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Sermon: Lending Christ Your Flesh

The country of Turkey is one of the most difficult places in the world to be a Christian, and especially a Catholic. Since 1923, Turkey has been an officially secular country. In Turkey, this means that the Catholic Church is not an officially recognized entity. All church property must be owned by a private individual, no Catholic institutions or churches can register as non-profit corporations – officially, the Church just doesn’t exist. Before the Armenian genocide and the migration of Greeks out of the Anatolian peninsula, 18% of Turkey’s population was Christian. Now it is 0.2%. In addition to the Church having no official status, all religious attire was banned in public in Turkey until 2013, including clerical attire of any kind.

Turkey might be officially secular, but in practice is it highly Islamist. The current regime has rolled back much of Turkey’s secular policies and made discrimination against non-Muslims, especially Christians, a priority. The entire eastern half of Turkey is a missionary diocese that includes only six parishes. In one of those churches, on February 5, 2006, Fr. Andrea Santoro was kneeling and praying when a young man entered, shouted, “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”), and shot him dead.

After his death, it was revealed that Fr. Santoro’s phone had been tapped by the Turkish police for three months before his murder, and the murderer admitted to having been influenced by a massive anti-Christian propaganda campaign in the Turkish press. Though convicted, he was released after serving only ten years of his sentence after a military coup attempted to topple the Islamist government in 2016.

A couple of days before his assassination, as if he knew what he was going to face, Fr. Santoro said, “I am here to live amongst the people and to allow Jesus to be here lending him my flesh (…) One becomes capable of salvation only when offering one’s flesh. The evils of the world must be carried and shared, one must allow them to be absorbed into one’s flesh, as Jesus did.”

“I am here … to allow Jesus to be here lending him my flesh.” Fr. Santoro’s words and actions are a powerful witness to the call of Christ today in the Gospel: “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized … whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Today, Christ invites us to live His very life, to experience the redemptive suffering that leads from pain and sorrow to joy and new life. He invites us to offer all the sufferings and pains of our life in union with His Cross, to lend Him our flesh.

We have heard this invitation before, no doubt, but I think that we don’t always understand it correctly. We can think that we just have to grit our teeth and tough it out. Suffering is a part of life, and we just have to deal with it.

That isn’t really what Christ proposes. We hear in the letter to the Hebrews today, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

James and John ask the Lord for the chance to sit at His right and left in glory. They certainly do not know what they are asking, because Christ’s throne is the Cross, and the ones at His right and left when He is on this throne are the thieves who were crucified with Him. He asks if they can drink the chalice He is to drink. This chalice can represent what God has in store for someone – either a cup of blessing or, as in Christ’s sake, the “full brunt of God’s judgment on sin.”

When we think about this invitation to lend Christ our flesh, to allow the evils of the world to be absorbed into our flesh as we drink the chalice prepared for Him, we can think that our starting point in this spiritual struggle of redemptive suffering is the same as our earthly trials and endeavors. We have to toughen up; we have to try harder.

The Christian starting point is very different, though. It is that our high priest, He who won the redemption of our sins, has loved us so profoundly as to suffer for us and has invited us to walk with Him. We are not just toughing it out – we are walking alongside Christ who has loved us first.

Surely one of the primary ways people are called to live this mystery of redemptive suffering, to lend Christ their flesh, is in the vocation of marriage and family life. Before becoming a priest, and seeing the ups and downs of marriage and family life, I never realized just how challenging it is to cultivate a holy marriage and family. Marriage requires a constant drinking of the chalice of Christ in a life of self-sacrificial service.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately, both because of how prominently is has featured in the readings at Mass, because of it being Respect Life month, and because I had the great joy of witnessing my sister’s wedding last week. I’ve heard quite a few homilies in which a priest or pastor tried to give a religious best-man speech, telling a lot of stories about the couple and their journey together. I think a lot of people expected that kind of homily from me at my sister’s wedding last Saturday – after all, who better to do so than the brother of the bride, only 17 months apart, childhood companions, and fast friends into adulthood.

I’m afraid I disappointed them. Instead of pretending to be the best man, I tried to imitate Christ by opening the Scriptures to them and to all those present, sharing what we know marriage to be through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, that marriage is not an unmoored reality based on fleeting passion, but grounded in the nature given to men and women. That in response to the questions of the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the goodness of marriage and called them to something higher, to a higher love than the self-referential love of the golden rule, to love one another as He loves you – with the self-sacrificial love of the Cross.

I was a bit nervous about sharing this message with a largely non-Catholic and even non-Christian audience. In fact, I was pacing back and forth and sweating before the ceremony began. I was so nervous that I even got some of the prayers out of order. But after the ceremony was over and we cheered the bride and groom out of the Church, a family friend who is “spiritual but not religious” and I am sure has quite different ideas about marriage and family life than the Catholic Church, came up to me and said, “I have never heard a wedding homily like that. It was amazing.” And person after person said the same thing.

I share that story not to brag about myself or to prove that I’m a great preacher, but to let you know that the world is starving for an authentic witness of love. When we courageously and boldly proclaim the love of Jesus Christ, a love that does not consist in mutual gratification but a self-sacrificial love in which we lend our flesh to Jesus Christ, submitting to His plan in a way radically grounded in how He has made us as men and women, and when we do so out of love, emphasizing that it is because we have been loved first that we can dare to drink His chalice and live this counter-cultural life, my brothers and sisters, hearts can be changed and minds can be opened to the saving message of Jesus Christ.

Fr. Andrea Santoro – a lonely Christian in a Muslim land who gave his life as a witness to the love of Christ – and the couple and family who heroically live their vocations are not so different. Each are called to lend their flesh to Christ and allow His sufferings to be made present in them.

It is only when we sacrifice radically that we love radically. And it is only in radical love that we can find radical joy. I was a bit nervous about my sister’s wedding not just because of the sermon, but nervous about being sad that I would never stand where her husband would, or where my father would stand, giving my sister away. If you’re a young man who’s thought about a priestly vocation, maybe that’s crossed your mind too. But if I weren’t a priest, I never would have had the overwhelming joy of standing just where I stood, just where Christ wanted me to be, witnessing and receiving their vows on behalf of Christ and His Church and bestowing God’s blessing upon them. There was even greater joy for me in that moment than my priestly ordination or first Mass, a joy far greater than I ever hoped to find, because joy follows love, and love is learned in making a sacrifice of yourself.

Christ today asks if you will drink the chalice of which He drank. We draw near to Him in the Holy Eucharist, to eat His flesh and drink the chalice of His blood. The blood in His chalice is the blood of a new covenant, a new agreement between God and man. If you will lend Him your flesh, allowing His redeeming suffering to come about in you, then He will lend you His as a pledge of eternal life.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XXIX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI


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