By Kevin Block
This homily is about the ups and downs of life, which we all experience. Actually, we’d rather have it the other way around. We’d rather have the downs and then the ups. The other way is just depressing.
Last week I heard a down and up story, so it has a happy ending. Shakila Zareen told her story to Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC’s The Current. Shakila now lives in Vancouver with her mother and sister but she was born in Afghanistan. Six years ago, when she was seventeen and still living in Afghanistan, her extended family forced her to marry a much older man who immediately began to violently abuse her.
Fearing for her life, Shakila went to the police, but they said, “It’s your husband and he really hasn’t done anything that awful to you. He hasn’t cut off your ear, he hasn’t cut off your mouth, he hasn’t cut off your nose.” Realizing that it was futile to seek protection from the police, Shakila returned to her mother’s home, but that night her husband, armed with a gun, and a gang of wicked men came looking for her, demanding that she go with them. When she refused, her husband shot her point blank in the face, blowing away her nose, mouth, eye, teeth, and jaw. She was rushed to the hospital and eventually, when her story became public, she was transferred to a hospital in India where surgeons fought to save her life and then began plastic surgery.
But even in India Shakila was terrified of her husband and she desperately wanted to get far away to America. America, however, rejected her refugee application because of her husband’s Taliban connections. Finally, she was interviewed by Canadian officials, and, as Shakila told Anna Maria Tremonti, immediately she began to feel safe and hopeful. The Canadians were extremely kind and soon arranged for her to fly to Vancouver.
Canadian surgeons continue to work on her traumatized face but now she is optimistic about the future. When she goes out in public she even removes the covering from her face because Canadians, according to Shakila, are so kind, and they never stare or ridicule her. She has a whole new life in Canada, and her mother and sister are here too. What a happy ending to a horrible story!
As a Canadian, I feel proud of this story about my country coming to the rescue. But things aren’t always this way in Canada. Last Friday night in Toronto a 26-year-old man was shot in the back while getting into his car, and he died. His name was Nnamdi Ogba. Ten years ago, he immigrated from Nigeria to Canada with his parents. He did everything he was supposed to do to make a success of himself and became an electrical engineer. More importantly he was engaged to be married and he was known as a gentle, quiet, easygoing man who would never hurt anyone. According to police, he had no criminal record, no gang connections, and didn’t know his killers and never even saw them since they shot him in the back.
But those two murderers, who still haven’t been caught, came to Nnamdi’s Toronto neighborhood looking for someone to shoot, and he became the random target of their evil intentions. Nobody knows why. His parents are crushed, and, no doubt, wonder what kind of horrible, cowardly, dangerous country they have ended up in. Sometimes, even in Canada, there is nothing but despicable behavior with devastating consequences. Sometimes, even in Canada, people’s stories have downer endings.
Today’s gospel story has a downer ending too. It begins well, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem surrounded by cheering fans. But then his enemies capture, torture, and crucify him. And Jesus is still a young guy —probably just 33 years old.
Thankfully, the story of Jesus continues on beyond today’s downer ending. Jesus is down and dead but not defeated. In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, St. Paul tells the rest of the story. The same Jesus who experiences the most degrading depths of human experience is exalted by God in heaven and given “the name that is above every name.” Jesus Christ, in other words, the second person of the Holy Trinity, has returned to the eternal love of God the Father and Holy Spirit. It is the highest, happiest ending imaginable.
And here is the point. St. Paul urges us to adopt the attitude of Jesus Christ — the attitude that trusts God for happy endings regardless of how bad things get. Many of us feel a downhill tendency in life. We even joke about being “over the hill.” We remember yesterday, when we were young, the thousand dreams we dreamed, the splendid things we planned (Charles Aznavour, 1964). But youth is now in our rearview mirror and, as they say, getting older isn’t for sissies. In every decade, we keep losing things and having to leave things behind, and some of those things are extremely precious, such as our health or special relationships or simply the way we think things should be and should have always stayed.
But St. Paul urges us to adopt the attitude of Jesus Christ, that keeps trusting God for happy endings, even in the depths of human experience. We do not have to be completely desperate about this life. We do not have to worry too much about what will happen to us in this crazy world. Because just as God raised Jesus, we believe that God will raise us into heaven too, where it will be the height of our eternal joy to worship and confess Jesus Christ as Lord forever.
After thirty years of serving as a pastor in The Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada and then as a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, Kevin Block was confirmed in the Catholic Church after retirement.