(Father Guillermo García-Tuñón, S.J. delivered this homily on the 5th Sunday of Lent during a Mass streamed live on March 29, 2020, from the Belen Jesuit Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.)
In 2018, the Belen administration invited a guest speaker to address the whole school community. Her name was Allison Crowther and she came to speak to us about her son, Welles. Welles Renny Crowther was a graduate of Boston College and a lacrosse player. After graduating, he got a job as an equities trader and volunteer firefighter in New York City. On September 11, 2001, Welles was in his office on the 78th floor of the Twin Towers, when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the building. He called his mother and left her a message saying that he was okay. He then proceeded to the stairwell where he encountered a group of people waiting to use the elevator. Carrying an injured person on his back, he guided the group to a working stairway and led them down to safety. Then, placing a red bandanna around his nose and mouth, he went back up the tower where he continued to carry people down and lead them to safety.
All in all, Welles Crowther saved 18 people on that day but lost his own life along with many first responders. It wasn’t until an article came out in The New York Times, where a survivor described being saved by “a man with a red bandana”, that Allison Crowther realized it was her son. She knew that her son always carried the red bandana his father gave him years before. The survivors recognized that he was the reason why they were able to escape the burning tower on that fateful day. It was an extraordinary act of valor by a young, Jesuit alumnus, who in the midst of a horrifying situation brought life and hope to so many. To this day, the one thing that gives Allison Crowther peace when facing the loss of her son is knowing her son died a hero.
The events that took place on September 11th changed not only the lives of the people of New York and the United States but also the world. We became much more aware of how vulnerable we truly are. It changed the way we travel, the way we work and play; it changed politics and the economy. What it didn’t change, though, is the experience of tragedy setting the stage for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. I wish that these experiences of heroism were attainable in less drastic, less violent ways, but it doesn’t work that way. And like us, God doesn’t desire or wish upon the world these cruel and harrowing experiences. In a broken and sinful world, with what man does to each other and, ultimately, gives to God, through his grace, God inspires people like Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandana.
In today’s gospel, we see something very similar. It’s a very sad and dramatic scene. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, the friend of Jesus, becomes deathly ill. It’s not that the Lord wanted or even knew about the sickness of his friend, but quickly realizes it is an opportunity to experience the awesome grace of the Father. Listen to the words of Jesus, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
What happens next is not only extraordinary from a practical point of view, but also from a theological one as well. The true nature of Jesus is in plain view. We see the humanity of Jesus on display as he cries over the death of his friend, but we also see his divinity as he raises him from the dead and orders him out of the tomb. Not only that, but this terrible situation also gives him an opportunity to reveal himself as the resurrection and the life. Not simply does he state that he will resurrect or that he has life, but that he is the resurrection and he is the life.
And with that comes one of the most important questions ever asked by God to man, a question that 2,000 years later continues to be asked to each and every single one of us, “do you believe this” (John 11:26)? Just as Jesus asked the question to Martha long ago and asks us now, we, like Martha, have to answer for ourselves. Do we believe? Hopefully, our answer will be like hers, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (11:27).
So, today, where is the glory of God in the midst of this new tragedy? COVID-19 has gripped the world in fear and trepidation. Like September 11th, it has caused us to become much more aware of how vulnerable we truly are. It has changed the way we travel, the way we work and play; it has changed politics and the economy. But again, if like today’s gospel, if like Welles Crowther, we are to believe that what doesn’t change is the experience of grace in the midst of such a disgraceful situation, where is it? Where is the grace?
Just look around…
In downtown Miami, the Missionaries of Charity are still feeding the homeless. They practice social distancing, keeping the men and women in orderly lines six feet apart from each other. The sisters are wearing masks and gloves and, with a couple to no volunteers at all, they continue to serve food through a little window in their soup kitchen. The grace of Charity has prevailed.
In every hospital in Miami, there are doctors and nurses and medical students who have worked for hours on end, exposing themselves to the virus, in order to treat the sick and the dying. The grace of Heroism has emerged.
Like at Belen, teachers around the country are redesigning their classrooms, going virtual so that millions of young students can continue their education. The grace of Creativity has been sparked.
In the Jesuit community where I live, priests and seminarians are sitting at the dining room table and having conversations for hours on end, sharing stories and sharing their lives. Even though I have lived with these men for twenty years, it is only now that I have learned that Fr. Marcelino Garcia is an only child and his father owned a textile business in Sagüa la Grande in Cuba. Fr. Pedro Suarez’s doctoral dissertation was on Algebraic topography (whatever that is) and Fr. Nelson Garcia graduated from the Marist Brothers high school in La Víbora in Havana discovering the Jesuits years later through the Agrupación Católica Universitaria. The grace of Friendship has been deepened.
And at our daily Masses that we have been streaming live every weekday from the Belen chapel, we’ve had more than 180 people tune in and over 2,000 last Sunday! The grace of Faith has been reignited!
My brothers and sisters, the grace is as plain as the nose on our face. This illness is not to end in death, but it is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.