As most of you know, last week marked the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida—and thousands of teenagers around the country staged a walkout to commemorate that tragedy and honor those who had been killed.
Different schools marked the day in different ways.
Some schools placed 17 empty desks outside, to honor the 17 killed.
Others observed 17 minutes of silence.
Several Catholic schools around the country offered prayers, Benediction or Mass.
But one school in Ohio did something remarkable and, in its way, challenging.
On Wednesday, Sandusky Central Catholic High School gathered the students before the Blessed Sacrament for prayers for those who had died.
Father Jeff Walker, chaplain at the school, posted a picture and update on Twitter:
“We prayed by name for the repose of the souls who died in Parkland,” he wrote, “as we lit a candle for each of them.”
But then he added:
“Obedient to the command to pray for our enemies, we lit an 18th candle for the shooter and all those who seek to do harm.”
That is a tremendous testament—and a witness that I might call not only beautiful, but even, courageous. When I told people about that 18th candle, a few said they had mixed feelings about it and weren’t sure if it was appropriate.
But Christianity at times should make the world uncomfortable. It should unsettle us and make us look more deeply at who we are and what we do.
We Christians should be, in the best sense, countercultural—defying the norms of the culture and pricking the conscience.
Lived Christianity should reflect the Gospel in ways that can astonish us.
In today’s Gospel, several people approach the apostles just days before Christ’s Passion and say, “We would like to see Jesus.”
I think people saw him last week in Sandusky, Ohio.
They saw Jesus in prayers for the one who had caused so much heartbreak and suffering.
They saw Jesus in gestures that offered mercy instead of vengeance…in acts that stood for love instead of hate…in remembrances that sought healing instead of hurt.
They saw Jesus in young people living out the Gospel command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.
This week our eyes look ahead to next Sunday, Palm Sunday, and the cross that looms in the distance. In the Gospel, we get a foreshadowing of Christ’s suffering and death and think ahead to what he is about to do, and how he did it, and how he even forgave his killers.
But we also look back, over these last few weeks of Lent. We’ve tried to model our lives on Jesus—to pray more, forgive more, sacrifice more.
It’s worth asking ourselves: How have we done?
Where have we succeeded?
More importantly: where have we failed?
These last weeks offer us an opportunity to reflect and repent—and redouble our efforts to do what we heard on Ash Wednesday: to turn back to the Gospel.
I’d argue that the students in Sandusky did just that.
“Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors,” Jesus said.
It may be one of the hardest commands of the Gospel. How have we done it this Lent?
How have we loved those who hate us—the obnoxious, the cruel, the bullies, the schemers, the ones who prefer to tear down instead of build up?
How have we prayed for our persecutors—the name-callers, the bigots, the the plotters, the gossips?
How have we dealt with them online, on social media, in the office, at the supermarket? How have we dealt with them in our own family, sitting around the kitchen table?
Sometimes—and we hate to admit it, but it’s true—sometimes, those very people are us.
How have we tried to be better this Lent? How have we tried to rise above our very human failings?
And: how can we try harder in the last 14 days remaining?
In two weeks, we will be reminded that our great call as Christians is to carry the light of Christ into the world. This darkened church will be illuminated by a thousand points of light as the giant Paschal Candle is enthroned by this pulpit. “Lumen Christi!” Christ, our Light!
As the students in Ohio showed us: it’s never too early to bear that Light, to strike a match, to dispel the darkness, to bring one more point of light into a dark and cold world.
Pray to do that. Pray to be what we are called to be.
We began Lent marked with the remnants of a fire, ashes. This is the time to rekindle the flame.
One day we will be dust. But not yet. Not now.
Now we can still set the world on fire.