|Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
A few years ago I saw a program about Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), the English physicist who was confined to a wheelchair because of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but whose brain was working perfectly, and who was an extra-ordinary genius. He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe. At the age of 21 he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and he was told he had at best two years to live. Up until his death in 2018 he was still doing ground-breaking work in physics, although the only muscle he could still move was one of his cheeks. There was a small sensor beside his cheek, which was attached to a computer. By moving his cheek he was able to speak to people and continue working through his computer. No doubt one of the reasons why he was still alive was his will to live. He had an extraordinary determination to keep going.
There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although that is what we all wish for. Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking was in, and yet look at what he did.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain in my hometown of Galway, I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die. I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds. One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope. When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds. If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.
Several years ago in a housing subdivision called Moyross, in Limerick city, which is an hour south of where I grew up—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious moved in. They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York. They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in poverty and great simplicity. Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope. By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.
|Franciscan Friars of the Renewal
Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope, which we are inspired to pass on to others. ‘I came that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). And one of the early Christian writers called Tertullian wrote, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ The more alive we are in every sense, the more we give glory to God and hope is a big part of being fully alive.
When we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with young people and encourage them not to give up, even when they have messed up through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances. Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going. Think also of the hope that Pope Francis has given people by the way he lives.
In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes. He wanted to show them something. He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that when He allows people to die that it is not the end. Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, unless we have rejected God. We make that choice by the way we live, the everyday decisions that we make.
In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in him. He is the one who has power over life and death. He is master of all things. He will judge the living and the dead. He was also giving the people hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture that we do not understand. Death is not the end. Physical health is not the end, but a doorway to what we are created for. But having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face. Our hope in God and the world to come, gives us strength to keep going even when we are suffering, or struggling, or when everything is going wrong.
|Icon of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven
If we lose hope we may despair. If we believe in nothing else apart from this world, then it could be very difficult to keep going when faced with the many difficulties that we are so often faced with, which don’t seem to have any solution: situations of injustice that we can do nothing about; people killed through violence and hatred. If we believe in nothing else, then how are we supposed to keep going? And sadly that is one of the reasons why there is such a high rate of suicide right now, because so many people have lost faith and so have no hope.
In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth in modern day Greece, St. Paul wrote the following: “If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:9). If we think that this life is everything, then we have completely missed the point. But our faith tells us that this life is only a small part of the picture and it is so important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
So often you will hear people say, every day I am still alive is a good day, even when their bodies are old and in pain. I guess it would make you wonder what they believe happens after death. Clinging desperately to life, even is a sign of not being convinced of what awaits us after death. If we are convinced that what awaits us is something unimaginably wonderful, then we will long for it, or at least look forward to it. Would you rather be clinging to life in pain, than in a world of joy where there is no more pain, or evil, or sorrow? Jesus’ dying and rising was to make sure that we could reach that happiness which awaits us. What greater hope is there than to believe that we will be with our loved ones again, in a place where there is only joy. That’s what all of us want and that is what our faith promises us.
I am sure that was one reason why Jesus deliberately waited until Lazarus was dead, so that he could bring him back to life before everyone; so that everyone would realize that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. All things are in his hands and we place ourselves in his hands too.
“I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.”