Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
IS 55: 1-3; PS 145: 8-9, 15-16, 17-18; ROM 8:35, 37-39; MT 14:13-21
Who/What can separate us from the love of God?
I write these reflections with a heavy heart.
More than usual the world seems in disarray, pulled loose from any kind of ethical mooring. The crisis in Gaza continues and claims the lives of more and more innocents caught in the violence of an intractable conflict. The humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children seeking asylum at our border with Mexico continues with some voices crying "not our children, not our problem" and closing their eyes to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls.
An airliner has been shot down over Ukraine, extinguishing the lives of 298 men, women, and children. Violence continues in Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia with kidnappings and executions.
The streets of Chicago witness an increasingly senseless toll of death and wounding due to firearms. In Iraq, poignantly, the last Christians, along with Shia Muslims living in the city of Mosul, have been expelled with the threat of death at the hands of fanatics from the "Islamic State," ending a Christian presence in this city that dates back to the second century.
It is with all this in mind that we read St. Paul's rhetorical question, "What [who] will separate us from the love of Christ?" At first glance, for these suffering people around the globe, the answer seems to be clear: there are many things that challenge this love.
But on closer examination, what St. Paul says is crucial for us and for suffering humanity. The misunderstanding is in the word "of." At first glance, we could think that Paul is referring to our love of God. That nothing - anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword - will separate us from loving God. In other words, loving God is something we should be doing despite all of these terrible things.
This understanding, however, completely misses Paul's point. It is not our love that is being referred to. Rather it is God's love for us. Despite anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword, God's love for us holds firm. In spite of suffering and death, God's love is there and "we conquer overwhelmingly because of him who loves us."
Writing for the persecuted Christians of his day, Paul empathizes that this love is stronger than earthly or cosmic powers. Our faith in this love is ultimately not something we do for God, but it is rather something that God does for us.
Much like the reading from Isaiah that highlights God's call to come to water, "without paying and without cost." God constantly reaches out to humanity without demanding a price from us, without conditions ... and to quote the first letter of John, "We love because God first loved us" (1Jn. 4:19).
In other words, we need to get over our tendency to think that it is up to us; that we can "earn" God's love - for it is always there, despite our limitations and sinfulness and in even the most terrible conditions of trial and persecution for it is God who has "paid the price" in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is up to us to respond to this love freely given.
May we pray this Sunday, paraphrasing the words of the Second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, that through the outpouring of God's grace "hatred be overcome by love and revenge give way to forgiveness."
Fr. Mark R. Francis, CSV
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