THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR A
At my farewell Mass before leaving this parish the first time in October 1991 I quoted a work of the actor-turned-author, Tom Tryon. In his novel Lady, the main character remarks. “All roads may lead to Rome. They do not, however, lead to Pequot Landing. But I have lived long enough to learn that as a road can carry one away, so it can bring one home again.” At the time, I used that quotation to describe how the road that had brought me here to St. Gregory’s from St. Elizabeth’s was about to take me back there as pastor. Never in my wildest imaginings did I ever dream that the same road would bring me back to this wonderful parish some twenty-one years after I left it. But it did, much to my happiness and delight. Returning here to St. Gregory’s in 2012 was, quite literally, coming home.
So, I find it fascinating that on this Sunday, as I once again say farewell to all of you my parishioners and very dear friends, the liturgy talks about roads that carry one away and lead one back again. That going and coming echoes through each of the Scripture passages for this Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The Second Book of Kings recounts how an influential woman in the village of Shunem invited the prophet Elisha to accept her hospitality and dine with her and her husband. According to the text, “Afterward, whenever he passed by, he used to stop there to dine.” His hostess realized that the road that takes her distinguished visitor away is going to bring him back to her home again and again. So, she suggests to her husband that they add what we today would call a dormer to their house with a bed and lamp and table and chair so that Elisha can have a regular place to spend the night. Because of that gesture of hospitality, the woman and her husband discover to their surprise and delight that the road that carried them away from their youthfulness is going to carry them back to fertility. “This time next year you will be fondling an infant son,” Elisha promises the woman.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul gives a powerful catechesis on the nature and meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism. That gateway into the sacramental life, he teaches, puts a person on a road that carries one away from this mortal life into the realms of death in company with Jesus. But, then, likewise in the company of the Savior, the road leads back to life. And what a life! “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in fulness of life.”
Jesus quite plainly lays out the implications of what Paul has taught about baptism. That going-into-death in company with Jesus and rising with him to new life is not a once-for-all experience that ends with the liturgical rite. It is, instead, an insertion into a lifelong process of death to our old, sinful selves and resurrection to life in the Spirit. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” Our Lord warns would-be disciples. We must be prepared to tread that road that carries us away from self-centeredness and leads us back to our authentic selves.
Like all priests who have pledged obedience to their bishops, I have known the pain of having to set foot on a road that carried me away from parishes and parishioners that I had come to love. Each time, it was a “losing” of my life. But through a special mercy of God – and just perhaps the exercise of a divine sense of humor – I have had the unique experience of having that road lead me back, not once but twice – first to St. Elizabeth’s and then back here. And, with each of those returns, I have found proof of our Lord’s promise of how wonderful it can be to find life after losing it. What can compare with the joy of looking into a classroom and seeing youngsters whose mom or dad or uncle or aunt were sitting in that same room when I was here before. In two weeks, I will return here to baptize a baby boy whose father was one of my altar servers in the 1980’s and whose uncle I baptized just before I left. Yes, the road that is about to carry me away to St. Anne’s will lead me back again and again as I proudly bear the official title of Pastor Emeritus of St. Gregory the Great.
The year that I was ordained to the diaconate, the Beatles released a song entitled The Long and Winding Road. “And still they lead me back to the long and winding road,” they sang. That long and winding road has carried us away from one another in this time of isolation and social distancing; and I feel sharply the pain of not being able to say farewell to you in person. But, God willing, the long and winding road will bring us together again in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, our faith in Jesus gives us confidence that even if we or someone whom we love should find ourselves walking a long and winding road that seems to be carrying us away from our best dreams and true selves, we will certainly discover to our amazement and delight that the road has, in the end, led us home to Jesus, to life, to fellowship, to merriment and everlasting delights.