One of the joys of working in Campus Ministry (now closing out my 13th year in remarkably dramatic fashion) has to be seeing when things “click” for one of our kids. You go from a freshmen we encounter at a barbeque, a bonfire, an org fair who’s filling out a card or signing a sign up sheet that we hope we’re going to see again – to actually making it to a Sunday Mass, and then coming a few more times, participates in a couple of our Newman nights, maybe joins a FOCUS bible study. You see the beginnings of someone not just growing in their faith, but really starting to make it their own. And then, you really don’t know when or what will be that thing, but you see that “click.”
A student comes and explains they don’t know how they’re going to do it, they know there’s a lot of opposition to it, there’s some legitimate (and some not) fear – but they’re going to apply to be a FOCUS missionary, or to Seminary to discern the priesthood or to a religious community. They just know it’s what God is calling them to do at this moment – and they are convicted, convinced to move ahead… something clicked…
That’s a pretty big example – there are a lot of significant ones that can be just as important revelations. Like last year on our Spring Break trip to Appalachia, here we were over 500 miles away from the beautiful paradise that is New Jersey in Kentucky, sleeping on cots in rooms with 20 other people who are snoring or talking in their sleep – getting up at 5:30 AM to celebrate Mass before separating from our group from MSU and going out to work sites with complete strangers to help rebuild homes for complete strangers for a good 8-9 hours in all kinds of weather (literally it went from 20 degrees and rainy to sunny and 70 degrees in 48 hours)… all the while barely getting wifi so all the devices are kind of inoperable… And during our evening sharing as a group, sitting around exhausted but not wanting to go to sleep as we were sharing our experiences and hearing some of you saying “it’s so weird, why do I feel a happiness and a peace here that I don’t feel on a regular basis?” – another “aha moment.”
As a priest there’s a lot of vulnerable, intimate experiences we get to share in the lives of the people we’re called to serve – and in this particular work, this is truly one of the most inspirational and humbling. That came to mind talking to students the last couple of weeks in this unprecedented and strange time we’re experiencing. You were all here, we were just saying goodbye to you for a week for Spring Break and then suddenly everything got upended… you were moved out of the dorms, your classes were thrown online (even your Mass from your chapel was) As unnerving and foreign as this has been – I’ve been proud to see how many of you are rolling with it in our conversations the last couple of days, weeks… Some even getting philosophical in saying that it’s helping you recognize what really matters…. That you being healthy and safe is what really matters… that your family and friends (and their being healthy and safe) is what really matters… and even that so many of you are recognizing in dramatic way how the idea that we’re in control of… well… everything has been the biggest lie that all of us continue to fall for throughout our lives. And just coming to that realization, has helped you in different ways – that you get it now – why God matters, why your relationship with Jesus matters – in a way that no Newman night, or bible study, or even a homily could ever help make click for you.
Its important to underline that for ourselves – Because it looks like we’re on this forced retreat for awhile. I joked with someone the other day that for Catholics the season of Lent has always been billed as an opportunity for us to relate to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. This year, it’s a little more experiential version of Lent. It’s like we didn’t realize on Ash Wednesday we were signing up for Lent on steroids… But this can be a gift for us if we let it. We’ve been forced out of our routines, we’ve been forced out of the break-neck, stress filled pace that we fill our lives with; we’ve had to re-evaluate what we’re buying, do I really need this or that in a way that we’ve probably never had to do before. Lent has always meant to help us simplify things – and get back to basics, get to what really matters and to see how many things, how our work, how even some of our relationships have become ‘gods’ in our lives distracting us from the one true God. Him and Him alone is all that really matters.
It’s from this place of reflection, where this first reading that we heard really causes some heartfelt reflection. – First off, could there be three better names than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Anyway – we hear how these three young men, these three devout, faithful Jews are so clear that the only thing that really matters isn’t doing what everyone else was doing and being a part of the crowd… what really matters isn’t to just go along with this very fragile King Nebuchandnezzar is demanding (even just to fake it and not mean it) for their own safety… what really matters isn’t even their lives themselves. What really matters is their faith in God and God alone. This so clicked for them, they know that’s the only thing that really matters that they are beyond bold in saying “go ahead, fire those fires up to torture- even if He doesn’t show up and save us here and now and that fire kills us – we know God and God alone suffices.”
We’re humbled by that. If we’re honest – If I’m honest – I don’t know that I could be that bold. I want to think that I could that I would… But the good news for us today is that unlike Shadrach, Meshach and Adednego, we have the assurance that God has shown up. He is in the fire with us. He promises to be our comfort, our strength, our savior, our redeemer. In the Gospel we hear those comforting words – If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The truth that we’ve worshiped other things – idols not of Nebuchandnezzar’s making but of our own for far too long. The truth that too many things became way too important in our lives. The truth that none of them deserved the exalted place they held. We experience freedom when we acknowledge those truths… and then begin to pursue the path of faithfulness that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate. Particularly when we go back to basics and recognize The truth that God has loved us into existence. The truth that He continues to sustain us with His very breath of life. The truth that in Jesus Christ, we have become God’s beloved sons and daughters. Which in the end, is what really matters.