Sunday, October 7, 2012

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of you might recall the Catholic custom of “First Fridays.”
These were days especially devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
when Catholics would go to special Masses 
or perform other devotions.
This was sometimes associated with promises
of particular spiritual benefits
for those who received communion at First Friday Masses
for nine consecutive months,
most specifically the gift of dying in a state of grace
with the Heart of Jesus as their refuge in their final moments.
Now this might seems just a bit too calculating: 
in exchange for about half an hour a month 
over nine consecutive months
I can get my ticket into heaven stamped.
Seems like a pretty good deal.
It might be easy for some of us to be scornful
of such a simplistic spirituality
and be glad that the Church has grown beyond such things.

But the Church has not abandoned the custom of First Fridays;
in fact, I went to a First Friday Mass just this past week
at Loyola University, where I work.
I think it is actually a good thing 
that the Church has continued this practice,
because our Catholic tradition 
of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
is rooted in a profound theological insight
into the nature of God’s love for us.
Because God has become a human being in Jesus Christ,
God not only loves us with perfect divine love,
the dispassionate love of God’s benevolence to all creatures,
but God also loves us with the love of Jesus’s human heart,
a heart that, like our hearts, knows pain and distress,
a heart that is pierced and broken when love is rejected,
a heart that, precisely in being pierced and broken,
has become a source of grace, a place of refuge,
for all the brokenhearted of the world.
This theology is rooted in what we read today
in the Letter to the Hebrews:
Jesus is the one who by the grace of God 
tastes death for everyone,
who has been made perfect through suffering.
A human heart made perfect through suffering –
made perfect in the knowledge 
of what each and every one of us suffers,
an intimate knowledge of the failures and betrayals 
of human love,
as well as love’s glories and triumphs.
And, the writer of Hebrews says,
he is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.

This is good to bear in mind 
as we reflect on our Gospel reading,
in which we hear Jesus’s stringent 
and challenging teaching
regarding marriage and divorce.
His words offer no escape clauses,
and I am not going to try to invent one for you.
Even if we put the teaching in historical context
and understand that in Jesus’s culture
the way in which men could cavalierly abandon their wives
was a genuine social justice concern,
Jesus’ teaching still does not seem to recognize
the pain that often accompanies the collapse of a marriage:
the shattered hopes and broken hearts and rejected loves.
Of course, Jesus’s point here is to underscore for his hearers
the challenge of being his disciple
and the promise that the original integrity of creation
will be restored through him.
But we should also remember that this challenge and this promise
are made by one whose own heart is broken on the cross
by the rejection of his love.
However we deal with the challenge 
of Jesus’s teaching on marriage,
we must remember that he too is one 
whose human heart is wounded,
and that from his wounded heart 
he offers salvation and hope.

On Friday, as Mass was ending, 
I reflected on the people who were there.
Many of them were elderly,
and they undoubtedly had long experience
of the joys and sorrows of human life:
promises kept and promises broke,
hopes fulfilled and hopes destroyed,
marriages that survived and marriages that didn’t.
What drew them there to that church on that day?
Was it simply the promise of the benefits gained
by attendance at nine consecutive First Fridays?
Or was it, rather, the chance to worship the God
who knows from within the joys and sorrows of the human heart
and whose love can sustain us through those sorrows and into joy?

Whenever I officiate at a wedding in this church,
before the service I light a candle 
at our altar of the Sacred Heart,
and I pray that the couple would know 
the love of Jesus in their marriage:
the love of a heart that is broken, yet forgives,
a heart that knows our failings but is always open to us,
a heart that is a place of refuge and of healing.
I pray that all of us would come to know 
the love that flows from that heart
and would share it in turn with all those whom we meet.