5th Week of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula
The king of Corinth was a clever man. He was also prideful and lived to lie to friend and foe alike. His pride and deceitfulness kept him in power and flush with gold. When given the chance, he would divulge an ally's secrets to a mutual enemy and reap the rewards of betrayal. It was only a matter of time before his hubris compelled him to expose the follies of Zeus and gamble his cleverness against the anger of a god. One day, believing himself equal to the gods, the king told the river god, Asopus, one of Zeus' secrets in exchange for a fresh water spring in his city. As punishment, Zeus ordered Death to chain the king in the Abyss. The king, ever-clever, tricked Death and escaped. When the king died, his wife did not observe the proper burial rites, so he ended up in Hades only to escape and return to his wife to scold her for being disrespectful. Fed up with the king's impertinence, Zeus ordered his spirit to bear an eternal burden. He was condemned to push a boulder up a hill. When he nearly reached the top of the hill with the boulder, it would escape his grasp and roll to the bottom. The king would have to begin again. . .for eternity. The king's name was Sisyphus. To this day, we use his name to describe an absurd task, or a futile burden that leads to despair. For some, Sisyphus and his fate serve as a warning against pride and deceit. To others, he's an absurd hero, a foolish solider in a war against tyrants. Who is he for the followers of Christ? Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” But how often do we lovers of Christ wallow in our burdens and make our troubles badges of honor?
Because he was a fool to challenge Zeus and because his punishment seems so familiar, so “right,” Sisyphus is a popular subject in modern poetry. The American poet, Stephen Dunn, in a series of poems starring our anti-hero, wonders what Sisyphus would do if he were forgiven his sins, relieved of our ridiculous task. In a poem titled, “Sisyphus and the Sudden Lightness,” Dunn gives us the man mysteriously absolved of his debt to Zeus and wandering the streets in search of a purpose. Dunn writes, “Sisyphus, of course, was worried;/ he'd come to depend on his burden,/wasn't sure who he was without it.” He peels an orange; pets a dog, keeps moving forward b/c he is “afraid/of the consequences of standing still.//He no longer felt inclined to smile.” Over time, Sisyphus realizes that he is no longer being punished b/c the gods have disappeared. He hasn't been forgiven; he's been abandoned. So, out of anger or frustration or maybe defiance, “He dared to raise his fist to the sky./Nothing, gloriously, happened.//Then a different terror overtook him.” Sisyphus has been his punishment for centuries. Now that the boulder and the hill no longer imprison him, who is he? The gods are gone and the history of his punishment is more ridiculous, more meaningless than ever.
Sisyphus' heart is troubled. He has been abandoned by his gods, and he no longer knows who or what he is. He was condemned to an eternity of futile labor. Had he come to enjoy that boulder and the hill? Had he come to believe that his punishment was not only well-deserved but actually beneficial to his soul? As followers of Christ, what would we tell him about pride and its punishment? About lying and the consequences of defying God? Would we tell him that he got what he deserved and that he should shoulder his burden w/o complaint? If so, then we have to ask ourselves: Do we see ourselves in Sisyphus, wallowing in our burdens, making our troubled hearts badges of honor? Are we freed men and women, liberated children of a loving God; or, are we prisoners to our self-selected and self-imposed punishments? It might not be polite to say or pleasant to believe, but those of us who lay claim to the kingdom of God too often see ourselves as lost, abandoned; forsaken and punished for our sins. Sometimes we see this so intensely, believe it so fervently that we become our burdens; we transform ourselves from forgiven souls with an occasionally troubled heart into constantly troubled hearts with souls we cannot trust are forgiven. After all, we deserve our burdens; we are entitled to our troubles and we would not know who or what we are if, suddenly, our sentences were commuted and we were set free. Who are you once you are unchained and your prison is destroyed?
Jesus tells his disciples that he is preparing himself for death. He is leaving them. Confronted by their overwhelming anxiety and fear, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house. “I will come back again,” he assures them, “and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Most anxious and skeptical of them all, Thomas, blurts out, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Can you hear Thomas' real question? He's really asking, “How can you abandon us? How can you just leave us here? Why are we being punished? We don't know the way!” Jesus says to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.” You know the way. You know me, and I am the way. You know the truth and you know the life. I am the truth and the life. You have come to me, and in doing so, you have come to the Father. When I return, you will all return with me to the Father. Did his friends believe him? Do we believe him? If we think Jesus is lying, then we will never surrender our burdens, never give up the punishments for sin that we believe we deserve. If we trust in his word, then we will crawl out from under the anxiety and the despair; we will gladly, eagerly push aside all of our destructive guilt and self-recrimination. Finally, we will come to accept that we are not the sum total of our sins and the years we have spent in prison, but that we are the freed children of a loving God who waits for us to occupy the many rooms of His heavenly house. That's who and what we are: not guests or visitors but children, beloved sons and daughters come home, and come home for good.
Peter tells us more about who and what we are in Christ: “You are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises' of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are a race—black, white, yellow, brown, red—a race of those chosen by God. We are royal priests, offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving on the altars of our daily lives. We are a holy nation—Americans, Russians, Japanese, Mexicans—a nation set aside to be a commonwealth of faith and reason in a world slowing going insane. And we are a people, a tribe, citizens and subjects of a kingdom that will never end. When we are who we were redeemed to be and when we do what we were redeemed to do, there is no time for us nor energy left in us for absurd burdens, futile punishments, or useless anxiety.
Sisyphus, upon realizing that his punishment was at an end, and realizing that his gods had abandoned him, shook his fist at heaven, and “a different terror overtook him.” He was terrified of not knowing who or what we was without his burden, without his petty gods. If you are afraid of surrendering your worries and your labors b/c you believe that you deserve them, or b/c you fear that you will become lost, let Christ's words bang around in your mind for a while: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. . .I will come back again and take you to myself. . .”
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