Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 17)

Michelangelo lived a long-life. He died in 1564 at the age of 88. He was the great sculptor of David, Moses and the Pieta. His paintings include the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Last Judgment in the same chapel. These only are a few of the famous works his artistry produced.

Reflecting on his life, as he approached death, Michelangelo wrote a poem to capture his thoughts. He now views his life within a context. The context is divine love. He comes to realize that everything in life, even the whole of his artistic creations, his life’s work, is subordinate (and actually finds its meaning) in the great love that God has for him in Christ crucified. The poem culminates with these lines:

Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

Jesus’ death on the cross is the revelation of divine love. Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity. The two-fold love of God and neighbor is seen in his passion and death. He completely trusts his father, like Isaac did Abraham, and follows where he leads. His faith in the Father is rooted in love. Likewise, Jesus’ love for us, his neighbors (cf. Luke 10:36) and friends (cf. John 15:15), spurs him onward to embrace suffering and death.

The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy recalls the interchange with the sons of Zebedee. They seek glory in human terms – sitting “one on your right and the other on your left.” Jesus only offers them the glory of love – “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

In sharp contrast to love, jealousy and envy are aroused among the other apostles. Jesus’ response is to teach them about love. Love is giving of oneself for others. To be great or powerful or have authority over others is not the way to life. Rather, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.” He then emphasizes it, “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Then he applies it to Himself: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus’ life is that of divine love. His love is perfect, complete. He offers himself completely on the cross and through that offering brings salvation.

The prophecy of Isaiah recalled in the first reading is fulfilled in Christ Jesus’ passion and death – “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, reflecting on Jesus as the “great high priest,” reminds us that God’s love for us is not distant, it is present.

Even in the most trying situations of life, and perhaps these most of all, he is there with us to save us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” So great is that love that nothing can hold us back from his love, so he continues: “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”

Most of us, at some point in life, seek a “context” in which to view our lives. The Second Vatican Council, while reflecting on life in the modern world, states: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, 1).

Our lives today are busy and filled with many responsibilities, all vying for attention and fulfillment. Sometimes life moves so fast we find ourselves looking for an anchor to hold us steady. Today we are reminded that divine love, manifest in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, is the anchor we seek. It provides the “context” for all life’s joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties.

Today we have the opportunity to be renewed in divine love as we say: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.