Unreasonable Sacrifice

Homily for the Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year. 1 Kgs 17:10-16; Ps 145; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44

Today's readings show us how, when people love, a least a little, in the way in which God loves, the result is miraculous fruitfulness. In the First Reading, it appears 'unreasonable', by the standards of human wisdom, for a widow facing starvation to give a meal to the prophet Elijah. When the widow makes this sacrifice, a sacrifice that surpasses human prudence, her sacrifice is fruitful: her food is multiplied continuously until the end of the drought. Similarly, in today's Gospel, it appears 'unreasonable' for a widow to give everything she possesses, two small coins, to support the house of God. She makes the sacrifice, however, and those two coins have supported, through spiritual inspiration, many millions of people throughout the last two thousand years.

Now God does not tell us to abandon all prudence in matters of daily life. Nevertheless, it is striking how unreasonable sacrifices, sacrifices of divine love, have characterised the best of the Church throughout her history, as I hope a few examples will help to show. It was 'unreasonable', by human standards, for early Christians to refuse to pray to pagan gods or to reject the immoral practices of the ancient Roman Empire, such as abortion and infanticide. Indeed, the earliest mention of the Christians by a pagan historian, Tacitus, disparages Christians as the 'enemies of mankind' and describes how they were singled out for persecution by Nero. Three centuries later, however, the sacrifices of these early Christians proved astonishingly fruitful when the Empire was converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Turning to the fourth century, it was 'unreasonable' for some Christians to cling on to the Catholic faith that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, when the political elite of the Empire had turned, for the most part, to the Arian heresy. Yet these Christians were faithful, and the Catholic Church survived: indeed, the Creed that we say at every Sunday Mass is also a memorial of that struggle, affirming that we are Catholics, not Arians. In the fifth century, it was 'unreasonable' for a man who had been kidnapped by Irish pirates to return to the land of his kidnappers on an impossible mission, to convert his persecutors. Yet this man, Patrick, obeyed God's call, and Ireland was not only converted, but helped to save Western civilization when the Roman Empire collapsed. In the sixth century, it was 'unreasonable' for a monk, Augustine, to obey Pope Gregory and go on a mission to the remote, Anglo-Saxon barbarians of these islands. Yet Augustine obeyed, and the Church he established created the very idea of England as a nation.

Time precludes me from describing the countless, similar sacrifices in Christian history, so I shall mention just a few highlights. In the twelfth century, it was 'unreasonable' for Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, to defy the king's attempt to absorb the Church into the English state; indeed, as is well known, Archbishop Thomas was subsequently murdered in his own cathedral. It the thirteenth century, it was 'unreasonable' for St Francis of Assisi, in the middle of a crusade, to walk unarmed into Islamic territory to try to convert the sultan to Christianity. In the sixteenth century, it was 'unreasonable' for the Catholic Church to defend the rights of a woman, Catherine of Aragorn, not to be discarded by her husband Henry in favour of a younger woman. It was also 'unreasonable' for St Thomas More to defy nearly the entire English establishment to maintain loyalty to the Pope or for St Margaret Clitherow, a wife and mother, to face death for sheltering Catholic priests. In the seventeenth century, it was 'unreasonable' for Jesuits missionaries to go to remote parts of the world, risking their own lives to spread the good news of salvation. In the eighteenth century it was 'unreasonable' for many Christians in France to stay loyal to their faith in the face of the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. In the nineteenth century, it was 'unreasonable' for John Henry Newman to give up his privileged position at Oxford University, to risk losing his friends and family, to convert to the Catholic faith. In the twentieth century it was 'unreasonable' for Catholics to keep the faith in their face of persecution in Armenia, in Spain, in Mexico and in countries such as Poland, dominated by atheist dictatorships for many decades. For that matter, it is, in many ways, 'unreasonable' to be a Catholic in England today, to affirm, in contrast to the dominant culture, that life means more than maximising one's possessions or pleasures, or to affirm that the life of an unborn or disabled or terminally ill person cannot simply be snuffed out, judged by others as 'not worth living'. For that matter, it is 'unreasonable' when men or women commit their lives totally, and not merely provisionally, to marriage or to the priesthood or to the religious life, and it is even 'unreasonable', at times, to bring one's whole family to Mass when one is tired and uninspired.

Of course, such sacrifices are not at all unreasonable when seen from the perspective of God and our calling to love with God the things that God loves. As St Paul tells us, "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:25). Nevertheless, since it is not easy to lose one's life , it is important to remember how such sacrifices have proved fruitful again and again in the unfolding history of the Church. Comforted by such reassurances, may God take away our worldly fears in following Jesus Christ to everlasting life.

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