Do we need a course correction?
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2021
Today, as we continue our reflections for this Year of St. Joseph, I want to focus on a statement in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Let’s begin with a story. Two battleships assigned to a training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captained remained on the bridge, keeping an eye on all activities. Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “Light, bearing on the starboard bow.” The captain called out, “Is it steady of moving astern?” The lookout replied, “Steady, captain,” which meant it was on a dangerous collision course with the ship.
The captain then shouted to the signalman, “Signal the ship: We are on a collision course. Advise you to change course 20 degrees.” Back came a signal, “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees!” In reply the captain said, “Send: I’m a ship’s captain. Change course 20 degrees, now!” “I’m a seaman second class,” came the reply. “You had better change course 20 degrees, now!” By that time the captain was furious. He spit out a command, “Send: This is a battleship. Change your course immediately.” Back came the reply, “This is a lighthouse!” The battleship changed course.
In a section on Joseph as an obedient father, Pope Francis notes that in a series of dreams God revealed his plan to Joseph, which in each case required a course correction.
“Joseph was deeply troubled by Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. He did not want to ‘expose her to public disgrace,’ so he decided to ‘dismiss her quietly’ (Mt 1:19). In the first dream, an angel helps Joseph resolve his dilemma: ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’…. ‘When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him’ (Mt 1:24).
“In the second dream, the angel tells Joseph: ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him’ (Mt 2:13). Joseph did not hesitate to obey.
“In Egypt, Joseph awaited with patient trust the angel’s notice that he could safely return home. In a third dream, the angel told him that those who sought to kill the child were dead and ordered him to rise, take the child and his mother, and return to the land of Israel (cf. Mt 2:19-20). Once again, Joseph promptly obeyed….
“In every situation, Joseph declared his own ‘fiat’ [let it be], like those of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane…. During the hidden years in Nazareth, Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father. That will was to be his daily food (cf. Jn 4:34). Even at the most difficult moment of his life, in Gethsemane, Jesus chose to do the Father’s will rather than his own.”
So…as our second reading says, “Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.” I always found that statement strange and hard to deal with. But during my serious illness a little over two years ago, I think I got an insight into what the author meant when you don’t have the strength to even lift yourself up out of a hospital bed, that tends to remove a false sense of pride. It makes you less arrogant. And it makes you more grateful, appreciating the tender mercies of the nurses, doctors, chaplains and visitors. Suffering makes you more humble, much more open to the opinions of others.
In the Old Testament, when the prophets who speak for God ask the people to repent or convert, what they are asking for is that the people take an honest look at themselves, and ask: Where am I heading? Do I need to make a course correction in my life, much as the captain of the battleship had to change direction so as not to crash into the rocks where the lighthouse signaled its message of danger.
My time of suffering revealed two things: (1) that there is a God, and (2) that it’s not me. And if I am not God, then I have to be open to a wisdom and a love that has my best interests at heart, and wants to keep me from crashing on the rocks. In becoming a human being, the tradition tells us that Jesus became like us in all things but sin. That meant that he had to learn obedience, and the school where he learned the most was in his suffering. In that way he became the lighthouse, the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
So the question is: are we heading in the right direction, or do we need to make a course correction? We can learn a great deal from St. Joseph, and from Jesus himself, as we bring this important question to our reflection and prayer throughout this week.