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Palm Sunday the Homily

Fr. Billy Swan is a priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland. After working for a number of years for a pharmaceutical company he entered a seminary and was ordained in 1998. After studying in Rome, he served as the Director of Seminary Formation at the Pontifical Irish College, Rome. He is currently based at St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford.

He has a deep interest in the relationship between faith and science, the New Evangelization, early Irish Christianity and priestly formation.

He penned an article on a topic that is at the heart of the Palm Sunday narratives, the topic of pain, suffering and illness.

Fr. Swan points to the fact that certain “institutions of society ..are the shapers of culture—the media, universities, politics, TV, the internet, movies, art, music, literature, etc. It may seem odd to describe hospitals as shapers of culture.”

Lent can be a “hospital for the soul.” We introduce stress in to our lives. We place ourselves into vulnerable positions so snap us our of our complacency about live, love, God and relationships. Fr. Swan proposes that this type of “hospital” can change our perspective in four areas. In his book, The Gospel of John, Volume Two (New Daily Study Bible) famous scripture scholar William Barclay also proposes that it can also provide us new insights into four types of grace.

When you’re sick, perspectives change. One is your perspective on your own mortality. Your body might seem strong. Then a tiny, microscopic organism invades your world. Suddenly everything changes.

Your perspective on your own life changes. One day you’re doing fine, cruising along with your plans. Then you get sick. Suddenly, all of your plans change.  In Psalm 146:3-4 we read “Put no faith in rulers, the children of Adam are powerless to save. Take away their breath and they perish, and their plans that day come to nothing.”

Sickness often changes one’s posture towards God. This might seem cynical since many of us can witness to the phenomenon. A person, or many people are rarely seen in any church, mosque or synagogue with any consistent regularity. Let tragedy strike however. Let them or a loved one be struck with a debilitating disease. Suddenly God matters. They’re in church pleading with God for miracles and healing.

Sickness changes your perspective on yourself. Sickness makes you humble. You can’t perform many of the routine functions you did before. You especially find yourself relying on others to get through the day. This brings us to the next point. Related to this is your perspective on others. You appreciate people more. Any visit, any card, any gift any attention offered to you by family and friends, doctors and nurses is powerfully felt.

In the “spiritual hospital” of Lent, we add stress by giving away a bit more money to get a sense of poverty. We fast in order to experience hunger. We go to Confession to become more conscious of our sinfulness and need for God’s forgiveness. This hospital of our soul helps us feel what it’s like to receive grace. Barclay writes that this provides us with grace experienced in four types of “freedoms.” I would add that this grace is especially compelling within a community of believers.

The first is Freedom From Loneliness. A parish provides community and companionship (from the Latin words cum – panis or (breaking) bread – with). Disciples never again have to walk alone. They walk in the company of companions. They walk forever in the company of Jesus. In that company – fear is chased away.

Grace provides Freedom From Self. Our greatest handicap is sometimes that we are our own harshest critic. I hear it often in Confessions. “I didn’t pray enough this Lent. I didn’t fast enough. I wanted to give time to help the poor. I didn’t do any of that.” Barclay writes that people say, ‘I cannot change myself. I have tried, but it is impossible.’ there is an antidote to this self-loathing: The power and presence of Jesus in the Word, sacrament, music and liturgy. It can re-create us. It can transform our lives – until we are altogether new.

Grace gives us Freedom From Others. People are in bondage because of their fear of what other people may think and say. Within the community of believers, “The voice of God sounds louder in our ears than the voice of our neighbors.” 

Finally grace give us Freedom From Sin. In my men’s Gospel reflection group, we always pray for “The addicted, the afflicted, the angry and the anxious.” We do that because each of us is in at last one of those categories. These four can take over our lives. However, discipleship breaks the chains which bind us. Old self may be put aside. We have a hope that prayers can be answered and that we can become new people.

This is not easy. This does happen quickly. Isn’t it curious that we celebrate:

  • 40 days of Lent
  • 7 days of Holy Week
  • 50 days of Easter season

That’s over 25% of the calendar year when we are celebrating the drama of Christ. Change takes time. God’s calendar usually runs a little slowly that we imagine. Thus we can be patient with ourselves – and hopefully others as well.

Perhaps this isn’t striking you as especially poignant. If none of what was written above is working for you, go to a hospital.  Visit and talk to someone who is sick. Perspectives change in the midst of that.

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