Pastoral Message – September 12, 2021
My father was a New York City Firefighter for 33 years. He loved being a fireman, but he also understood that each time he arrived at the firehouse for a tour of duty he might not come home. Fortunately, he was never seriously injured and he always came home. Other firemen were not so blessed. My brother was a New York City Police Officer for more than 20 years. Again, all who serve as police officers recognize that they may lose their lives in the service of the people of their community. For police officers and firefighters, this recognition of the danger of their jobs and their willingness to face that danger each day is the essence of who these individuals are. This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On that day, 20 years ago, 343 firefighters and 60 police officers lost their lives in one horrific event. Some were men with whom my father had worked; others were sons of those men.
Three weeks ago, thirteen members of our military were killed in a bombing in Afghanistan. They too had hoped to return to their families unharmed, but they also knew that they had sworn to place their lives on the line in the service of their country. This event reminds us that sacrifice is often required of those who accept the call to serve others in a completely unselfish way.
In the first reading today, Isaiah writes of the suffering servant, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting…I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” This passage is often regarded as a sign of the passion and death of our Lord. For that reason, it is specifically paired this week with the Gospel passage in which Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer greatly and be put to death.
Why draw a connection between the tragic events of 9-11, the passage from Isaiah, and the words of Jesus in the Gospel? Could I really be so bold as to suggest that firefighters and police officers should be regarded as examples of Christ in our lives? What’s the point of all this?
I think that the letter of James does an excellent job of tying this all together. In it, we read, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” Many of us are quite skilled at talking about our faith with one another. In fact, there is nothing easier than sharing our faith with those who believe in the same things in which we believe. That’s why it’s often easy for me to write these reflections or to preach at Mass. For the most part, I’m “preaching to the choir” as they say. It gets harder when we are asked to share our faith with those who have no faith, who reject our faith, or reject us because of our faith. It gets even harder when we are asked to actually do something to demonstrate our faith; to engage with those in need or to subject ourselves to “buffets and spitting” or worse.
Yet, there are many among us who believe deeply in a cause of service. They may be police officers or firefighters. They may be serving in the military or in other dangerous assignments for the good of others. They may be missionaries or relief workers or medical personnel. They all integrate into their lives the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Their crosses vary in size, shape, weight, and complexity. Yet, they willingly sacrifice themselves in countless ways for the betterment of and in the service of others. They are truly men and women for others. While many serve others by sacrificing their time, talent and resources, a few select individuals offer their very lives in the service of others. Nonetheless, they continuously make decisions to place the needs of others before their own needs.
Of course, not all who serve in this way are Catholics or Christians or believers in God. Yet, they are demonstrating the kinds of action which the scriptures call us to demonstrate. If non-believers make the ultimate sacrifice in service of earthly (albeit noble) goals, how much more should we as believers be willing to sacrifice in a serious and meaningful way in service of Christ’s call?