(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 1, 2002 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 13: 33-37.)

"Accept Your Mortality—With Faith!"

Over the last 10 years, our community has had to deal with the tragic deaths of several young people: Justin and Jill Gaccione, Chad Antoch, and Josh Becker—to name but a few.

And I’ve noticed that the typical response to these tragedies—especially among teenagers—has tended to follow a certain pattern. First, there is the initial experience of shock, anguish, and confusion; then there’s an effort on the part of these young people to gather together in small groups, so that they can give each other comfort and support; this is followed by a desire to memorialize the deceased in some way—with a roadside shrine, or a gift to the high school, or something of that sort. In the midst of all this, some pray and turn to God for strength and hope, while others blame the Lord for the death of someone they loved. And a number of teens who were on the wrong road resolve to change their lives for the better in response to what they’ve experienced.

But, sooner or later, the shock and anguish wear off, and at that point many are tempted to go back to old, self-destructive behaviors: the drinking, the drugs, the sexual promiscuity. And some give in to the temptation. In fact, if they haven’t adequately dealt with their grief and inner turmoil, they will typically use the booze, the dope, and the sex to try to deaden the pain in their hearts, and their problems and addictions will become worse than ever.

Now this is not what has happened in all cases—thank God. There are those who have actually experienced lasting, positive changes in the aftermath of these untimely deaths. One of them will be ordained a priest next year: Deacon Brother Juniper Mary Sistare. By his own admission, Deacon Brother Juniper (then known as Brian) was not living a very godly life when his good friend Justin Gaccione was murdered in a fight here in Westerly ten years ago. Brian’s initial response to Justin’s death was anger, coupled with a desire for revenge. But, to his great credit, he decided to give God a chance. He made a retreat to get his life in order—and the rest, as they say, is history. Unlike some of his other friends, Brian Sistare got on the right path and then stayed on it!

All these tragedies (along with the events of September 11, 2001) have challenged our young people to accept their mortality. And that’s not easy for them to do. There’s an old saying, "Teenagers tend to think they’re immortal." Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of truth in that statement. Of course, it’s really not that much easier for the rest of us, is it? Mortality is something which is not easily faced by people of any age, especially in our modern American culture where we are constantly fed the idea that we can achieve a kind of immortality here on this earth. We can have it, we are told, if we just use the right cream, get on the right diet, take the right vitamin, use the right exercise equipment, and wear the secret magnetic bracelet! (Don’t forget that one!) Let’s face it, our culture tries to put us—and keep us—in a state of denial concerning the finality of earthly life!

Now please do not misunderstand, God does not want us to be morbid pessimists who think of nothing but death all day long. But he does want us to accept life as it really is, not as we would like it to be. And I believe this is why the Holy Spirit, through the Church, frequently gives us Scripture readings at Sunday Mass like the one we heard today, from Mark 13. There Jesus says to us, "Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. . . . May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping."

Bible commentators will tell you that these words refer to that unknown time in the future when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead—his second coming, so to speak. But if we don’t survive until that day, then the Lord’s second coming for us will be the moment that we die—which is the moment that our mortality will be made manifest to the world.

So we must accept it—and better to do it long before that final breath.

But we must accept it with faith! That’s key. The teens I know who successfully dealt with the tragic deaths of their friends in the last decade all came to accept their own mortality. When their friends passed away, they faced the fact that this life is not forever, that life is not a game, and that actions have consequences (sometimes permanent ones!). But they came to this acceptance and realization with faith—with faith in a God who loves them and who sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for them. And so the acceptance of their mortality gave birth to hope in their hearts.

That’s very different from the situation of those who accept their mortality without faith. For them, the acceptance ultimately leads to despair.

On that note, I visited an elderly woman this week at Westerly Hospital who has long since faced her mortality. She’s now well into her 90’s, and her health is failing rapidly. I’ve brought her Communion for several years, and she’s always been upbeat and in good spirits whenever I’ve visited her. In fact, she normally greets me at her house by singing, "You are my sunshine . . . " (Can you imagine me being anyone’s sunshine?) Now in all honesty I expected this woman to be depressed and despondent the other day in the hospital. Her husband and most of her relatives are gone. Her sight is failing and she currently has pneumonia—as well as the normal aches and pains of a 90 year-old person. In addition to all that, a very close friend of hers died a couple of weeks ago—a woman who looked after her and was a companion to her in her old age.

But you know what? She was still singing, "You are my sunshine," and still smiling in the midst of her heavy crosses. We talked for awhile the other day about her health, about her friend’s death, and toward the end of the conversation she said to me, "Fr. Ray, I’ve been telling the Lord lately that I’m ready to go home. Is that wrong to do?" (I think she felt a little guilty for saying that particular prayer.) I said, "Not at all, Evelyn. God blessed you with a good husband, good friends, and a wonderful life here on earth; but, as you know, we’re not here forever. The goal of life is heaven; and you’re simply praying to reach the goal."

This is a marvelous woman of hope—a woman who will probably be singing, "You are my sunshine" a few moments before she goes home to the Lord. Hope is what happens when you accept your mortality with faith, really believing in your heart (as she does) that the promises of God are true!

May hope "happen" in all of us.

 

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