Life in the Face of Death

pope francis

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny 3)

Last weekend, the 115 cardinal electors in Rome were preparing to enter the conclave to elect the 266th bishop of Rome. Today we give thanks to God for giving us Pope Francis. I do not wish to sound irreverent or disrespectful, but I wonder what convinced him to say yes. The man is 76. Not too many people would embark on such a career shift at 76, essentially ramping up his game, instead of winding it down. I imagine when the vote count was nearing the magic number of 77, he took a deep long breath and watched his life flash before his eyes. His heart must have skipped a beat, his mind blown away for a split second. Then he heard the most frightening question, “Do you accept?” In the days leading up to the conclave, the cardinals gathered in private to discuss the state of the church. They put all the cards on the table, the cruel truth about everything they knew that the next pope would have to face. I imagine they would have painted a somewhat bleak picture, considering what we think we know, considering what the media had been reporting in recent weeks, perhaps to remind one another of the seriousness of the task before them, perhaps to remind the one they would choose that he had to really have his act together. Each of them knew they had to pick the best candidate as they stood one by one before Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment and declared before God and everyone that they were casting a vote with only the good of the church in mind. There would be no secret weapon, no trick up God’s sleeve. We all saw who walked into the Sistine Chapel the day before. We all knew that the Holy Spirit’s choices were limited. But we believed the collective wisdom in that room would speak God’s choice, despite the media suggesting such divisions among them, and rivalries between sharply opposing factions.

And when his name was announced from the central balcony of St. Peter’s basilica, only a few recognized it. I saw some Argentinian flags waving in the crowd. But to my knowledge, Cardinal Bergoglio was never even mentioned before. He may have been in 2005, but that was not a guarantee for eight years later. So the Holy Spirit has once again proven we know diddley squat.

But going back to the question I posed earlier, what convinced him to say yes? A great deal of evidence points to an extremely daunting work load ahead. I’m sure you will say the man has faith that God will see him through all this, that God will give him adequate strength and courage for the task and the journey, that as long as he is willing to put his skills and talents at the service of God’s plan, God will accomplish great things. I sincerely believe that, too. And we pray for him nonetheless, knowing he will need our prayers and support. And we trust God has not given up on his church.

When I come across what might otherwise seem hopeless or dead, it doesn’t take me long usually to accept the inevitable and move on. For instance, I have cared for a few plants in the past, the longest surviving five or six years. But I am also not ashamed to admit publicly I am a natural herbicide, so even I am not too optimistic. Still I have three plants in the house right now: a Christmas cactus, a Norfolk Island pine, and a bonsai (you know, one of them Japanese miniature trees). They are all doing well, thank you very much. Okay, the cactus has issues, but it’s a cactus. It prefers to be left alone.

When Jesus was informed that his friend Lazarus was sick, he didn’t panic, he didn’t drop whatever he was doing, he didn’t rush to his friend’s side. In fact, he took his time. He said his friend’s illness was not to end in death, but rather that through it God would be glorified. Lazarus did die, and it took Jesus four days to get to the home of the dead man’s sisters. So despite his friend’s illness bringing about his physical death, Jesus was saying it was not the end of the story. He was aware from the get-go that death would not have the last word. And in his plan, even the man’s death would bring glory to God. He knew his enemies did not believe he was who he claimed to be, the eternal Son of the Father, sent to do God’s will. And he knew also that it made no difference what he said or did. They, not Lazarus, were really the ones who were dead, all because they did not want what he came to offer them, the very life of God.

The people of Israel held captive in Babylon at the time of the prophet Ezekiel had literally hit bottom. The promises of the covenant God had made with Abraham were gone: the promised land – gone, the dynasty of the great King David – gone, the temple of Solomon – all gone. And yet, God was making some pretty bold declarations through the prophet that were hard to take seriously. After all, the people of Israel were as good as dead. “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD … I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.” Basically God was saying, “Don’t worry. I got this. Trust me.”

In his letter to the Romans, Paul was challenging the Christian community to embrace willingly and knowingly the life of God, that life that belongs to those chosen by God. Physical death will still be a reality for everyone, even the Christian believer. But not spiritual death! “If the Spirit of God dwells in you, you are in the spirit. The body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” And that righteousness, the choice to live our lives faithful to the values Jesus Christ lived and taught, that righteousness is our conscious participation in the life of God. You can look at the human condition and see a bleak and desolate picture indeed. But God’s Spirit is hard at work, inviting us to reject sin and death. There is reason to hope, Paul is trying to tell us. God is still very much in charge. Yet God needs our participation. We need to believe that sin and death do not have the last word.

In my line of work, I have stared sin and death in the face many times. I can not claim to have a lot of faith. In fact, I am riddled with doubt many times. But I know that God is serious with his offer of life. God is willing to go the distance in spite of our failings, our misery and hopelessness. Maybe that’s just to show us who’s really in charge. So when we have only God to turn to, no one but him deserves any credit.

Pope Francis said yes to the task placed before him, to shepherd a people who struggle to understand and receive the life God offers. He said yes because he believed death and sin do not have the last word, that God’s Spirit still guides the church built on the rock of Peter’s faith. If we are willing to put our trust in God, and if we are willing to sincerely embrace the life God offers, God will be true to his word. Always.

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013