Sunday, November 12, 2017
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As a ninth grader, I encountered the story of Romeo and Juliet for the first time. Of course, I had heard the names Romeo and Juliet applied to teenage couples caught up in the romance of young love, and so I was prepared for a love story. I had no idea how tragic the story would become. My tender teenage heart was traumatized! I still think of Romeo and Juliet not as a tragedy, but as a love story gone tragically wrong.
I prefer the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) called “How the Brigadier Saved the Army.” In that story, the French Colonel Etienne Gerard accepted a mission after other junior soldiers failed—being captured, tortured, and killed by Portuguese militia. The mission demanded going through the dangerous territory where the Portuguese were positioned in order to get to the high ground and light a beacon at midnight, which would signal to the French army to retreat. Without this signal, a contingent of French soldiers would be left surrounded by the enemy and helpless.
The story describes the great adventure that ensues as Gerard made his way to the mountain peak. At last, though, like the aides-de-camp before him, he is captured. He is brought to the chief of the Portuguese militia, a man known as Manuelo “The Smiler,” whose cruelty was known and struck fear into the French and English armies alike. The meeting, it turned out, took place on the very mountaintop where the colonel was supposed to light the beacon. The Portuguese had already claimed the high ground. Manuelo sentenced Gerard to death, and with his death, the French army itself would fall. Thus, Gerard bargained with Manuelo, asking that he at very least be allowed, as a sign of respect towards an officer, to choose how he would die. Manuelo agreed, and so Gerard requested that he be burned at the stake. Thus, by his death, the signal fire was lighted on the mountaintop and the French army escaped destruction.
What is the difference between the two stories? In Romeo and Juliet, a love story goes tragically wrong; but why? The plan seemed perfect: Juliet would take a potion that made its seem like she was dead, but which would wear off and allow her a new life, one in which she and Romeo would live happily ever after. It was supposed to be a story of resurrection and new life! She sent a messenger to get the word to Romeo, but the messenger failed. Romeo thus found Juliet and thought she was dead. Grief-stricken, he took his own life, only to have Juliet do the same when she awoke from her slumber and found him dead. The love story went tragically wrong for only one reason: the messenger failed!
In contrast, the Brigadier saved the army and prevented a tragedy precisely because he got the message through. Even at the cost of self-sacrifice—a willingness to give his own life out of love for others—he made sure the fire was ignited on the mountaintop that would alert the French army to the danger and allow them to escape. When the messenger succeeds, the story shifts from being a tragedy to being a heroic tale of unselfish love.
This is the Christian mission. Even at great cost, perhaps even martyrdom, we are entrusted with Good News that absolutely must be delivered to the world. Saint Paul, one of the first great messengers, wrote to the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Yes, hope!! That is what we bring to a desperate world. God does not intend that the love story should go tragically wrong; yet, God does entrust a lot, like the story of Romeo and Juliet, to the messenger. How well are you getting that message out there? How am I doing? Are we willing to risk it all so that the fire on the mountain gets ignited? There is no time to waste. Jesus warns us, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the time that we have left, before midnight approaches, we must get that fire kindled in the world, even if the fuel is—as it very often is—the very wood of the cross.