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April 15, 2018

The next time you’re looking for a way to relax after a hectic day, pick up a children’s storybook. But make sure it’s a storybook intended for four-year-olds. You will be surprised at what you learn. For example, you’ll discover that animals can talk, flowers can talk, and even teacups can talk. You will discover something even more remarkable. You will discover that a teacup can tell you a story that could change your life. Consider this example from one children’s storybook.

A grandfather and a grandmother are in a gift shop looking for something to give to their granddaughter for her birthday. Suddenly the grandmother spots a beautiful teacup. “Look at this lovely teacup!” she says to the grandfather. He picks it up and says, “You’re right! This is one of the loveliest teacups I’ve ever seen.” At that point something remarkable happens – something that could happen only in a children’s storybook. The teacup says to the grandparents, “Thank you for the compliment. But I wasn’t always beautiful.” Instead of being surprised that the teacup can talk, the grandparents simply ask it, “What do you mean when you say you weren’t always beautiful?” “Well,” says the teacup, “once I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay. Plain mud. But one day some man with dirty, wet hands threw me on a wheel. Then he started turning me round and round until I got so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried. But the man with the wet hands said, ‘Not yet!’ Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried. But the man said, ‘Not yet!’ Finally he did stop. But then he did something even worse. He put me in a furnace. I got hotter and hotter until I couldn’t stand it. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried. But the man said, ‘Not yet!’ Finally, when I thought I was going to burn up, the man took me out of the furnace. Then some short lady began to paint me. The fumes from the paint got so bad that they made me sick to my stomach. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried. ‘Not yet!’ said the short lady. Finally, she did stop. But then she gave me to the man again, and he put me back into that awful furnace. This time it was hotter than before. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried. ‘Not yet!’ said the man. And finally, he took me out of the furnace and let me cool. When I was completely cool, a pretty lady put me on this shelf, next to this mirror. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was amazed. I could not believe what I saw. I was no longer ugly, soggy, and dirty. I was beautiful, firm, and clean. I cried for joy. It was then that I realized that all that pain was worthwhile. Without is I would still be ugly, soggy, and dirty. And it was then that all that pain took on meaning for me. It had passed, but the beauty it brought remained.”

That children’s story about the teacup contains the same message as do today’s Scripture readings. It’s the message that before Jesus could rise to glory on Easter, He first had to suffer and die. Peter puts it this way in today’s first reading: “God has thus brought to fulfillment what He had announced beforehand through all the prophets, that His Messiah would suffer [before being raised to glory].” And the gospel puts the same idea this way: “Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And He said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer [before being raised to glory.’ ”

Jesus adds elsewhere in the gospel of John that what has happened to Him, must also happen to us, saying: “Remember, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). What the gospel is saying is that if we are to rise to glory as Jesus did, we must also suffer as He did. When this happens, we may shout, “Stop! Stop!” But in the end we will cry for joy – just as the teacup did, and just as Jesus did.

This is the message of today’s Scripture readings. It’s the message that if we are to become something useful and beautiful for God, we must first go through a certain amount of suffering. It’s the message that if we are to rise with Jesus, we must first die as He did. Saint Augustine put it this way in a sermon that he delivered to Christians 1,500 years ago: “You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put in the oven, therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again; for God is faithful and will guard both your going in and your coming out.”

In my hometown Győr in Hungary, during the years when I was growing up, there was a violin teacher who had many pupils. He was a kind man and his pupils loved him. He was gentle toward most of the children he was teaching, he taught them well so that they could play pretty pieces of music for uncles and aunts and grandparents when they visited them. But toward two boys he was very tough, almost cruel. He demanded that they practice many hours every day, he was harsh with them, criticized them relentlessly, he shouted at them, he kept pushing them to their limits. He was like a drill sergeant for them. Why? He was cruel, because this otherwise kind teacher saw the exceptional talent in these two young men, and he wanted to bring out the best of them. Eventually, years later, these two boys became world famous concert violinists who were giving concerts on the most prominent stages of the world, delighting their audiences with the enjoyment of the most beautiful music.  

God wants to bring out the best of us by pushing us to our limits, by demanding from us the greatest possible effort, even expecting us to shed tears and blood and sweat and so make us worthy for our rewards in heaven.

Let’s close this homily with another story. In 1954 the great French painter Henri Matisse died at the age of 86. In the last years of his life arthritis crippled and deformed his hands, making it painful for him to hold a paintbrush. Yet he continued to paint, placing a cloth between his fingers to keep the brush from slipping. One day someone asked him why he submitted his body to such suffering. Why did he continue to paint in the face of such great physical pain? Matisse replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

In a similar way, the pain that you and I experience in being shaped into something useful and beautiful for God will pass. But the beauty of what we become in the process will remain forever and ever and ever.

Rev. Julius Leloczky, O.Cist

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