May 19, 2020
Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter
First Reading: Acts 16:22-34
Responsorial: Psalm 138:1-2AB, 2CDE-3, 7C-8
Alleluia: John 16:7, 13
Gospel: John 16:5-11
In the first reading from Acts, we see Paul and Silas are attacked by a mob in the Greek city of Philippi. They are then arrested and beaten by the local magistrates and thrown in prison. However, in the middle of the night, there is a miraculous earthquake which breaks down the doors of the cell and shakes loose the chains holding the prisoners against the wall. The jailer comes on the scene and is on the verge of suicide, believing that the prisoners had escaped (which would have meant the jailer would be punished by death, as this was surety jailers offered to their superiors that they would faithfully guard the prisoners). But then he hears St. Paul’s voice from inside the cell, “Do no harm to yourself, we are here.” The jailer rushes in and prostrates himself before Paul and Silas crying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
The conversion of Paul and Silas’s jailer continues a pattern that we see several times throughout the New Testament:
• We see that during the trial of Jesus, Pilate’s wife (Claudia) pleads with her husband to release him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” While not definitive by any means, tradition suggests that she eventually became a Christian.
• As Jesus is going to Golgotha he falters and the Roman soldiers force a bystander, Simon of Cyrene to assist Jesus in carrying his Cross. (Simon’s conversion is not specifically mentioned, but Mark’s Gospel notes that Simon is “the father of Rufus and Alexander” implying that these two were prominent members of the Christian community to which Mark was writing and suggests that Simon’s encounter in Jerusalem was the impetus of Simon and his family becoming followers of Jesus.)
• After Christ died on the Cross, the centurion and the other soldiers responsible for Jesus said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
In each of these cases, we can say that the unifying threads are two-fold. First, each of these persons witnessed the equanimity of Christ or his disciples even in the face of abuse and persecution. Thus, they would have recognized that the one being abused was following some higher purpose or mission so as to be able to bear that abuse with such equanimity. Second, each of these persons was in some way subordinate to the more powerful antagonist persecuting Christ, or the disciples in question. They would have acutely seen the contrast between the mild forbearance of Christ, or his followers, on the one hand, and the cruelty of their antagonist, on the other.
All of this has important lessons for us as Christians. The greatest test of our Christian character, and the greatest witness we can give to our faith, is not necessarily in the good that we do. Rather, it’s in the suffering that we are able to endure with faith, hope, and charity.
Let’s face it: doing many of the things we think of as “good works” is often reasonably pleasurable. Yes, people who commit to doing these things are making a sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure that they could have used for more indulgent pursuits. But it’s the rare person who does these things to such a degree that they significantly sacrifice other goods in their life. Plus, for most people participating in good works comes with corresponding benefits, such as fellowship with others, a sense of positive accomplishment, and taking joy in the joy of those one helps.
This is not to poo-poo the importance of practicing good works – they are commendable and certainly meritorious before God when done in the light of Christ. But to endure suffering uprightly is where the rubber really meets the road in the Christian life. It truly purifies the soul because it is the clearest proof of supernatural grace. There is no reason to explain why a person can suffer injury, degradation, and privation with enduring peace and charity except that he or she already has one foot in heaven. The patient endurance of suffering has the greatest power to convert those who are witnesses to it.
This is why the Church has always considered martyrdom the highest crown of glory. Indeed, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Apostle, almost all of the saints widely venerated in the early Church were martyrs. With the exception of St. John (and Judas, of course) all of the Apostles were martyred. To this day, the Church calls the register of saints the martyrology, even though it contains many non-martyrs.
In the Gospel, Jesus promises that when the Holy Spirit comes into the world, “he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation.” As Christians, our loving patience in the face of suffering – even suffering inflicted on us by another’s cruelty – convicts the world, so to speak. It is a sign of the Holy Spirit in us. Through it, we reveal a dimension of charity that largely lays hidden in this world. By it, we light the path to heaven for many others.