There’s an old song from the 1960’s that started, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden….” After reflecting on today’s first reading, one could not be faulted for wondering whether Yeshua ben Sira, the author of the Book of Sirach, wrote the lyrics. A servant of the Lord, he maintains, should expect trials, adversity, crushing misfortune and humiliation—not exactly the stuff you want to put on your vocation office website!
Yet doing so wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, it would be truth in advertising. Trials, adversity, misfortune and humiliation are all elements of what St. Francis of Assisi would have called “perfect joy,” not because they are good in themselves but because the follower of Jesus is able to endure and even grow from them because he or she also fears the Lord, is sincere of heart and steadfast, patient, faithful, accepting, and always trusting in God.
This passage from Sirach sustained me 34 years ago at a time when I was tested on my vocational journey. I had just graduated from college, where I had a high GPA, four years of competition in cross country and track, and a column in the student newspaper. I was a candidate for the Capuchins and had applied for the Postulancy program, along with seven or eight other guys. My application was rejected.
Over time, I came to understand the decision. I was far from the perfect candidate and needed more growth and conversion before I could freely commit myself to a full-time formation program and benefit from it. To put it bluntly, I probably wasn’t ready to be formed. At the time I found it hard to take, but I took comfort in the fact that the Capuchins were still willing to work with me and accept another application in the future. After 30 years of religious life and 25 years in the priesthood, I am grateful that they did.
Sirach asks: “Has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed…persevered in his commandments and been forsaken…called upon him and been rebuffed?” I’m sure that he intended those to be rhetorical questions. However, my answer would be, “Yeah.” Jesus, who called his disciples to be “the last of all and the servant of all,” experienced all of those things on the cross, the ultimate “crucible of humiliation.” Three days later, everything changed.
Serving the Lord doesn’t do away with the cross. It guarantees it. But it also promises God’s mercy, compassion, direction, forgiveness, enlightenment, protection and peace if we are prepared to receive them. Perfect joy is knowing that Good Friday isn’t the end of the story. —JC