“We must never forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love. They help so many people to be healed or to die in peace in makeshift hospitals. They are present to those enslaved by different addictions in the poorest places on earth. They devote themselves to the education of children and young people. They take care of the elderly who have been forgotten by everyone else. They look for ways to communicate values in hostile environments. They are dedicated in many other ways to showing an immense love for humanity inspired by the God who became man. I am grateful for the beautiful example given to me by so many Christians who joyfully sacrifice their lives and their time. This witness comforts and sustains me in my own effort to overcome selfishness and to give more fully of myself.” – Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel”
Pope Francis, at the beginning of his apostolic exhortation, says to us, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
Three problems. One problem is that so few believe they need to be set free from sin. Why? In an age of relativism, not many people worry about personal sin. Relativism is a belief that there are few, if any, universal principles of right and wrong. Basically, we let the situation rather than a principle indictate what is right or wrong. We might all agree that to kill is wrong, but considering only the situation, relativism leads us to easily justify taking lives such as in abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, or acceptable numbers of deaths of innocents in drone attacks, and we can justifiably shoot anyone if we are scared. (The problem is that there is no universal definition of “scared.” It is relative. It depends on the situation.)
When guided by relativism we cannot rely on the past or turn to the future. We are forced to live in the moment without regard to past or future. A mistake made in the moment gets called a goof or an accident but not a sin.
A second problem is that fewer people believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or they believe yet it has no affect in how they live. A problem for many true believers is that we do not know how to encounter Christ. Making an encounter even more difficult is the ironic reality is that we fear we might actually be successful and have a true encounter with Christ.
The possibility encountering Christ is frightening for many of us. Our fear even keeps us from taking Lent seriously. We do not allow ourselves to move beyond giving up candy for Lent. We do not make the big sacrifices, we avoid Friday night “Stations of the Cross,” we have other things to do besides attending the parish “Lenten Series,” and we certainly avoid opportunities for going to confession during Lent. Every year when confronted with Lent we say, “I know. I know. I should do better.” But we don’t. We simply are afraid to jump in and risk an encounter with Christ. Why?
Too many of us are afraid that if we have a true encounter with the Lord, we might feel compelled to do the things the Pope lists in his exhortation. Who wants to sacrifice time to take care of the elderly who are alone and forgotten? Who wants to give up their Sunday mornings to teach religious education? Who wants to sacrifice their Sunday nights to be with teens in the parish youth group? Who is really willing to enter hostile environments to cook and serve food to the smelly and scary homeless?
All three readings tell us that, if we will muster the courage to take a step closer to God, we will survive. Paul was nearing the end of his life when he wrote Timothy. Paul was in prison and knew his fate, but his message was: Refuse to be afraid. He told young and timid Timothy, “Bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails.” In short, show a little courage. We see Abraham’s courage in his willingness as old man to leave home and family and go to a new land. Not many of us are even willing to leave our houses for a soup kitchen!
We must face our fear of encountering Christ and decide that we will make the sacrifice to improve our relationship with Him. The Transfiguration is a promise and a reassurance that, if we encounter Christ, we will receive all the strength we need for whatever He calls us to do. It is like going to Confession. We are afraid to go but, afterwards, we are so very glad we did. Pope Francis tells us that we will do far more than merely survive an encounter with Christ. We will go beyond our fears. We will experience joy.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest
of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the
Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the
diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal.
He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the
Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America
in Washington, D.C.