The testing by fire that makes great parents — and disciples

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There’s almost nothing that changes a person as much as becoming a parent does.  When that baby arrives, it comes with no instructions, and it’s up to the parents to take that baby home and somehow keep it alive.  Witnessing that among my sisters and my friends, it’s amazing to see how, before long, they’re able to do things like change diapers and wipe noses that they would have been completely repulsed by not long before. And then you see them have a second one, and then a third, and maybe even a fourth or fifth.

The thing about parenthood is not just that you have to keep them physically alive. You also have to teach them things, things that aren’t all that easy to explain: “Why is water wet?” “Where did I come from?” “Who made God?”  If there’s something that people discover through the experience of having children, it’s that we have very little control over things in life. But giving themselves over to that of lack of control and having to figure things out has a remarkable effect.

When people look back on their lives, they often marvel at how much being a mom and dad has changed them. They are amazed at how different they have become from the totally self-absorbed and self-centered creature they had been; how hard it was to undergo the change, but also because they loved their child so much, it was kind of easy at the same time.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Malachi uses an image of refiner’s fire. In the ancient process of metallurgy, you would mine the metal ore from the ground, and you would subject it to fire.  And under the stresses of the flame, the metal would be pulled from the ore, and the contaminating minerals would be separated out and thrown away.  You’d be left with the pure silver or gold. Purified through the refining process, what had been pulled out of the earth as a piece of rock now shines and gleams and is more beautiful — and it’s because it suffered the testing of fire.

It is, in a way, what happens when a child comes into the life of a mother and father. It is a testing by fire that brings something amazing out of them — it makes them greater.

Joseph and Mary’s lives were radically changed by the presence of the infant Christ.  The Scriptures talk about how they would be amazed by things, and Our Lady would ponder on the things she experienced in her heart.

In today’s Gospel, they bring Him, according to the Law, to the Temple in Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice, for the purification rituals. It was a common thing in the life of a Jewish family. Yet, all of these strange things happen. When Our Lord enters the Temple in his mother’s arms, these two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, approach.  They have been long expecting the coming of the Savior.

Simeon, after rejoicing at the appearance of the Child, turns to His mother and shares with her a prophecy.  He tells Mary that Jesus would be “a sign that would be contradicted.” He is revealing to her that there would be resistance to her son.  He would not be accepted or welcomed by the world. But through that rejection, which culminated in His crucifixion, the Savior would save us.  Despite the pain and the suffering it presented, Our Lord embraced the cross, because He loves us. And His acceptance of the cross out of love for us led to our redemption. It opened the door to our salvation.  It changed everything.

But the prophecy of Simeon did not say that only Our Lord would suffer.  Simeon tells the Blessed Mother, “And you, yourself, a sword will pierce.”  He is revealing to her that she, who was Our Lord’s greatest follower, would not be exempted from a share in the suffering of her Lord and Savior.  To see her son, her little child persecuted, arrested, mocked, scourged and crucified must have been incredibly painful — the suffering of a thousand deaths, the suffering of her Seven Sorrows.

But yet, through her acceptance of a share in the cross, Our Lady participated in Our Lord’s act of redeeming the world.  She was full of grace from the moment of her conception. And so, she was perfectly united to the Lord and was able to offer the suffering that came because of her fidelity to Him.  This lowly handmaid of Nazareth, the sorrowful mother of Calvary, is now the Queen of Heaven — God’s most glorious creature.

So the question we must ask is what our life with the Lord is like. Because the Lord Jesus comes into our lives — He comes into our world — as a sign of contradiction. When we are confronted with this, we must decide: “Who is He to me?” “Do I believe He is who He says He is?  Do I believe that I am who He says I am?” This is the moment when we are presented with the cross, and we have to decide how we’re going to respond.  To follow Him does not come without cost.

It’s like parents who must decide to give their whole selves to the care of their child. If they don’t, they won’t be good parents, and they won’t be changed by the experience. It’s like ore taken from the ground that isn’t subjected to fire and so is never made to shine like silver and gold. In the same way, if we refuse the cross of discipleship and cannot follow Him, we cannot be changed/transformed/glorified as God desires.

But why would we refuse it?  Why do we resist taking the chance to give our whole lives and our families to Christ and to accept the guidance of the Church that the Lord gives to us? I think it’s because we’re a little (or a lot) afraid of what discipleship requires of us. We fear the loss of control over our lives, we like deciding for ourselves what is true and good, we think that faith asks too much of us and the cross it offers is too big.

A few minutes ago, I said that almost nothing changes us more than parenthood. One thing that does change us more is discipleship. Our relationship with Christ as a member of His family, the Church, transforms us most of all. And when we recognize the love of the One who took up the cross for our sake, when we really get a glimpse of Him, we find our heart opens up to Him in gratitude for what He did for us and how much He loves us.  And those crosses we thought we could never take up in life somehow become much easier to bear.


(This homily was delivered by Rev. John P. Connaughton at the annual “Baptism Anniversary Celebration” at The Parish of St. Cecilia-St. Gabriel on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, February 2.)