Commentary on: Wisdom 3:1-9 or Rom 8:31b-39; Ps 125; Luke 9:23-26
The Gospel reading from Luke is a passage which follows closely after Peter’s confession about the identity of Jesus. In response to Jesus’ question Peter answers, “The Messiah (Christ) of God.” This is followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his coming death and resurrection. And immediately afterwards we have today’s passage where Jesus lays down the conditions for being one of his followers.
Anyone who wants to be a follower must set aside his own desires, take up his cross every day and follow the Way of the Jesus. Although this at first sight seems to be a demand to set aside one’s own well-being, it is in fact the way in which we will find what is really in our best interests. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Life and Truth. Hence, those who let go of their own spontaneous desires will – maybe to their surprise – find a life much more worthwhile than the one they think they are abandoning.
Have we any evidence for this? We have, of course, in the lives of hundreds of saints, including those who even let go of their lives for the sake of Jesus’ Way and the well-being of brothers and sisters. For “what profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit oneself?” The most precious things in life are not money, or status or fame or property. A priest who worked in one of the most affluent suburbs of Los Angeles said it was the unhappiest place he was ever in, while another priest was amazed by the community spirit of helping and sharing in a rundown public housing estate.
Jesus also warns us about being ashamed of acknowledging our Christian calling. It is not enough to be a Catholic; it is important to be seen as one. We are to be the “salt of the earth”; we are to be a lamp that is not hidden away but gives light. The martyrs we are celebrating today knew where true values lay and they did not conceal their faith in order to save their lives.
There is a choice of two First Readings. The first of these is taken from the Book of Wisdom and is sometimes used in Requiem Masses. It speaks about death and the suffering of the good. No matter how great these sufferings are, they cannot be compared with the peace that comes after death. “They seemed in the eyes of the foolish, to be dead, and their passing away was thought an affliction… but they are in peace.”
In the sight of the living, they may have been seen to undergo great suffering but their hopes were in a future life that could not be taken from them. Their sufferings are minor compared to the blessings that await them.
Like gold being purified by fire, they were tested but as people who had offered their whole lives to their Lord, they win great blessings and He takes them to himself. “They shall judge nations and rule over peoples” by the integrity and courage of their lives “and the Lord shall be their King forever”.
This was the spirit which gave such courage to these Korean martyrs who went with such readiness to their death, not hesitating for a moment to remain faithful to the Way of Christ.
The second choice of First Reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is a passionate statement in which Paul tells his readers that absolutely everything works together for the good of those who love God. If God is on our side, what have we to fear from those who are against us? And suffering in our lives is no indication that God is not with us.
On the contrary, we have the example of Jesus himself. “God did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all. Will he not give us everything else we need as well?” We have no need to fear anyone who accuses or condemns us because God is always on our side.
Is there anything that can separate us from the love that God extends to us? It is an infinite and unconditional love. So no amount of anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or death can come between us and that love. Many find it difficult to equate suffering with a loving God. But not Paul. He concludes with this magnificent passage: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor pincipalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It was this conviction that helped these martyrs face their death with courage and calmness. They are words which we too should keep in mind in all the trials and tribulations we may have to face. “Help me, Lord, to see your loving hand in every person and in every experience of this day.”
As a confirmation of Paul’s exhortation we may conclude this reflection with words from the last letter of Andrew Kim Taegŏn to his parishioners as he awaited martyrdom with a group of 20 people:
My dear brothers and sisters, know this: Our Lord Jesus Christ upon descending into the world took innumerable pains upon and constituted the holy Church through his own suffering and increases it through the suffering passion of the faithful….
Now, however, some 50 or 60 years since holy Church entered into our Korea, the faithful suffer persecutions again. Even today persecution rages, so that many of our friends of the same faith, among whom am I myself, have been thrown into prison. just as you also remain in the midst of persecution. Since we have formed one body, how can we not be saddened in our innermost hearts? How can we not experience the pain of separation in our human faculties?
However, as Scripture says, God cares for the least hair of our heads, and indeed he cares with his omniscience; therefore, how can persecution be considered as anything other than the command of God, or his prize, or precisely his punishment?…
We are twenty here, and thanks be to God all are still well. If anyone is killed, I beg you not to forget his family. I have many more things to say, but how can I express them with pen and paper? I make an end to this letter. Since we are now close to the struggle, I pray you to walk in faith, so that when you have finally entered into Heaven, we may greet one another. I leave you my kiss of love.