The Gift of Life

A wooden crucifx mounted on a red wallHomily at St Philip Evans on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – the Day for Life.

Would you like to fall in love?

Be warned, if you do fall in love it will lead to pain and despair, but also to delights you could not otherwise know!

What I’m about to say will sound rather scary, but bear with me – hope is coming!

First, look to the heart of this church. What do you see? A man, nailed to a cross. A man with the power to call down a legion of angels who could liberate him at any moment. A man racked with agony, yet choosing to endure it. For why? Because he understands the treasure which can only be bought by his agony, the treasure of our souls saved from eternal death. For Our Lord, we are the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure. No price is too great, and he pays it willingly for us because he loves us without limit.

St Paul tells us today that “by turning everything to their good, God co-operates with all those who love him, with all those he has called according to his purpose… to become true images of his Son.” We are called to be images of Jesus, to imitate him in his suffering. Whatever pains or trials we endure in this life, we’re assured that God can turn this to our good – either on earth or for our final journey to heaven.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are to go and seek painful experiences. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use painkillers when we’re ill. But it does bring us to one of the most difficult issues which our politicians are considering right now – should it be legal to help a person in pain, likely to live only a few more months, to end their own life at a time of their own choosing?

We are probably well-aware that our church has an official position on this.

“Human dignity demands palliative care and treatment for as long as it takes!” proclaim our bishops.

“Isn’t choosing our own death also dignified?” ask their opponents.

“Vulnerable adults will choose their own deaths under duress!” warn our bishops.

“But don’t we have a right to choose?” ask the opponents.

In Britain, our laws used to be based solidly on principles set out in God’s Word. But today Parliament does not wish to impose values that come from a particular religion on the whole population, and is more likely to champion the right to choose; one by one, our laws have changed on abortion, divorce and the meaning of marriage.

It’s not hard to see a time coming when we’ll have a legal right to be helped to die. If that happens, our bishops will, of course, ask us not to use that legal right. To many people in the world around us, this will be scandalous! What kind of Christian church asks its members to choose pain and suffering instead of the help on offer?

A church of believers who know they are personally invited to be images of Jesus.

Jesus endured the Cross without using his power to end it. There’s a mystery at the heart of our faith that God’s grace comes through accepting suffering. Yes, we can use doctors’ skills to heal, even though some surgery is risky. Yes, we can use medications which bring pain relief, even if we foresee they hasten death. But we are never choosing death. In this, St John Paul II taught us a powerful lesson by the way he lived his dying months, in obvious pain, losing first the ability to walk and then even to speak.

There is a reason to choose life, even when life is painful.

There is a reason to choose the path of love without limit. That reason is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.

We find the treasure when we realise that Jesus really is the Friend who died for us, who loves us without limit, and who knows exactly what is in our best interests at all times. In this way, God gives us spiritual eyes to see that choosing life, not death, will bring us the greatest reward.

We sell everything when we deal with sin and selfishness in our lives, and surrender totally to God’s will.

To gain the treasure, we must also buy the field. Surrounding that which is most beautiful, is a great pile of dirt and muck. The gift of life which God gives us is permeated by the potential for pain. When we fall in love, we open ourselves to new dimensions of pain and sacrifice for the sake of the one who has captured our heart.

Were it not for the hidden treasure, our Catholic faith would be no more attractive than a muddy field.

I can’t stand in this pulpit and convince the world, by reason alone, that the official Catholic line is the right way to approach assisted dying, abortion, or any other moral issue.

I can only encourage you to make the same prayer as Solomon, asking God for the wisdom to know what is truly right in each circumstance of life.

Whenever one of our bishops or preachers stands up and makes a speech about assisted dying, remember that it affects them, too. Those who preach the message must make a personal commitment to endure whatever God sends them, if their final years should be marked by a painful decline. When Pope John Paul II lost the power to speak due to a breathing tube, he made a prayer of abandonment to the Virgin Mary – “I am all yours – but what have you asked of me!” You can write off our church leaders as control freaks and stick-in-the-muds. Or you can see St John Paul as an icon for our age, whose final mission was to show us how to live for Christ in declining health. Yes, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, is so attractive that when you find what God is offering, it will change your life for good.

Happy hunting!