The reflection below is an adaptation of a homily I preached at the 4pm vigil and 8:30am morning Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco, CA on the weekend of November 12-13, 2016. The readings can be found here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/111316.cfm.
The mother didn’t say much as I watched the physical therapist work with her son. The look in her eyes said it all: a combination of shock at the car accident that had literally turned their world upside down and fear about an unknown future. Everything had changed in an instant, and her life would never be the same. How could she possibly put her life back together again?
This summer, as a chaplain on a pediatric rehab unit, I met many children and families like this woman and son. The brokenness in their lives frequently overwhelmed me: not only physical brokenness but also broken families and broken spirits. Moreover, the families often came from distant places and stayed a month or longer for in-patient treatment. They lost all consciousness of time in the hospital, surrounded by a palpable sense of dislocation, both on the outside and on the inside. Many of the parents replayed the events of the accident over and over, grieving over a lost past. At the same time, they worried anxiously about the future, life after discharge.
As a chaplain, I would often sit with the parents while we watched their kids in physical therapy, the child in front of them, that they loved so much, often in much struggling and pain. We wouldn’t say much but I would ask them all the same question: what gives you hope?
Like the parents of my patients, the community that Jesus addresses today will experience the destruction of everything that they hold dear. The Temple—the center of religious life in the Jewish world—gone. The uneasy truce with the Roman occupiers, gone as well. The destruction does not even spare close, intimate relationships. The early Christians will be persecuted as criminals by the State, handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends.
In some similar way, I wonder if this election, I’m not just talking about the results on Tuesday, but the entire campaign, has taken a sledgehammer to the American psyche. It has put white working-class people against minorities and women. It has put native born against immigrants. It has put Christians against Muslims. It has put the urban coast against the rural heartland. The American body politic reminds me of the body of one of my patients, in traction, waiting for physical therapy. Sometimes the patients couldn’t even remember how they got there. One teenager who had suffered a car accident told me that it felt like a dream. I’m still not sure how we got to this point either. But that’s not the patient that comes to mind here.
It was the mother before who asked to speak with me. She and her son had been in a car accident. While they were in the hospital, her husband had left her. She had to cut short her own physical therapy to take care of her son. With nothing else to say, I asked her that same question: what gives you hope? For about half an hour, she cried as she let out a tremendous amount of fear, anxiety, and pain.
After she let that out, however, a memory emerged from a deep place inside of her, of the aunt who raised her in Mexico. A tough woman, she said, a woman who taught her about God, faith, family, and more than anything, about resilience. A woman to whom she still felt connected even though her aunt no longer walked this Earth. That sense of her aunt’s abiding presence was enough to give her hope.
Two days later, at her son’s discharge, I gave the mother and the son a blessing and never saw them again. But I too can testify to the fact that this woman’s aunt continues to walk with her and her son and so does God. For God does not abandon God’s people in their time of need. God just invites them to go deep.
Jesus today in the gospel invites his disciples to go deep. Do not be deceived by signs. Do not be afraid of wars and insurrections. We might say: don’t put too much stock in the political commentators, don’t get too upset about what you see on the news or the protests you see in the street. Rather, Jesus says, the opportunity will come for you to testify, but don’t prepare your testimony. Instead, embrace the testimony that God offers you. We hear the same question: how will God give us wisdom when the time comes? Where do we find hope?
Like the mother, in this month of the faithful departed, we find hope in the Christian witness of our family and friends who have gone before us. My own grandmother, who lived through the Depression, used to say: “growing old is not for sissies.” What has your family endured? Who in your circle of relationships gives you hope?
We also find hope in the wisdom figures of the broader community. On a national level, we find hope in the veterans that bravely defended our country, whom we celebrated on Friday. Our collective memory is filled also with those who have fought for the oppressed, like Cesar Chavez's work with the farm workers of the California Central Valley or Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight for civil rights. What do you remember of these struggles? Where did you find the strength to persevere through them?
At the parish where I serve in San Francisco, many of the parishioners have experienced literally the calamities that Jesus mentioned: they rebuilt from an earthquake in 1989, survived a plague (the AIDS crisis), and endured a war (the Vietnam War protests that went on in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood outside the parish). What has your community experienced?
Finally, we find hope in the heroes of our faith community: the early Christians who endured the persecution that the gospel describes, in imitation of our savior who suffered on the cross as a war criminal. What saints' stories speak to you?
“I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.” The gift God gave that mother, no one can take away from her. It is God’s wisdom, the gift of the Spirit, in her very heart. “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” That’s a Hebrew way of saying: the divine presence will not leave you for an instant. If we embrace Jesus’ call to go deep, what gift of wisdom is God offering us?