Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily. October 31, 2010, The Ache of Autumn, Ken Hughes SJ


St. Mary of the Angels


Ken Hughes SJ

The Ache of Autumn

A week ago Friday, early in the morning, I was walking down Concord Rd., out at Campion Center, when suddenly, this black car crossed over to my side of the road. A woman rolled down her window and shouted, "Do you want a ride?" I replied, "No, thanks. I’m just walking." "Oh," she said, "getting exercise?" I said, "Yes." She asked, "How old?" I replied, "76." She said, "Great! My father is 86 and walks every day. He’s going to live another 20 years!" Then, she scooted back to her side of the road just ahead of a line of cars. If my math is correct, I think that she was promising me another 30 years of life, -- as long as I keep walking.

The irony is that just before she stopped, I had been scuffling leaves as I frequently do in autumn, stirring up memories of childhood, but also acknowledging that I am now in the autumn of my life. There is something about this time of year with leaves falling, gardens looking rather weedy, and increasingly gray skies that always elicits in me a certain melancholy and a certain yearning. Author, Joyce Rupp, calls it "The Ache of Autumn." She writes:

"Every autumn, nostalgia fills me;

every autumn, yearning holds me."

This "ache of autumn" looks back in nostalgia at our lost carefree childhood days but looks ahead to the end of our life and touches our yearning for God. Fading flowers and falling leaves remind us of our own mortality. We want to know that our life holds meaning. We don’t want, in the words of poet, Mary Oliver, to "end up just visiting this world." We want to know that we have made some contribution to God’s Kingdom, and not pass through life just enjoying our own pleasures and pastimes. We ask ourselves once again: why did God make me? And we know the answer concerns praising God, and reverencing and serving our neighbor.

Maybe, Zacchaeus was taking a good look at the meaning of his own life when he wanted to see Jesus. Who was Zacchaeus? A tax collector. More than just a tax collector, -- he was the CEO of tax collectors, -- a chief tax collector. He had done well for himself. Luke tells us that he was a wealthy man. But how was he with God? Surely, not part of the worshipping community. How was he with his neighbor? You know the saying: The bigger the money, the dirtier the hands. Surely, like other tax collectors, he was shunned and marginalized. How was he with himself? Perhaps, he too, felt a certain melancholy, a certain yearning. Something was stirring in his heart. The "Ache of Autumn" was upon him.

Then, hearing that Jesus, that special man of God, was passing by, Zacchaeus’ yearning turned to action. It must have been quite humbling for a rich and powerful man to reveal his small stature and have to climb a tree in the presence of those who scorned him, -- not exactly a dignified action. But, it shows how strong his yearning was. And yet his yearning to see Jesus was no match for Jesus’ yearning to see him. It seems that Jesus was already searching for Zacchaeus as He kept scaning those Sycamores. And, when Jesus does see him, He says. "Hey. Zacchaeus, come on down. I want to stay with you." Zacchaeus can’t believe it! Jesus wants to stay with him! An immediate transformation takes place: out of sheer joy he promises to give half his possessions to the poor and make fourfold restitution for extortion. Zacchaeus will still go on being a tax collector but he won’t be enjoying the privileges of the rich anymore. It doesn’t matter. He has seen the face of God. God in Jesus has called to him and come to him and has drawn him from the edge of society to the center of the community, even if there are grumblers on all sides.

Then, Jesus makes a bold statement: "Today salvation has come to this house.""Today." That word, "today," is most significant. In Luke’s Gospel, the word "today" is used only in two other places: First, back at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when He picks up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah about the promise of the coming of the reign of God, Jesus says, "Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Today! Right now! And the second time will be when Jesus, at the very end, says to the repentant thief on the cross; "Today you will be with me in Paradise." How powerful, therefore, for Jesus to say about Zacchaeus now, "Today salvation has come to this house," – not just because Zacchaeus has given half his possessions to the poor and made fourfold restitution, but because when Jesus called him Zacchaeus responded joyfully and welcomed Jesus with enthusiastic hospitality.

Would that Jesus might walk by in our violent neighborhoods and draw into the community those who stand at the edge. Would that He might look up at the windows of tenement buildings and call to our restless youth, "Come down! I want to stay with you." In fact, He does pass by and He does call whenever each one of you, singly or in groups, marches in peace, visits the sick, or feeds the poor, -- whenever you look at your neighbors as Jesus looked at Zacchaeus: with love, compassion, and welcome. And for ourselves, we never know when a special "today" moment will take place in our life as it did in Jesus’ life, the repentant thief’s life and Zacchaeus’ life. But we can place ourselves somewhere in Jesus’ sight, as Zacchaeus did, and wait to be noticed and called.

Fortunately, each time we celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus passes by. In the Eucharist He comes to us and stays with us. May we welcome Him today as joyously as Zacchaeus did and may we respond as graciously and generously. But it all begins with yearning, that deep yearning for God, which the ache of autumn touches, nourishes, and calls forth.

 Kenneth J. Hughes, SJ

 Brighton, Mass. 

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