Michael J. Graham, S.J.
A pair of recent episodes brought international headlines home to Xavier University recently. On Sunday, Dec. 26, Ellen Kucia, daughter of Xavier’s administrative vice president John Kucia, was snorkeling off the coast of Thailand when the tsunami hit. Her parents knew thatshe would be spending her Christmas break there, on leave from teaching English at a school in Japan, and so they watched the morning’s television reports with special horror. A frantic day of worry and concern followed. They were touched by the quick response of a variety of government officials but did not relax until late that same night when the telephone rang and they heard Ellen’s voice on the other end, saying that it was all right, that she had gotten out, that she was fine.
Then, on Feb. 1, we received word that Army Pfc. James Miller IV died in Ramadi, Iraq, while guarding a polling station. A Xavier student for one year, his loss is as tough for his family to bear as you would expect. His grandparents told me recently that his service as a medic had given him a fresh sense of purpose. Only days before he died, he told his grandmother how he looked forward to searching out a career in health care in some way or another. Sadly, those hopes and dreams will now linger in the air for his family as the kind of unanswered questions that always accompany the loss of someone who dies too young.
Because Xavier University is a big family, we experience our share of losses and then some. But the last several weeks have seemed especially hard—from the untimely death of a student in December late in finals week, to just yesterday, when I had the sad privilege of being on the altar for a family at my most recent funeral. It seems I have been signing a larger than usual number of condolence notes. And I find myself wondering if it could be something in the air? Something about this time of year? But certainly it gives us all something to ponder as we go through Lent together.
When I was young, we had competitions among the classrooms at my Catholic grade school to raise money for Operation Rice Bowl, or whatever its predecessor was back then. The piece of candy I did not eat became a penny I did not spend on myself but gave away—a penny that went to feed a boy like me, half a world away and hungry. Those penances drove home the connection between our sacrifices and God’s grace, an important lesson to learn during Lent. But it’s harder to believe it nowadays, isn’t it, when the sacrifices are greater than penny candy.
The liturgical season of Lent arrives right on cue each and every Ash Wednesday, lasts about 40 days and finishes when the Easter hallelujahs are sung. Its penances are discrete and defined, and we choose them. But there’s another lent, a deeper and more personal lent, that the season of Lent points to and prepares us for. That lent rolls around on its own timetable. It chooses the penances for us, not the other way around. And after 40 days, it may only be getting started.
Yet the challenge to faith remains the same: to learn to see that—somehow, someway—God is active and alive in the midst of the sacrifices and losses that come to us, accompanying us through them. Saint Paul seems to have known this well, and I had always been heartened by his words from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “As to the extraordinary revelations, in order that I might not become conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and keep me from getting proud. Three times I begged the Lord that this might leave me. He said to me, ‘My Grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.’ And so I willingly boast of my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ. For when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.”
Wherever Lent may find you and those you love this year—whether the liturgical season that we all celebrate or the more personal, private lent that is yours and yours alone—let us keep it together as only people of faith can: by praying for one another, that we would know more deeply this year the abiding love of God in our lives.