Sunday, April 04, 2010

Now the Green Blade Riseth

This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII, Monday, April 4, 2010

Matt was a 291 pound, 6’ 6” football player, regarded as one of the top lineman prospects in the country. After being pursued by Florida, Penn State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and many other colleges, he committed to Notre Dame and was set to enter Notre Dame this summer as their highest ranked incoming recruit. This past Friday he was on spring break in Panama City with 40 of his classmates from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. Tragically, having drank too much, he leaned over the rail of the fifth floor balcony to talk to someone the next room over, lost his balance and fell. He died instantly.

This isn’t a talk about drinking.

Instead, I ask for your prayers for his classmates at St. Xavier, a Catholic high school very similar to Pope John Paul II. Matt was just 17, due to turn 18 next week. You can only imagine the grief and the sense of loss his friends, classmates and family are experiencing right now. Please pray for them and the entire Xavier school community.

Some of you have undergone tragedy yourselves, experiencing the sudden loss of someone close to you through an accident or an illness. Others of you have endured lesser but still painful things like divorce, or your father or mother leaving the family, or betrayal by a close friend. Inevitably, when we are suffering through these terrible things, we ask ourselves—as no doubt all of Matt’s friend’s are asking—“Why me (or why him)? Why does God allow this to happen? Why not someone else who’s a jerk and has it coming? In fact, why does it seem like good people suffer more often than evil people? Is God paying attention? Does he care? "

To our Christian faith’s credit, we don’t believe there are easy answers to those questions. “God is testing us” or “God has a plan” are far too simplistic—and from the perspective of Matt’s family or others enduring a tragedy, I imagine, almost obscenely perverse, as if God needed their son to be a sacrificial lamb as a teaching tool for others.

What comes much closer to the truth, I believe, is revealed in the season we are celebrating during this Easter season. At the height of Jesus’ suffering on the cross—betrayed by one of the 12 closest to him, denied by his good friend Peter, turned over to Rome on a trumped up charge by his religious leaders, convicted by his own people, who shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and begged Pilate to let a murderer be released instead of him, scoffed at and ridiculed by the Roman guards--now on the cross, with pain searing through his wrists and feet, Jesus’ cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.?” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The message of the cross, I believe, in response to why God allows suffering, is that God suffers, too. The grief and suffering we feel is real—not something we should pretend is just a matter of perspective. He doesn’t tell us not to feel betrayed or cheated—he himself felt that way. He doesn’t promise us, like some child’s fairy tale, that we’ll “live happily ever after” in a life free from pain. He doesn’t offer some cheap medicine to make it go away. No, Jesus shows us on Good Friday that suffering is inescapable. The pain we feel, the grief, the sense of loss are all legitimate expressions of our human condition.

But he also shows us, through Easter Sunday, that this suffering does not get the final say--that despite the cross, there is also the resurrection, that despite whatever hardship, tragedy, and hatred we endure, that God’s love for us is even more real, deeper and more powerful. From the frozen earth of winter, green blades of grass can rise again. *

I’d like to end with a true story:

It revolves around a small boy of about seven who was stricken with a fatal, ferocious and fast growing cancer. He had been treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering with every sort of therapy known to science. But nothing further could be done. 

Perhaps they could administer one more dose of some experimental drug, but actually there was no real hope of recovery. And the side effects could only complicate the progression of the disease. 

So the family and the doctors gathered in the little boy's room for a final conference concerning his treatment.

They had tried almost everything, what could they possibly think of next? Finally the boy spoke up in a clear, crisp voice, "What I really want to do is to go home and learn how to ride my two wheeler." 

The bicycle had been a Christmas present. It had those little trainer wheels attached. But before the boy had gained enough confidence to remove the trainer wheels the cancer caught up with him and he was sent to the hospital. Learning how to ride a two-wheeler was the last thought the doctors or the parents would have contemplated. It just didn't seem possible. The boy was already physically weakened, why encourage him to do something that clearly would not be possible for very long even if he could succeed.

But the boy insisted and the resistance of the doctors and his parents melted away under the withering assurances of his clear brown eyes. And home they went. 

