This homily was given February 7th and 8th, 2009. The readings were Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23; and the Gospel was Mk 1:29-39, the curing of Simon Peter’s mother in law.
“In the interest of full disclosure, I must begin by pointing out that a great deal of this homily is inspired by and adapted from Pope Benedict’s great encyclical from 2007 – “Spe Salvi”, that is “In Hope”.
When I first read the passage from Job that we just heard, I was immediately struck by the profound feeling of utter HOPELESSNESS that it projected – it truly sounds like the mournings of someone who has nothing to live for.
Agony and near despair permeate his words – and I know that words like these may very well be in the hearts and minds of many of us during these oh so uncertain times:
“My days come to an end without hope – I shall not see happiness again.”
Have our problems taken us to a place where we feel hopeless?
Perhaps someone who feels that way might even be sitting near us right now?
Ask anyone who has ever stood in the unemployment line – we can come up with all sorts of ways to “distract ourselves” or to create hopes that end up being false just to get through the day – because in our minds the only alternative is to feel NO HOPE at ALL
But I’m telling you as one who has stood in that line – multiple times in fact – FALSE HOPE may FEEL better that NO HOPE, but in the end they behave exactly the same.
Where is TRUE hope in the face of hardship?
What can “SAVE US” when suffering is at our doorstep?
I turn to Papa Benedict – from Spe Salvi:
“WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN HOPE – TRUSTWORTHY HOPE – by virtue of which we can face our present, even if it is arduous.
The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.
We possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.”
A real encounter with God.
The True Hope and thereby True Relief.
That’s what Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John and the entire village of Capernaum experienced in today’s Gospel reading.
That’s what Peter’s mother in Law received – and we saw what it did for her.
That’s what the entire region of Galilee would have in the days after this event – a real encounter with God.
And that is what will make HOPE real for us – just like it did for me eight years ago this next week in fact.
A REAL ENCOUNTER WITH GOD.
That’s why Job – even though he had lost everything and sounded as if he were at the bottom of the darkest pit of Hell – never REALLY lost his hope – his entire LIFE was one real encounter with God.
Encountering God is HOPE GIVING you see – for it is LIFE GIVING. GOD is LIFE INCARNATE.
He is the ultimate existence. His name as he told Moses from the Burning Bush was simply “I AM” – in Hebrew “Yah Weh.” Existence. Life. Hope.
So the real question then becomes – HOW?
How do we have a “REAL encounter” with God?
I think that sometimes the very BEST way for us to encounter God often comes through encounters with other people, particularly when we hear about those who kept the faith – who endured – and who ended up triumphing in the end despite overwhelming odds. And sometimes only a saint will do.
The person I have in mind is probably someone you have NOT heard of – a saint that you probably do NOT know, but she is apparently one of Pope Benedict’s favorites because it was in Spe Salvi that I learned of her incredible story – and of the power that a REAL encounter with God can have.
Josephine Bakhita was her name. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan.
At the age of nine, she was kidnapped from her family by slave-traders and over the next eight years she was sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan.
The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget the name she was actually born with – the name by which we know her is a compound of the name given to her by the slavers (Bakhita is the Arabic word for lucky) and the Christian name she later took in adulthood.
She suffered much brutality during her captivity. On one occasion, one of her owner’s sons beat her so severely that she spent a month unable to move from a straw bed. As a result of all that she endured, including near constant floggings and even branding irons, she would bear over 144
permanent scars all over her body throughout her life.
She was eventually bought by a Venetian diplomat who brought her to Italy. It was here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”— in Italian he was called “Paron” – he was Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.
Up until that time she had only known masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there was a “Paron” above all masters – the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good – goodness personified in fact.
She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her, and that he actually loved her.
She learned that she was loved by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters were themselves no more than lowly servants.
She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”.
She finally had REAL “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but a GREAT hope.
She would later write “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”
She was soon baptized by the Patriarch of Venice and took sanctuary with the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters in Italy, an order of charity into which she would profess her final vows six years later.
Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order, and she was instructed to publish her memoirs and to give talks about her experiences and these made her famous throughout Italy.
The liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ she felt she had to extend to the greatest possible number of people.
Her last years were marked by sickness, but she always retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, would always smile and answer “as the Master desires”. She died at her Convent in Italy in 1947.
On October 1, 2000, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II and became Saint Josephine Bakhita. She is venerated as a modern African saint with a special relevance to slavery and oppression. She has in fact been adopted as the patron saint of Sudan.
I was profoundly moved by Josephine’s story when I read it. She faced unimaginable suffering, pain and hardship – things our modern western society can barely conceive of today, much less ever really understand.
Much like Christ’s crucifixion in fact.
But what struck me the most was how Josephine encountered Christ – she found him through the actions and the faith that she saw in the Holy Sisters. She knew him not at all at first – until he was made present to her through them.
We must seek out that personal encounter with Christ to rekindle our hope – and one of the best places to find him is in the kindness and simple faith of others.
For those of us without hope – this provides a source for its refreshment.
And perhaps more importantly, for those of us who still have hope, this provides us the opportunity to live up to our baptismal responsibilities to bring Christ to those who may have forgotten him.
It’s easy to be distracted – it’s easy to lose hope.
But it’s up to each one of us here however, to find ways to bring that REAL hope – the hope that does not disappoint – back to those around us when they seem on the verge of losing it.
Christ put each of us here to be his hands and his voice to each other – it’s something of which we must never lose sight.”