Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
In 1626, Pope Urban VIII commissioned the construction of Santa Maria della Concezione near the Piazza Barberini in Rome. Five years later, the Capuchin friars of Rome moved the bones of their deceased brothers into the crypt underneath the church and continued to bury their dead in the crypt until around 1870. There are some 4,000 friars buried there. This is not all that unusual. What is unusual is that the bones of the friars were used to decorate the five chapels of the crypt. The walls and floors of the chapels are covered in elaborate mosaics made up entirely of bones. To the 21st century Christian, using the dead as decoration—especially in a chapel—is a little creepy if not outright scary and sacrilegious. For us, the dead are to be made to look as much alive as possible: carefully made up, dressed, coiffed, manicured, and then buried beneath the ground, out of sight, out of mind and their passing marked with a tasteful headstone. But for centuries, Christians were stoical about death, not at all squeamish about facing mortality. They understood that this world is passing away and set their hearts and minds on the world to come. They understood exactly what James means when he writes that the rich and poor alike will pass away "like the flower of the field." If you seek a sign that you will live forever, look to your death and where it will send you.
This morning we heard read the beginning of James' exhorting letter to the “twelve tribes in dispersion,” a letter to the Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. James encourages his brothers and sisters to endure trials as a means of achieving perfection in Christ. He exhorts them to pray for wisdom with a heart and mind steeped in faith b/c “a man of two minds [is] unstable in all his ways” and cannot presume to receive anything from God. Most importantly, James reminds us of our mortality, comparing us to grass in a field, thriving under a scorching sun. Eventually, the grass “dries up. . .its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes.” We “fade away in the midst of [our] pursuits.” The Christians' focus, while living in the world, is on the world to come. Our goal, our end is to be completed in Christ, and death is just one more door we must open and step through. The friars underneath Santa Maria della Concezione do not merely decorate their crypt's chapels; they memorialize, bring to mind again through memory, the truth that we live and die in Christ now so that we might rise and live with him forever.
If you seek a sign that you will live forever, look to your death and where it will send you. Signs show us the way by giving us direction. The Pharisees seek a sign in order to test Jesus. He refuses to show them a sign, refuses to give them their test. Like the rich man in James' letter, they are of two minds, unstable in all their ways; so, any sign he shows them will be wasted in more demands for more signs. The only sign they truly need is their own mortality. But what they need to survive their mortality is faith, a gift they cannot receive b/c their focus is on this world and the evidence they desire as proof of Jesus' power. Our faith in Christ Jesus is not a magical spell or a death-defying secret. To live with Christ forever, we must live with him now. Our mortality—that we will die—is all the sign we need to motivate us to live now as we would live forever. If you want to dwell eternally in love, dwell in love now. If you want to eat at God's table in heaven, eat at His table now. If you want to sing His praises before the throne, sing those praises before you die.
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