Not thirty minutes after they had settled in, they were out in the yard, the boy insisting that his father take off the training wheels and let him have a go at it. 

Obediently, but anxiously, his father took out his wrench and removed the training wheels to let him go. To their surprise, after only two false starts and one fall the boy was able to steer the bike, somewhat erratically to be sure. "And now," he said with mounting assurance in his voice, "Now I want to ride it by myself all the way around the block." Before anyone could stop him, he was off, up the street and around the corner out of sight. There were those few minutes of suspense as the parents, brother and little sister, waited for him to appear at the other end of the block, and after what seemed an eternity, there he was, headed for home, a gigantic expression of triumph and satisfaction written on his face.

When the excitement had settled down, the boy retired to his bedroom, and asked if he could be left alone with his little sister. He had his father bring the shiny blue bike into the bedroom. It sat there in the corner, a gleaming symbol of life. Then the boy turned to his little sister and said, "I won't be needing the bicycle anymore. I want you to have it for your birthday. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did." 

From under the shadow of death, and in the midst of life's deepest tragedies, there comes the resurrection of life.

Happy Easter, everyone!

* The title of this blog comes from the song, "Now the Green Blade Riseth". Here's the text:

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again.
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green,

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain.
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Friday, April 02, 2010

JPII: Five Years After

Today, April 2, 2010, marks the 5th anniversary of the death of our school’s namesake, Pope John Paul II.

There are now 12 high schools in the United States, with a 13th being built in Huntsville, that are named “Pope John Paul II High School” or “John Paul the Great High School”. I believe it’s a just another hint as to what history will prove: John Paul II was one of the two or three popes of most consequence in the history of our Church.

To celebrate this fifth anniversary, our school invited Mr. George Weigel to speak to our community as part of our “John Paul II Distinguished Lecturer” series. Weigel is best known for his authoritative biography on the life of JPII, entitled “Witness to Hope,” and thus knew him as well as any American. I asked him to speak to us about the legacy of JPII for our current and future church. Accordingly, his talk was entitled “The Ten Enduring Achievements of Pope John Paul II”.

A summary of his talk follows (my gratitude to Board member Diane Huggins for this summary):

1. JPII recast the role of the papacy by returning to the evangelical roots of Peter. He was not a “central administrator” of the Vatican but first and foremost a pastor. This is what led him to make 105 visits to foreign countries, to begin World Youth Day, etc.

2. His influence on the Second Vatican Council, helping it focus on a “Christ centered humanity”. He was instrumental in writing “Gaudium et Spes”, perhaps the most important document of the Council.

3. His central role in the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War. He was a pivotal figure in the 1989 revolution, beginning with his support of Solidarity in Poland and ending in the tearing down of the Berlin wall.

4. Correspondingly, his challenge to democracy: Democracy is a means and not an end. It is measured by how well it promotes the common good and supports human dignity, especially the dignity of its most vulnerable members.

5. His focus on ecumenism and unity in truth. He was instrumental in re- invigorating many ecumenical dialogues. His “Ut Unum Sint” encyclical puts the Catholic Church on an irrevocable path toward unity with other Christian faiths.

6. His efforts to strengthen Jewish-Christian relations and to reconvene the dialogue/conversation with the Jewish people for the first time in 1900 years.

7. His teaching that truths lead us to God and that we embrace the truths of the world of science, philosophy and other disciplines.

8. His theology of the human body and its relationship to moral life in response to the sexual revolution. He re-invigorated traditional Catholic moral teaching and gave it a persuasive, innovative foundation.

9. His Catechism of the Catholic Church. He called it a gift to the future of our Church. The very idea that a faith could be codified in an age of relativism was radical in and of itself.

10. His impact on lives throughout the world. How many hundreds of millions of people did his life inspire? His funeral was called by NBC news "the human event of our generation”.

It’s always a dubious enterprise to try and measure the historical “greatness” of someone who died such a short time ago. Still, I suspect we’re on solid ground in predicting that Karole Wojyla was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, and JPII, one of our greatest popes.

Sainthood is just a matter of time.