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October 8, 2017 - The Mystery of the Cross: A Reflection on Violence

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

This is the third week in a row that the gospel reading is about a vineyard. Two weeks back we heard the parable of the workers hired to work in a vineyard during different times of the day and being paid equally by its owner. Last week we heard the story of the landowner who asked his two sons to work in the vineyard and them responding differently. Both these parable had a common message - that God was accessible to the first and last alike, and yet, that it was the ones who were last that were walking in the kingdom of God first. This was not because God was somehow unjust, but because some of those who were first refused God’s offer of unconditional and redeeming love for all people. 

Today we have another parable of the vineyard. However, it has a surprising new dimension added to it - violence. A landowner leased his vineyard to tenants, who, when the time of reckoning came, beat, stoned, and killed the landowners servants and even his son. This last parable is the prediction of the story of Jesus as it played out in human and salvation history. Eventually, Jesus was brutally killed. It is true, is it not, that from the very beginning of biblical history, violence has been integral to the human story? That story includes the brutal killing of the Son of God, and continues in the killing and destruction people even in our days… most recently in Las Vegas. This week, our own parish was hit by vandalism and desecration. A little after 1am on  October 4th, two young men on bicycles toppled and smashed to the ground four of the nine statues that make our shrine. They also topped Mary’s crown with a fern pot and adorned her with an abandoned hula-hoop. Their intention clearly was to desecrate. While the shrine of Our Lady of Belmont has been plagued with desecration from its earliest days in 1958, this time the damage seems irreparable. While this is nothing in comparison to the deadly weekend in Las Vegas, the extent of the damage and the intentionality to desecrate a sacred space has shaken me, the parish community, and the community at large. As I said in the statements to the media, what the vandals did to the statues, they did to us, the living body of Christ. It was not only the shrine and the statues that they desecrated, it was a people that they violated. It is a community that feels desecrated. 

I would like to reflect on today’s parable in light of our own experience of violence. 

  1. The mystery of the Cross. Whenever we enter a Catholic Church, we are greeted by a crucifix. In reality, a crucifix is a very gruesome sight. Yet, we do not shelter even our littlest kids from the image of a man hanging on a cross. This is because from our very early days, our faith teaches us to look at the crucifix beyond the violence. For us Catholics, this gruesome sight holds a mystery.  The cross was a brutal effort to smother God’s plan for human redemption. However, what Jesus’ crucifiers hoped to accomplish did not come to pass. The cross, which was a violent symbol of defeat and death, was transformed into a symbol of forgiveness, mercy, and unfathomable love. It was not the cross that did it. It was the man on the cross who did that. Only, this man Jesus was the Son of God. Whenever, we are confronted with hate and violence, death and devastation it is the mystery of the cross that becomes our solace. Without condoning violence, without failing to protest the harm, and without failing seeking justice for the violence done to us, my personal response (and indeed of the entire parish staff) to the vandalism has been to transform the scene of desecration into a statement of forgiveness and healing. In this way, we continue to live out the mystery of the cross. Our experience of the desecration of the Mary’s shrine is an opportunity for us to live out the mystery of the cross. As we grieve the violence, let us also identify ourselves with Christ on the cross. In our sadness, let also us identify ourselves with Mary at the foot of the cross. Let us continue to transform hate into love, destruction into forgiveness, and grief into mercy. 
  1. They Cannot Destroy Us. Our parish mission says: “Immaculate Conception Parish is a community of disciples that embraces Christ's call to holiness, community and servant hood. We live our call to be Christ's disciples through our spirit-filled worship, empowering reflection on God's word, and genuine service to our neighbors. We also strive to think like Jesus, talk like Jesus and act like Jesus, and in this way make God's unconditional love evident for all.” When hate and destruction strike us as a parish community, it is always helpful to reflect on our identity and our mission. Over the past many years, with Fr. Dave Brinkmoeller as pastor, and now me, we have strived to create and nurture a genuinely diverse and welcoming community. It is true that sometimes it puts us at odds with people who think differently about God, about Christ, about Church, and about nation. This is not a new problem. In all the three parables that we have heard over the last three weeks, the point of contention was the fact that Jesus made God accessible to all people. My dear people, I believe, that in being who we are as a parish community, we are being true to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In response to the desecration of the shrine, we continue to strive to think like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and act like Jesus. In this neighborhood and in this city, we will stand as a beacon of hope for anyone who feels alienated, unloved, or rejected. Mary’s statue will continue to extend her hands in love to anyone who want to approach Jesus… even her enemies. They may destroy our statutes, but they cannot destroy the hope we have in our souls - that very hope that we offer to anyone who steps in through these doors. That we think, talk and act like Jesus - that no one can take away from us. Let us humbly continue to commit ourselves to our identity as a “Community of Disciples,” and as a people who strives to “think like Jesus, talk like Jesus and act like Jesus.” 
  1. Producing Fruit for the Kingdom of God. Today’s parable of the vineyard ends with an invitation even though it sounds like a threat. Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” What fruit are we talking about? Today’s second reading gives us the answer. Last week in his letter to the Philippians, Paul said to us: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” This week Paul lays out the practical implication of  that statement. He says, “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” As people saw my response to the vandals on traditional and social media, one of the Facebook post suggested that I develop a backbone against sin. It is not that I condone wrongdoing. It is not that I fail to see the destructive and devastating effects of sin, especially when human life is lost. My focus has been to end the cycle of violence. Nothing is gained in repaying hate with hate and anger with anger. On the other hand, the kingdom of God is at stake when repay evil with evil. If this will satisfy us - a video footage of the events of Oct 4 has been handed over law-enforcement officials and we await the results of the investigation. As we wait for these results, we will seek justice without the desire for revenge; we will seek to protect ourselves without becoming bitter; and, we will seek conversion of hearts without condemning sinners. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious - that we will seek. We will try to bear the fruit of the kingdom of God. As we experience sadness, and perhaps anger and frustration, I invite each one of you to “have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” and bear fruit of the kingdom of God.” When we do so, we continue the work that Christ began on the cross. If we do so, we will ourselves become one with Him who is the Kingdom of God. 

As I conclude this reflection, I must acknowledge the unimaginable, support, love, prayers, and goodness expressed by the local community and indeed from people across the nation in many, many ways. The parish community is grateful to the media, law-enforcement officials, and hundreds of thousand of well-wishes who have come to meet us, called us, written to us, or contributed financially or otherwise towards the rebuilding of the shrine. Yes, we will rebuild the shrine, but more importantly, we will continue the task of building the kingdom of God.   

- Fr. Satish Joseph