“The Joy of Jesus and the Martyrs, the Antidote to Bitterness” Heb 12 (2/6/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
In our First Reading, to the Hebrews, we continue reflecting on faith. After the famous chapter 11 on the heroes and models of faith, we now see how our own faith will have to persevere through struggles, discipline, and maybe even the shedding of blood. Amidst the many difficulties of life, it’s understandable why our reading today ends with a warning against bitterness. For bitterness, is, in fact, one way that people do respond to struggles. So we are warned “See to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble, through which many may become defiled.”
This reference to the “bitter root” is taken from Deuteronomy 29, which recounts Israel’s wanderings through the desert, where discouragement led the people to turn away from the Lord. Discouragement eats away at faith. Discouragement is a bitter root that hurts not only ourselves but also causes trouble for others “through which many may become defiled.” Deuteronomy says, it is “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.”
So, with the difficulties in our own life today, it is worth considering whether we too might be falling into bitterness. There are surely difficulties in the Church today, maybe in our families, maybe in our communities. Do we give in to bitterness? Might our bitter talk poison others too?
Now, there is a place to talk openly about problems and even to vent our frustrations, but we need to be a little careful that we don’t go too far into a bitterness that discourages others and that wears down their faith and our own faith.
St Ephrem the Syrian, from the 4th century, says, “If only we knew what good things and what delights we go without when we lack love!” That’s the answer for us. Love and delight. St Ephrem was embroiled in the controversies of his own day but his heart was so full of love that his days were spent singing hymns and writing poetry. “If only we knew what good things and what delights we go without when we lack love!” he would say.
So a good antidote for bitterness is joy. Not a pollyanna joy that acts like nothing is wrong, but a deep joy that endures struggles and difficulties. Not a superficial joy that you can paste on a felt banner and hang up, but the deep joy radiating from the Eucharist, and from the pierced heart of Jesus.
The martyrs we celebrate today possessed this deep joy in the midst of struggle. They could have responded with bitterness, but they did not. In an account of their martyrdom, we read about the encouragement and joy of St Paul Miki and his companions.
It says, “The crosses were set in place. Father Pasio and Father Rodriguez took turns encouraging the victims. Their steadfast behavior was wonderful to see. The Father Bursar stood motionless, his eyes turned heavenward. Brother Martin gave thanks to God’s goodness by singing psalms. Brother Francis Branco also thanked God in a loud voice. [Paul Miki] looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces.”
How did they do this? And more to the point, how can we do this in our own difficulties? Our First Reading provides an answer. “You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines’…Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as his sons.”
So, in this Eucharist today, we “strengthen our drooping hands and our weak knees.” We strengthen our confidence in the love of our heavenly Father. He treats us as the sons and daughters that He has made us by grace. Jesus himself was not spared of struggle and suffering. And we have a share in the deep joy of Jesus that remains in his pierced heart. As it says just a little earlier in Hebrews: We look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising it shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen.