Friday, March 02, 2007
“Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? ’” (Luke 13:2)
“SOUL-SURFING” – March 11, 2007
Third Sunday in Lent
(Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Luke 13:1-9)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
It’s been going on for 5 years now, and I keep meaning to do something about it, to talk with the man about our puzzling hallway encounters at the hospital. Then as quickly as we crossed paths he’s gone, dust mop or broom in hand, and I forget my resolution until our next nonsensical encounter. I saw him again just a few days ago, and finally it dawned on me that this man had a great theological lesson to teach me. It’s taken me 5 years to catch his gift, but I think I’ve got it now.
Hector, an older man who works in our hospital’s environmental services department, daily patrols miles of hallway with dust mop or broom in hand. Most people, I’ve noticed, pay him little attention, he all but invisible to them. I’ve made it a point to acknowledge him on our regular corridor encounters, mutual smiles preceding our brief cordiality. For 5 years now this has been our simple exchange: Me: “Good morning, Hector!” Him: “Fine! Thank you!” And off we go our separate ways, he thinking I’ve asked him how he is, me wondering if English is his first language. It’s been puzzling me for years now, and though I’ve not stopped the man to test his language skills, I’ve sure been meaning to. Then it happened again just a few days ago. Me: “Good morning, Hector!” Him: “Fine! Thank you!” And in a flash I experienced an enlightenment.
I’ve been asking him the incorrect question for 5 years! It wasn’t his answer that was wrong; my question was wrong. And I resolved in that moment henceforth to greet Hector differently. Me: Hector, how are you today?” Him: “Fine! Thank you!” Now that works!
I guess I finally understood our communications dilemma after spending a morning with a young woman saying goodbye to her dying husband. Amid her tears, hugs and kisses were the questions spoken within earshot of me but clearly directed to God: “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why does Paul have to die so young?” “What’ve we ever done to deserve this?” Choked questions poured out in sobs over a young husband dying of cancer; anguished questions seeking answers that no mortal could provide. Silently I wrapped my arms around her shoulders.
It took a morning spent with a young woman’s grief to make some sense of my confused relationship with Hector. Me: “Good morning, Hector!” Him: “Fine! Thank you!” I’d been asking the wrong question all along, convinced that Hector was the dumb one, or at least the one who just didn’t get it. Then, on an anguished morning of love’s earthly parting, I heard in a young wife’s question the same non sequitur I experienced with Hector. She: “God, Why are you doing this to us? What have we ever done to deserve this?” God: “I love you both very much, more than you can imagine.”
The scripture readings we hear today invite a consideration of the mystery of death. In the gospel passage from Luke, we find Jesus in conversation with an anxious crowd from Galilee trying to make sense of the sudden and violent deaths of their neighbors. “Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’” (Luke 13:2-5) It is clear that Jesus is trying to teach these grief-stricken Galileans that physical death is inevitable, having nothing at all to do with a person being bad or good, rich or poor, young or old. Physical death is not a punishment; it’s just part of the human condition that all mortals share. But here’s the more important point: physical death is the doorway to eternity, and how one has lived upon earth will determine the quality of one’s eternal life. So, repent, says Jesus! Put aside selfish, useless living so as to pass through physical death to an eternity spent at the right hand of God.
For 5 years I had been asking Hector the wrong question: Me: “Good morning, Hector!” Him: “Fine! Thank you!” And all along I was convinced he was the one who was just not getting it. Was his hearing impaired? Was English his first language? But a singular morning standing in the bright light of a young soul departing earth for eternity opened my ears anew to a voice rarely heard with clarity. “God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” (Exodus 3:5) Indeed, that morning, and so many others like it, I’ve been both privileged and humbled to stand upon that holy ground where human suffering finally surrenders its burden to the Divine Embrace. The struggles of a dying young man finally relax into stillness. The angry questions of a young wife give way to gentle pleas: “God, keep Paul safe,” and “Paul, send me strength to raise our children.”
I expect I’ll soon pass Hector once again, but this time I’ll ask him the right question. And I’ll pay lots more attention to his mop and broom, for with them Hector attends holy ground. Daily his energies are given to honoring those sacred places where earth meets heaven, where a young wife returns her husband to God, where finally the right question is asked, and God’s quiet voice is heard: “I love you both very much, more than you can imagine.”
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