Dearest Marco and Mattia,
Today the Church offers us the possibility to reflect on a section of the famous tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, known as the missionary discourse of Jesus. It is a most precious part of the Gospel for us, as it contains the instructions that the apostles receive from Christ in the moment in which they are sent to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons in his name.
The central part of the discourse deals with the persecutions and it is a great invitation, on the part of Jesus, to witness to Him with courage even facing the possible threats and hostility of men. On the one hand, Jesus is very direct with his forecast of opposition: I send you as sheep amongst the wolves (Mt 10:16); Beware of men (10:17); You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake (10:18); You will be hated by all for my sake (10:18). On the other hand, Jesus is decisive as he invites his disciples to be prudent: be as wise as serpents and as wise as doves (10:16); When you are persecuted in one city, flee to another (10:23). The principle that governs all of these recommendations is the availability of the disciples to share in the destiny of their Master. Jesus associates them, therefore, consciously with his earthly mission, which was the first to be marked by hostility and refusal.
We are his family. This note, which seems like a passing reference, almost without importance, is in reality the key of this entire discourse of Jesus.
We belong to Him; we are His family. And this is not, in the first place, a desire or a sentiment of ours; it is, instead, recognition on his part. It is He who points us out before the Father as His, as His family. And on this “you are mine” Jesus bases the grand and pacifying invitation that dominates the second part of the missionary discourse, the invitation to be not afraid, that he repeats three times (10:26,28,31).
Have no fear of men, Jesus says firstly, as they cannot hide for long their scheming: for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known (10:26). You will receive from the Holy Spirit the intelligence to recognize the intentions of other men, when it will be necessary. However, do not concentrate yourselves on the tricks and deceptions, but be rather direct and frank in front of the world, responding to me.
What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light (10:27); in other words, that which you learn in the intimacy of your relationship with me is destined for all, and must be brought to everyone.
In second place, says Jesus, do not fear those who can kill the body (10:28) because not even if they harm your body can they arrive to the point of breaking off the tie that unites you to me: but do not have the power to kill the soul (10:28). And the only thing that must truly fear is the possibility to deny me, to let yourselves be seduced by those who want to lead you to say that you are not mine. Because this is the life of spirit, your true life: to be, and to know and to announce that you are mine. And for this reason fear, rather, him who can destroy both body and soul in hell (10:28).
In the end, this belonging to Christ that gives us security, that defeats the fear in us, that does not permit it to dominate us and to mix up our actions, finds its’ most tender expression in the gaze that Jesus casts on the hairs of our head. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks two different times of our hairs. In both cases he names the part in order to refer to the whole, the most insignificant part of our body in order to indicate all our life, corporeal and personal. What are we afraid of in front of the prospective of persecutions? Normally, we fear suffering and the loss of our physical life, but we also fear the loss of life that takes the form of the abandonment of friends, defamation, disdain. And yet Jesus speaks of the hairs on our head.
He does this for the first time in the Sermon on the Mount, which is recounted at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Here, Jesus invites his disciples to not swear: Do not swear by your head, he recommends, because you do not have the power to make one hair white or black (5:36). So as to say: do not give your life as a collateral for the truth of your words, given that this life escapes you, it is not under our control. It would be a promise without value. The second time that Jesus speaks of our hairs is exactly in this great missionary discourse, which contains this most beautiful assurance: even the hairs on your head are counted (10:30). So as to say, everything about you is precious in my eyes, everything about you has an inestimable value.
These two affirmations of Jesus seem to be in contrast. Your life is a poor thing, he seems to be saying on the one hand, and on the other he declares you life is precious for me even in what seems insignificant for you. But it is exactly in this apparent contrast that Jesus wants to help us to enter. You must not fear, he says, because you are mine and this is your strength. Have fear, he says however, because if you go away from me you will be lost. Your life is next to nothing, if you think that you are lord of it. Your life is precious and protected, if you remain within the great ambit of faithfulness to me. You are my family, I will protect you, like the
What is a hair? Nothing, and yet you do not have power even over such a little thing. You are, therefore, nothing yourselves, in a very real sense. What is a hair? Nothing, and yet, the Father does not forget even such a small thing. He counts them all. So as to say: you are strong not because nothing can threaten you. They might even put you to death because of me. You are strong because you are mine. And it is for this reason that you must not fear. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not even one falls to the ground without your Father’s will (10:29). Do not fear; you are worth more than many sparrows (10:31).You, lambs who I send in the midst of wolves, you, my family, in my eyes you are very precious. I myself will guard you, in as much as you profess to be mine in front of the world.
These words of Jesus are consoling. Together with his apostles, Jesus sends you both as well. Your task may not be easy. You are sent by God into a world that in and of itself does not welcome you, that may show itself to be estranged and hostile, above all if you assume full responsibility of faithfulness to He who has sent you. The task of the priest today, like that of every Christian, is uncomfortable and exposes one to perils, if we do not want to stoop to compromises with a worldliness that refuses Christ or that attempts to reduce His claim. It is a sweet task, we may say, because we know that we are taken care of by a Father who loves us, who watches over us and who knows what we need even before we ask it of him (6:8). Sweet task because it associates us to the life of Christ himself, our brother, our friend, and our King.
Homily for the first Mass of the newly ordained priests Marco Vignolo and Mattia Zuliani.
Church of St. Eusebius Rome, June 25, 2017.