Juneteenth and the Sacred Heart, in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah in Anguish“Ordinary Time” is an odd expression, though familiar in the Catholic context: all those Sundays and weeks of the liturgical year that are not in special seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter). On a three year cycle, the Gospels are read through, with a first reading from the Hebrew Bible thought to be paired with the Gospel, and a second reading usually from St. Paul. We broke off Ordinary Time on February 23rd, the 7th Sunday; today, June 21, is the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time. (And it is, of course, Father’s Day – congratulations to all the fathers in the parish! And let us all remember our fathers living and deceased.)

Our readings offer a rough return to Ordinary Time. Particularly as taken out of context, Jeremiah 20 and Matthew 10 are quite abrupt and bracing. Matthew 10 is Jesus’ instruction to his disciples when he sends them out on mission, and today we have a key portion, which manages to be both comforting and jarring (particularly if you add, as I have, verses 34-36):

So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10.26-36)

If Jesus is explaining what his disciples are likely to encounter and possibly suffer in the course of mission, the prophet Jeremiah embodies the actual suffering of a prophet whose message is unwelcome. The official reading is only Jeremiah 20:10-13, but here is a slightly longer portion that gives a feel for the depth of his struggle, the ups and downs of his emotions:

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.

He cannot but speak in God’s name, even if both enemies and friends turn against him:

Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let’s denounce him!” All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him.”

Then Jeremiah is uplifted and consoled:

But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.

But it is not over as he falls again into near despair:

Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you—a son! (Jeremiah 20.7-15)

There is no neat ending, no quick vindication of the good man right now. Jeremiah is down, he is up, he is very much down. In the end, he will be at peace, but not now. Thus goes his ministry.

But the ambivalence in both readings is good for us, particularly in June 2020, since it helps us to wake up and give energy to what we mean by “ordinary time.” We can discard the idea that such ordinary times are calm and tranquil times.

JuneteenthAnd this point hits home for two reasons connected to this weekend – particularly to Friday, June 19, just several days ago. As I hope we all know at this point, June 19th is “Juneteenth,” which marks the day in 1865 when all the slaves in Texas were declared to be free, when emancipation began to take hold in a space where the Emancipation Proclamation had not reached. Here is how Wikipedia puts it, both the good news and the rather grim restrictions the General kept in place:

On June 18, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. The following day, standing on the balcony of Galveston's Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of "General Order No. 3", announcing the total emancipation of those held as slaves: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

I have been told that Juneteenth has been for a very long time a day of commemoration and celebration in African American communities, and now the rest of us are catching up. (Harvard declared a holiday on Friday for the first time, and so too New York City.) But Juneteenth, blessed as the day may be, was only a beginning. Even 155 years later, it is sadly obvious that there is much more to be done if we are to have a society where all are equal, safe, free.

Even in the 12th Week of Ordinary Time in 2020, the prophets of racial justice will not always be welcome, the work of speaking God’s word and good news of liberation is only under way, not near completion. We still need a Jeremiah to speak truth to power, and persist even when those in power want to kill you; we still need for women and men to do the work of Jesus in the world, going from town to town preaching the kingdom of God, acting and speaking like Jesus in places familiar and new; and always there is a need for Jesus himself, of course, to manifest God’s kingdom, expose violence, unsettle the comfortable, and give fresh hope and energy to those in trouble and those in solidarity.

Sacred HeartBut we ought not to take for granted this Jesus — as if he were a maestro, God in full control, directing things, providing happy endings. This is brought home by the other dimension of June 19th this year: the Feast of the Sacred Heart. This feast has at least medieval roots, but it became popular in the 17th century, through the visions of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), with the strong support of the Jesuit saint, Claude de la Colombiere (1641-1692).

Symbolized usually by Jesus showing the viewer his heart, crowned in thorns or not, this is a feast of God’s most intense, flesh-and-blood love for the human race. It is a gut-level and inevitably suffering love, God in, amid, sharing the suffering of the human race. John 19 puts all this before us:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. Then, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Since it was the day of Preparation, they did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” (John 19.25-37)

If we look upon those who have been pierced, are being pierced, there we will see Christ, God for us, God with us: Jesus who died due to loving us; Jeremiah who suffered bitterly because he loved his people; the myriad generous and selfless people who in these last few months have risked their lives in caring for the sick and dying; those who have kept basic services going and gotten sick themselves; and those who have cried out, “Black Lives Matter!” and “Get off our necks!” in the face of our taken-for-granted, sinful ordinary ways of living as Americans.

St Aloysius GonzagaIf we see all this, then we will see how Juneteenth, the Sacred Heart, and prophets-like-Jesus do belong together — on this not so ordinary 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Note: after finishing this homily, I realized belatedly that June 21 is also the feast of Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591) the young Jesuit who died at age 23, after just a few years as a Jesuit - because he caught the plague from victims he was daily ministering to, caution to the wind. A saint for our times, indeed.

Musical bonus: Kathleen Connolly Rosenberg, a reader of these homilies from Virginia, just now wrote to me, seeing the mention of Jeremiah, to recommend The Cry of Jeremiah: "a very moving work for narrator, chorus and orchestra, composed in 2012 by Rosephayne Powell, an African American composer. Here is the NY premiere performance, narrated by the composer and conducted by her husband."