Monday, February 18, 2008

Help Thou My Unbelief

2 Lent A #25
Gen 12, 1-4a
Ps 33
2 Tim 1, 8b-10
Mt 17, 1-9

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
February 17, 2008

I hope everyone here has seen Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film, Life is Beautiful, La Vita è Bella in Italian. It won three Academy Awards. If you haven’t, you can make a date with Monica and come over to our house to watch it on VHS. Life is beautiful, indeed, yes it is, despite it all.

The movie’s plot is set in World War II, the persecution of the Jews. An Italian Jew and his son are picked up by the Nazis and sent to a death camp. The father tries to convince his young son -- he looks no more than five or six years old -- that it’s all a game, a contest, and that if he plays his part and keeps out of sight of the guards, he may win the prize. He tells the boy that everyone else in the camp is competing for the same prize, a tank, a military tank, not a toy, a real one. At last, the U.S. Army advances on the camp. The Nazis flee. But before they go, they kill all the prisoners they can. Improbably, the boy Joshua survives, playing hide-and-seek as his father is led away to be shot. When all is quiet, Joshua comes out of hiding and stands alone in a large, deserted open space. Suddenly a U.S. Army tank enters the camp, heads toward him and stops right in front of him. Joshua’s eyes light up with amazement. “È vero!” he says, “It’s true!” Joshua thinks that this is the prize, his prize, that he has won. He had begun to doubt. Soon he comes to realize just what it was that his father had given him, not a tank, but life, life itself. “It’s true!” But it’s more than he could ever have imagined, far more. Far more than a tank! It’s true!

Abraham believed and he obeyed. That is why he is our “Father in Faith.” He set out from his own country not knowing where he was to go, in obedience to God, to start a new life in a Promised Land. He was seventy-five years old. At that age one does not start a new life, you can take it from me. But he had the Promise. His wife had never conceived. And yet he is told that he will father nations, that his offspring will outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore. Sarah laughed at the very idea. And yet, Abraham became the ancestor of the Hebrews and the Arabs as well (and many of us here too, those of us whose roots are in Sicily and Southern Italy, where the Arabs held sway for two hundred years; they made genetic contributions to our people). Spiritually Abraham and Sarah are the father and the mother of all believers in the One God of the Hebrew Bible. They had reason to doubt. Abraham knew he was not the man he used to be, and Sarah laughed. They could not imagine that billions of Muslims and Christians as well as Jews would be blessed in their name and bless them in turn. But the Promise was true. More than they could possibly imagine.

Twice each year we hear the story of the Transfiguration, every Second Sunday of Lent, and again on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6th. Just six days before, Jesus had told his disciples that he was to be handed over to his enemies to be killed, and then be raised up. He took the three, Peter, James and John, up Mount Tabor, there to be transfigured, gleaming like the sun. Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Then the voice from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son.... Listen to him!” Peter, James and John fell on their faces, struck with terror. Jesus told them to get up, not to be afraid and not to tell anyone their vision until he had risen. What they had seen was a pale glimpse of what was to be, a sign of the glory that is to come after Jesus’ death. It is a sign of the Resurrection. No one is to speak of it until it is accomplished.

We believe in the glory that is to come; we have the Promise. Doubt may linger. We pray, “Lord I do believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mk 9,24). Any high school astronomy student can tell you that our sun is but a pebble wandering in the Milky Way in limitless space, aimlessly, it would seem. Our planet Earth is a speck of dust in the immensity of it all. Our lifespan, seventy or eighty years or ninety, is as a nanosecond in the billions of years the universe has been expanding. What are we then? The Psalmist sings, “What is man that you should pay him heed? You have created him a little lower than the angels....” Jesus tells us that not a sparrow falls from the sky nor a hair from our heads without God our Father’s leave, and that the Father has care of us.

Non-believers do not agree. That’s nothing new. An epitaph found in the ruins of a two thousand year old Roman cemetery reads, “In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recedimus.” “Into nothing from nothing how quickly we fall back.” An atheist friend of mine said the very same thing to me not long ago, “from a vast void into a vast void” he said of birth and death. In this view, life is meaningless, or worse; it is cruel. Lost in the stars we are victims of blind chance, and nothing more. Some claim it is all the more noble to struggle for peace and justice when you are convinced it is useless, as they do. Let’s see about that! I wish them a lot of luck! A world at peace, a world of solidarity, even a world that can sustain the impact of man will never be built unless we face the hard fact that our moral failings, pride and greed and the rest, are at bottom spiritual and must be addressed with the weapons of the spirit: prayer and the sacraments, penance and fasting, self-denial and the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual.

Lent is a time of waiting. We wait in quiet hope. We slow down. We pray more. We turn off the radio and the TV and we listen to what God is trying to tell us. We wait for Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus.

What is it we wait for in the afterlife for ourselves and our loved ones? We don’t know! We can be sure that it is glorious, to be in God, in God’s glory. It is life, the fullness of life, life everlasting. Saint John tells us, “We are God’s children now. What we shall be has not yet come to light. We know that when it comes to light we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3, 2).

It’s true! When we wake to it in the Resurrection, that’s what we will say, like little Joshua. È vero! It’s true, more than anything we could possibly imagine.

Get up. Do not be afraid!

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