Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Culture of Life
The Gospel reading for this Sunday begins with Jesus hearing the news of the death of John the Baptist, murdered, as you know, by Herod as part of the plot of his wife, Herodias, to protect her position at court. You know the story. Herod had been riveted by John the Baptist’s prophecy and had been listening to the Baptist’s condemning Herod’s present marital situation. Herod had met up with his brother Philip in Rome and fallen in love with Philip’s wife. He then divorced his own wife, Phasaelis, daughter of a King Aretus of Nabatea, and stole his brother’s wife. Most likely, she changed her name to Herodias. Aretus was threatening to make war on Herod both to avenge his daughter and to acquire some disputed territory. With Herod listening intently to John the Baptist, Herodias’ situation in court was precarious. This is what was going on when Herod gave a banquet for notables in the Kingdom. Herodias seized the opportunity and had her daughter, who tradition would call Salome, dance for Herod. When Herod promised the girl that he would give her whatever she wanted, she voiced her mother’s desire and demanded the head of John the Baptist.
Today’s Gospel says that when Jesus heard the news about John, He withdrew to a deserted place to be by Himself. Jesus often went off somewhere to pray. What must His prayers have been after hearing about John’s death? Perhaps He was trying to understand the will of the Father for John and for Him. Perhaps He was contemplating the meaning of death. Perhaps, Jesus was considering the mystery of evil. John, the greatest prophet to live, had been put to death by pure evil. Evil would attack Jesus also, as well as the people He was gathering to Himself. Certainly, Jesus was grieving over the death of His kinsman, the one who had pointed at Him and called Him “the Lamb of God.”
Jesus would not be left alone for long, though. People sought Him out. He could not allow His grief to keep Him from caring for the people. He needed to feed them, in word and in deed. Many of you have behaved the same way. I have witnessed and been edified by so many of you who have suffered horrible crises, such as the death of a spouse, but who refused to allow your grief to prevent you from caring for others, particularly for your children.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus would also be put to death by evil, but He would not allow Himself to be caught up in evil, caught up in the culture of death. Jesus came to bring life into the world, and, as John 10:10 proclaims, to bring it abundantly. He came to invite people, invite us, to join Him in the Culture of Life.
The Culture of Life is the way of living that celebrates the life we were given at our baptism, the life of God. The Culture of Life chooses the way of the Lord over all other possibilities. It considers how each decision best reflects the Presence of the Lord. St. John Paul II spoke often about the culture of life, but so also did many before him. Remember Bishop Fulton J. Sheen entitled his TV show, the first TV hit show, “Life is Worth Living.” In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us that no matter what the world throws at us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It was commitment to the Culture of Life that led Blessed Mother Theresa to care for the poorest of the poor. It is commitment to the Culture of Life that transforms humanism into charity, for even greater than reaching out to others out of respect for their humanity is reaching out to them out of respect for their own reflection of the image of God, their share in his divinity.
We are called to the Culture of Life. We are people of life, people of hope, People of God. It is our commitment to the culture of life that allows us to view the events of our physical lives as only part of the story of our lives. We live for God. Our patron, St. Ignatius of Antioch, wrote, “The Christian is not his own master, his time is God’s.” We live for heaven. We live for eternal life.
And we refused to be destroyed by the culture of death.
The culture of death only sees the here and now. It does not consider the impact of a person’s actions on his or her life or on the world in general. It is the culture of death that says, “Have the abortion.” How many babies are killed? How many great minds were never allowed to develop? How much beauty has the world lost? How much love? And how many girls have their lives destroyed? How many college freshmen and sophomores have been convinced by their parents and others not to change their college plans but to find a supposedly easy solution to their pregnancy? Then they go off to college, out of sight, but devastated for the rest of their lives.
It is the culture of death that says, “Party on.” It is the culture of death that assumes that high school people, college people, military people, bachelors and others are going to live wild lives, not concerned about the impact of their actions on others or on themselves. It is the culture of death that is so pessimistic that it takes it for granted that people have no choice but to be condemned to a life that is ultimately meaningless. It is the culture of death that speaks to the young about birth control as soon as they announce that they have a girlfriend or boyfriend. The culture of death presumes that the young will not be able to control themselves. It is the culture of death that says that retirees should live together rather than marry because finances are more important than eternal life. Think about it. It is the culture of death that is the philosophical basis of the sex industry. Basically speaking, the culture of death assumes that we are animals, unable to control ourselves.
But we are not animals. We are sons and daughter of God. We have dignity. We also have a right to demand that others treat us with the Dignity we have been given at our baptism. Whether we are thirteen or Ninety-three, we cannot allow anyone to assume that we are unable to control ourselves, assume that are condemned to live like animals, condemned to the Culture of Death.
And God says in Isaiah 55, our first reading:
Thus says the LORD:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully,
listen, that you may have life.
We have been called to Life. It is all right there for us. We can choose Christ. We can choose His Way, the Culture of Life. And we can be happy, now and forever.
But we must choose.