But I tell you, my friends, don’t fear those who kill the body and afterwards can do nothing more. I will show you whom to fear. Fear the one who after killing you has the authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear that one. Five sparrows are sold for two copper coins, are they not? Yet not one of them does God forget. The very hairs of your head he counts them all. Do not fear! You matter more than many sparrows!
Luke 12: 4-7
In this life of following Christ,
allow yourself, therefore, to be given away, together with your brothers and sisters,
as nourishment for others,
as bread that is broken.
Fundamental Principles of the Xaverian Brothers
These days in the United States we are living out, once again, a moment of self-centered panic, this time over the introduction of the Ebola virus into our country. For months, despite pleas from the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and others involved in the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the United States and other developed countries remained aloof and slow to respond. Now, however minimally, the virus is present here, and much of the country’s population and pretty much all of its media is Ebola obsessed. This is, perhaps, just the most recent example of how dominant is the disposition of fear among those who inhabit what is consistently termed “the most powerful nation on earth.”
The first Ebola victim in the United States presented himself to a hospital emergency room and, despite declaring repeatedly that he had just come from West Africa, he was sent home with antibiotics. We are told that this represented “a breach in protocol,” for the treatment of potential Ebola victims. What is much less discussed, however, is that there may have been another protocol that was faithfully followed. This man, a visitor to the United States, had no health insurance and there is a clear and unspoken protocol that mandates different responses to a patient who presents with or without medical insurance. The question today’s gospel, as all of this current experience, challenges us to consider is whether our increasing cultural sense of privilege and entitlement is making us a more fearful people.
While many of us hunker down in fear and demand that the experts and authorities protect us, there are those who go to the places that are the most virulent in order to do what they can to serve their brothers and sisters who are suffering. How do they find the courage to do this? Perhaps it is from the recognition and appropriation of their life as a God-given “task, assignment, and mysterious call.” For them, to live is to live out that call, knowing that the life of the body, as appreciated and carefully cared for as it must be, is always merely an aspect of their true life, a servant of their life-call. As we read in today’s passage from Ephesians: “In Christ we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory . . .” (Eph. 1: 11-12)
Allowing ourselves, in the words of the Fundamental Principles, “to be given away” requires the recognition that our life, in its deepest meaning and significance, is a response in love to another. We do not give our lives away, but rather we “allow” them to be given away. Among other things, this means living in the awareness of our own death, and so, bit by bit, moment by moment, releasing the control that the fear of death has over us. This does not mean that we cease to take care of our lives or that we in any way diminish in our desire for life. On the contrary, it evokes in us an ever deeper desire to live our lives, as we hear in John’s gospel, “to the full.” But the life we long to live is the life that is the mysterious call and loving task that God has created in us.
Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch. The following is an excerpt from his letter to the Romans:
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire. The time for my birth is close at hand. . . . My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not ry to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.