His relations watched Jesus leave his home, his village and his neighbors, and start out with what one commentator has called his “odd little society” of very diverse followers. That’s what they saw and that’s what they thought.
In Matthew’s Gospel, in the tenth chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that they will face persecution when they proclaim his kingdom and his way. He adds these words: “One’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It seems very likely that at least one example he had in mind involved him and his own relatives.
Why bother with all this? Because this story of Jesus, his ministry and his family is in some ways our story too, as we seek to witness in our time and place to the unique and priceless value of each human life, at every stage of life. In the Pro-life cause we have recognizable opponents: Abortionists, those who promote assisted suicide, Pro-Choice organizations, Planned Parenthood. It is also true, however, that we have disagreement, misunderstanding and opposition from among our own spiritual relatives, the family of believers within the Catholic Church, what we may call “the household of the faith.” Of particular concern are Catholics in public life who take Pro-Choice positions and vote for Pro-Choice legislation.
Like those relatives of the Lord, some of our brothers and sisters in the faith urge us not to witness to the value of human life, not to call for its protection. For example, they will advise us not to plan a Walk for Life. It’s acceptable if we will read a book about the issues, or perhaps gather in small groups for prayer, but above all we must not make a fuss.
We are told that we are engaged in “a losing battle.” We don’t believe that, but it can look that way at times. Actually, time is on our side, and so are the sonograms. And lately, so are the polls.
We are imperfect workers in an urgent and just cause. Not everything that all of us say and do is always wise, just because the cause is so right. Remember the story of the disciples James and John, the Sons of Thunder as Jesus called them. In the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel the people in a Samaritan village would not welcome Jesus, so the brothers James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Luke says, “Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.” Self-righteousness and condemnation of others are dangerous temptations for us disciples. It is not for us to decide that we are holier or better or more pleasing to God than others are. Embracing the truth does not exempt us from embracing humility. We zealously struggle against falsehood and violence, but the judgment of persons belongs to God.
I taught English in college, and in one course we read Robert Bolt’s play about Saint Thomas More, “A Man For All Seasons.” There’s a fascinating difference between the play itself and the film that was made later. At the end of the film, Thomas More is executed, we are told what later happened to several other characters, and then the credits roll. It was fairly easy to leave the movie identifying with the hero-saint.
In the original play, but not in the film, there was a character known as “the common man.” The same actor played Thomas More’s servant, then a boatman, later a prison guard in the Tower of London, and finally the executioner. At the end of the play, after the saint was beheaded, that actor stepped to the front of the stage and addressed us in the audience directly. He said: “I’m breathing. Are you breathing too? It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends. Just don’t make trouble—or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected. Well, I don’t need to tell you that. If we should bump into one another, recognize me.” Curtain. No chance of identifying with the saint in that moment.
In our Walk for Life one could say that we do make trouble, or make waves, or whatever you want to call it. And in a way it’s not the kind of trouble that expected—or tolerated—or easily shrugged off or ignored. Witness and prophecy trouble people. Indeed, they are meant to. We pray at this Eucharist that we shall witness to the truth in charity, as Pope Benedict’s encyclical challenges us to do. It is not enough merely to keep breathing—with our breath and our life we must witness to the Word made flesh, the Lord of all Life, Our Savior Jesus Christ. We walk today to celebrate life, to save lives, to do more than just keep on breathing, so that generations of children will draw the breath of life.