Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Happiest Place on Earth
Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Florida every year to visit a place that calls itself the happiest place on earth. Yes, that's right, they come here to see Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck and a whole lot of Goofies at Disney World. Everywhere they go, they will find the smiling faces of the Disney cast, doing their best to convince us that they are in the happiest place on earth. It's interesting that Disney refers to its staff as cast members. They are just acting out a part.
Life is not magical, like the Magic Kingdom. But life can be infinitely happier than the life portrayed in Orlando. A touch of union with God now and the certain hope of eternal union with Him in the hereafter brings a deep joy that doesn't end when the park closes. When a person is doing his or her best to reflect the wonder of God in the world, then that person enjoys a sense of fulfillment and completion. Fulfillment comes because the person has a reason for his or her existence. Completion comes because the person's joy is due to the integration of his or her full humanity, physical and spiritual.
It is lovely to visit the Magic Kingdom. There is nothing wrong with Fantasy Land, aside from the $15 burgers, that is. There is nothing wrong with any of us taking a break from reality and enjoying Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens, etc. Actually, I am convinced that a visit to these places helps our children develop their imaginations. It is good to have happy memories of family fun time. And you don’t have to be a child, it is good for us all to have take a few days away from our daily problems. It is lovely to visit Fantasy Land. But we have to realize that we can't live in Fantasy Land. We live in a real world with challenges and crises. We need to learn how to deal with the world where we live, not one where we wish we lived. We need to live with horses, not with unicorns.
Peter was not ready for the real world. He wanted to live in a world where he could be happy and carefree. "God forbid, Lord, that anything should happen to you," Peter said in Matthew 16:22 when Jesus predicted his passion and death. "Get behind me, Satan," Jesus' rebuke must have stung Peter terribly. "You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." Peter thought that happiness could come without a price. He was not ready to put up a fight against evil. He was not ready to suffer for something that was Infinitely greater than this life.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 50, this Sunday's first reading, was ready to embrace whatever humiliation and pain that following God might entail. He says that he willing offers his back to those who beat him, his cheeks to those who plucked his beard and his face to those who would hit him, and spit on him. Why? Because he is convinced that God will care for him. God is his help. Who could possibly prove him wrong?
As committed followers of Christ, we know that those who attack us for living our faith may be able to hurt us physically, but they cannot hurt us spiritually. In fact, when the evil of the world attacks us, we can grow stronger in our commitment to Christ. It is then that we grow in joy, true joy, as we realize that the pain we feel is just helping us purchase a ticket to what is truly the happiest place in reality, union with God. The world of Jesus Christ demands that we take up our cross and follow our Lord.
Parents put up a struggle to raise their children to be strong members of the Kingdom of God. This often costs them a great number of upsetting conversations and many sleepless nights as they stand their ground before a child who wants to do what he or she says all the kids are doing. Some parents are told by little children that they are the meanest Mommy or Daddy in the world, or by teens, that they are the least understanding parents ever. Children's arguments may be reinforced by those who hold positions of respect but who suggest that the children behave in ways that are anything but respectful. But good parents hold their ground; stand for what is right, and, in time and with the Grace of God, see their sons and daughters grow into People of God assuming their own roles of leadership in the Church. And then these parents experience a deep, long lasting joy that comes from a life lived well.
Many people deal with chronic sickness in their lives, or worse, in the lives of their loved ones. They hold on to their faith and unite their pain to the Cross of Christ. Their suffering has value. When the crisis has subsided into a challenge, they realize that through it all they have come closer to the God who held them. There is a profound joy in knowing that we have been and always will be held.
Last Tuesday we remembered the horrible events that took place on September 11, 2001. We pray for those who were killed. We pray for the families. We also pray for those who did these horrible deeds and those who continue to perpetrate violence in the world. We must defend ourselves, true. But we cannot allow hatred to be our motivation. We cannot allow hatred to chain us to the world. Friday, the 14th was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The cross is a sign of love. Only love can free us from allowing hatred to bind us to a world without God.
"Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it. But whoever will lose his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it." Whoever wishes to limit his or her existence to the here and now, will have no existence that has any worth. Whoever is willing to sacrifice the ersatz happiness of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will have a joy that is infinitely richer than Disney, a joy that is eternal.
Our Diocese’s theme for its 50th anniversary is “Courageously Living the Gospel.” Today, as always, we pray for the strength and the courage to live our faith.