AN ASTONISHING HOPE

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
November 18, 2018

My Grandma Byron died 30 years ago today.  I remember it as a sad day, but not too much.  She was almost 90 years old and had been suffering from the effects of dementia for about a decade.  She had long since lost her ability to speak coherently, or to recognize any of her family by name—including me.  But she was happy.  When I and others visited her she lit up with a bright smile—so delighted she was to be recognized as someone worthy of attention.  The syllables that fell from her lips were incomprehensible, but who cared?  It was the rest of us, her family, who were so sad and worried and frustrated by what was going on.  But she wasn’t.  She knew that she was surrounded by the love of all these people, and that was enough.  Whoever they were.

Among the reasons that I remember this date so well is that I had just been ordained a deacon the day before she died.  My first Mass as a deacon was my grandmother’s funeral, and when the priest offered for me to preside at the cemetery for burial I could only think, “No!”  I was scared to death in this new role.  But the priest came with us, with me, to the grave site and looked on as I began this new ministry in front of all my family—which was the scariest part.  To be presuming suddenly to be imparting blessing prayers over my father’s mother, as he was standing there next to me?  Are you kidding me?  Who was I to be doing this?

The point of sharing this personal memory is simply this:  The only person who wasn’t all anxious and upset and fearful about my grandma’s death back then was my grandma.  She was the one who was moving through the paschal mystery, and she was not consumed with all of the discomfort and doubt and awkwardness that so many of the rest of us were.  She simply entrusted herself to God and community, believing that all would be well.  And it was.  I was enough.

These last couple weeks of the Church’s liturgical year focus our attention upon the end of the world and the end of our own lives, both of which are inevitable, and both of which can threaten to throw us in to panic or fear or despair, if we allow that.  But our Sacred Scripture today assure us that that is not necessary—and in fact it isn’t ever useful, or faithful to the God whom we serve.

Part of what it means to be human is to be mortal.  Some of us hate that, and some of us spend our lives railing against that or trying to deny that or being angry about that.  But it just is—and the reassurance of Jesus in today’s gospel is that, for as unsettling as death can be for us and for our loved ones.  There are things that are worse than death, and more ultimate than death.  His own life and death proved that.  To be far from God and far from human love is a far worse thing that death.  Because God can “fix” the effects of death, and whatever sickness and disability and sadness lead up to that moment.  We call that resurrection, as Jesus himself showed us.

But God cannot fix a heart that has chosen to go its’ own way, to be alone in the world in the face of so many threats.  Well, God could fix a heart like that, but God won’t if that is a person’s desire.  God respects our freedom to turn away.  

In today’s gospel of Mark Jesus goes out of his way to emphasize the enormity of the fearful things that will confront human beings sooner or later—whether those people have any faith or not:

    * The sun will be darkened
    * The moon will give no light
    * The stars will be falling from the sky
    *All that seems to be stable in heaven and earth will start to crumble.

And he holds up all that potential scariness only in order to say that none of it has to make us terrified or doubtful or cynical.  We Christians don’t deny the threats.  We hope through them.  “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says.  Well that’s a fairly frightening thing to know.  “But, my promises—my words—will never pass away.”  And these promises involve life and peace beyond even what seem to be the most absolute and dreadful facts of existence most especially, the fact of death.  Think of what most frightens you/us about our future, and think about how God is bigger even than that.

    * Think of global warming and climate devastation
    * Think of international terrorism
    * Think of hardened racial and religious bigotry and intolerance
    * Think of endless gun violence against innocent children and others
    * Think of hurricanes, floods, fires, draught
    * Think of systemic tolerance of physical, sexual, & emotional abuse.

There’s plenty to be fearful about, perhaps bordering on despair or hopelessness.  Jesus’ promise to us today is that God’s abiding love and care are bigger even that these.  All these threats that seem so impossible to defeat, all of them will pass away.  But the word of God will not.

Our responsibility in the here and now is to work with all our hearts and strength to confront and to resist these forces of evil and to be builders of God’s order and God’s reign, with the help of His grace.  But we are to do that with the conviction that God will be victorious over every threat, so that we may do our work with confidence and gratitude and even joy, rather than in fear and panic and hatred.

Jesus’ wish for his friends was and is that they be at peace, not frenzy.  For me, as I remember my grandma today, she is an icon of all that.  Knowing that God is bigger and more enduring than this.    


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