I’m sure most of us have been at a shopping mall when we heard someone announce over the loudspeaker: “We have a little boy here who’s lost his mother (you notice this usually happens to little boys?). He says his name is Billy. Will Billy’s mother please come to the information booth?” If you’ve ever seen the children waiting for their parents at the information booth, you know they usually look very anxious and they’re often crying. The mothers are frantic – usually more upset than the lost child. And when the mother finally arrives at the information booth, mother and child collapse into each others’ arms, and life returns to normal (whatever normal is when you have small children).
In about a month, school will be starting again. Especially for the children going to school for the first time – maybe kindergarten – there may be some tears and anxious moments. Older children may be going away university – leaving home for the first time – again, despite the excitement of starting a new adventure, there may be some difficult times when parents and children realize that they will now be far apart. One of my sons is leaving for a job in Texas in a couple of weeks and I’m already missing him.
When we’re separated from people we love, whether by accident (like the little boy who got lost at the shopping mall), or because of school, or jobs, or even death or divorce, we grieve – we feel like something’s missing. Now, separation is a fact of life, especially in the very mobile society we live in. We can try to deal with separation – through telephone calls, occasional visits, e-mails, and even prayers.
St. Paul understood separation. He traveled constantly, preaching the Gospel and building the early Church. His letters, especially the beginnings of his letters show how he missed the people he met and communities he helped to establish.
He posed an interesting question in the second reading today: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” He asked whether hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword would separate us from the love of Christ. And this was not just some abstract theological question that he was posing. He had a lot of experience with hardship. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one; three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperilled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor, hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fastings, in cold and nakedness.” He also appears to have had some sort of chronic illness. He spoke about a “thorn in the flesh” given to him by an angel of Satan. Clearly, when St. Paul talked about hardships, he was speaking from a wealth of personal experience.
So what did he mean when he said that these hardships would not separate us from the love of God? He was probably reflecting on the fact that even though his travels meant that he had to be separated from the people he met and the communities he loved, he always knew that he was connected to God, that he was loved by God, and this would never change, regardless of where he was and what happened to him.
I think he was also telling us that hardships are not a punishment from God. Some people thought back then – and still do today – that when bad things happened to them, it’s because they did something wrong. St. Paul turns that idea upside down when he says: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
He may also be talking about our own temptation to separate ourselves from God when things get tough – when bad things happen in our lives. Bad things happen to all of us. Some of these things we bring on ourselves, like the clogged arteries that I have in my heart. Sometimes other people do bad things to us, like the daughter of my cousin who was killed by a drunk driver, or the guy who stabbed and beheaded another man on a bus in Manitoba this week. What a sad irony that we heard this news story the same week we read about Jesus hearing of the beheading of John the Baptist. But clearly, some of the bad things that happen are the result of evil things that people do to us. But some things just happen, like a young, promising student of mine developed leukemia. When these things happen, we can be tempted to separate ourselves from God by saying: “God could have done something to stop this. God could have cured the leukemia. Why did God put that drunk driver on the road the same time my cousin’s daughter was driving home from work? Why did God let that guy kill the other man on the bus?”
We act as if God is sitting in his big chair looking down on earth saying: “Oh, Deacon Pat needs a lesson in humility – I think I’ll give him heart disease.” Or: “Sandy hasn’t been going to church every Sunday – I think I’ll take her daughter from her. Let me find a drunk driver to help me out.” A good and loving God would not do this! My God would not do this! Yet, as all of us know, and as St. Paul told us today, these things happen.
So where was God when the doctors split my chest open to bypass those diseased coronary arteries? He was there in the hands of the surgeon, in the nurses in the ICU. Where was God when my cousin’s daughter was killed? He was there in the people who helped my cousin grieve, and was at her side as she struggled to put her life back together. He was there to welcome her daughter into heaven.
St. Paul tells us today that we all will face trials in our lives. It is the nature of our world that things come and go, and we will experience separation. The people and things that are important to us today may not be here tomorrow. That doesn’t sound like good news, and yet St. Paul’s words are among the most comforting words in the Bible. Comforting because they speak about the permanence of God’s presence and God’s love in an impermanent world.
He says: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God.”