Homily: 6th Sunday in Easter – Cycle C
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. Although this commemoration began as a memorial to the soldiers who died in the American Civil War, it has come to be recognized as a memorial for all who have died in service to the United States of America, particularly through the armed forces. It’s original name, Decoration Day, points to the primary activity that marks this day: the visiting of cemeteries and decorating the graves of fallen service men and women with flowers or flags as a sign of honor and remembrance. We will all do well to pay attention to this primary point as we embrace our activities this weekend.
I have to say, though, that I really appreciate this holiday. As human beings, we recognize that the sacrifices that men and women make to defend our nation and our freedoms is something extraordinary; and that to have suffered death because of it is more extraordinary still. In many ways these men and women are like martyrs: those who confront challenges to that which we value most (in this case, our nation and our freedoms) and who lay down their lives in defense of them. These men and women exemplify the truth that Jesus spoke to his disciples the night before he died: “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The men and women we honor this weekend loved us, as fellow citizens of this nation and, thus, friends, when they chose to serve our nation at the cost of their own lives. Therefore, I appreciate this holiday because it honors something truly noble and worthy of remembrance.
In our second reading today, and over the last weeks of Easter, we’ve been hearing from the visions of John the Apostle while he was in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. Although many over the centuries have called these visions a view of what Jesus’ second coming would look like, many more have said that these visions were given as prophecies of what the Christians in those days (and, really, Christians of every age following) would need to hear to strengthen them in faith so as to deal with the challenges that they will inevitably face to live the faith and to proclaim Jesus to others. In these visions, John is often given a vision of a large multitude of men and women who stand before the throne of God in brilliant white robes. These men and women are described as those who have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb”. In other words, these are the martyrs: the ones who have suffered persecution for the faith and who have remained faithful to Jesus, to the point of dying for him. In all of these readings, these are the ones who have an honored place in heaven.
In today’s reading, which is from the last chapter of this book (and, thus, from the end of John’s visions), it is Christ himself who speaks to John and, thus, solemnly declares the following: “Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.” Again, “those who wash their robes” are the martyrs who have handed over their lives in the imitation of Christ. Their reward is the very thing that was taken away from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: access to the tree of life. Thus, we see that, through Christ, we have been restored to the paradise lost by our first parents. The martyrs seemed to lose everything in this world when they handed over their lives to death on account of their faith in Christ, but that same Christ reveals that, in reality, by handing over their lives, they have gained eternal life.
Of course, we recognize the extraordinary nature of this giving of life, also, and so we regularly honor the martyrs for their witness to the faith. Like the honoring of our fallen military men and women, the honoring of the martyrs is a truly noble thing to do. The honoring of the martyrs should also be a reminder for us, however. A reminder that every Christian is called to be a martyr in some way: that is, one who gives witness to Jesus Christ in his/her life. This is epitomized in the title given by the Church to Christians still living in time (a title that those who are old enough will remember learning in their early catechism classes), and a title that is fitting to be reminded of on this Memorial Day weekend: for we are called the Church Militant.
Although the term “militant” translates somewhat literally to mean something like “marching”, as in “walking around in space and time”, we should, nonetheless, allow ourselves to think of the term in the sense that it invokes: that we are God’s “armed forces” here on earth, sent into battle to proclaim and defend the name of Jesus and his kingdom here on earth. We are God’s foot soldiers and we have a noble duty. When Christ returns, as he revealed in the reading today, we will receive “recompense” for our faithfulness to that duty. Notice, that I didn’t say “success”. God won’t measure our success, as if we somehow earn our reward in heaven, but rather our faithfulness to the duty, thus demonstrating our love for him and our faith in the fact that he has already won the reward for us. In our faithfulness to the duty—faithfulness, that is, without compromises—we demonstrate our love for Christ and, thus, our willingness to lay down our lives for him so as to have our robes “washed in the blood of the Lamb”.
We would do well, my brothers and sisters, to reflect on our faithfulness this weekend as we honor those who were faithful to us: our nation and our freedoms. Are we giving ourselves as fully as we ought to Christ and his kingdom? Or are we making compromises and, thus, shirking our noble duty? My guess is that the answer for most all of us is that we can still give ourselves more. And so, let’s let the inspiring example of those who gave their lives for our nation and freedoms point us to the inspiring example of the Christian martyrs; and, thus, lead us rededicate ourselves to fulfilling our noble duty to Christ and his kingdom. For it is Christ himself who, out of love for us, first laid down his life for us; and it is Christ himself who, out of love for us, continues to give himself for us in the Eucharist; and it is Christ himself who, out of love for us, will one day return to take us home to himself in the glorious kingdom of heaven. “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
Given at St. Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – May 25th & 26th, 2019