6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jer 17:5-8; 1Cor 15:12, 16-20; Lk 6:17, 20-26
Hope is the central theme that ties all our readings together this morning. In our first reading we heard, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream.” The refrain for the responsorial psalm was, “Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.” Our second reading added, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” And in the gospel we were presented with the Beatitudes: the great hope for the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted.
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, describes his experience in four concentration camps during the Holocaust. He noticed a big difference between prisoners who had hope and those who didn’t. Those without hope were broken in spirit and soon withered up and died. Those with hope had something to live for; they had a survival spirit. Their hope and longing for something in the future gave meaning to the present. For Frankl himself it was the dream he kept alive of someday being reunited with his beloved wife. That hope helped him get through a lot of really rough times and a lot of really disturbing experiences.
It seems like hope might be on the wane in our country these days. The suicide rate in the US jumped 30% from 2000 to 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among women the rate has increased by 50%. And suicide is now the second leading cause of death for all Americans from 10 to 34 years old. That’s some pretty disturbing data! Could it be at all connected with a corresponding waning of belief in God, church attendance, and belief in an afterlife? If this life is all there is to live for, I can see how people could feel pretty discouraged. Of course, suicide is a pretty complicated issue, and often intertwined with mental illness or addiction. It’s not as easy as to say that people who believe in God don’t commit suicide. But I think there is some correlation.
I think the gist of the Beatitudes is to not live for this life only, to fix your gaze above and beyond. They’re not saying it’s automatically bad to be rich or we shouldn’t laugh now and have full stomachs. They’re saying don’t set your heart on these things – they pass away – the next life lasts forever. If you look at most of the beasts of the fields, they walk on all fours. Their orientation and focus seems to be on the earth; they’re more pointed in that direction. They’re mainly preoccupied with eating and drinking and procreating. But we humans stand upright and walk on two legs. We were created for our focus to be more up than down. We are unique among God’s creation to have a will and an intellect. We have immortal souls. We were made in God’s image and likeness.
To let things like eating and drinking and pleasure rule our lives is to revert to the state of the beasts and animals. We might as well crawl around on our hands and knees. We were made for much higher things. We were made to be in a personal relationship with God. If you feel persecuted now in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for believing in God and living your life accordingly in a world that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian, don’t become discouraged. In fact, “rejoice and leap for joy,” for “your reward will be great in heaven.”
Jeremiah, in our first reading, contrasted those who hope and trust in the Lord and those who don’t. One group was likened to the tree that “stretched out its roots to the stream” and “showed no distress in the year of drought”. The other group was compared to “a barren bush in the desert” that “stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” That image reminds us a lot of what Viktor Frankl saw in the concentration camps and in our own country in the last 20 years: a withering, a loss of the will to live, discouragement, despair. To put our hope in earthly things is to set ourselves up for dissatisfaction. Animals can find satisfaction in these things, but not us – not in the long term. We have a built-in longing for the eternal. And our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
Christ really did rise from the dead – it’s not just a myth. Science is coming up with more discoveries every year demonstrating the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. That image was put there by some unexplainable phenomenon. And as St. Paul pointed out in our second reading, Christ’s resurrection is so important to our hope in our own resurrection. His resurrection is the firstfruits of what the rest of us can expect and hope for. So many people in third world countries are hungry now and don’t have many of the basic necessities of life. When people from first world countries visit them, though, quite often they comment on how happy they are and generous. These people truly are standing upright and are looking more up than down. They are putting their hope in eternal things.
I would like to end by quoting article 1818 of the Catechism for food to ponder:
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.