St. Boniface was an Englishman born in the 8th century. But he spent most of his life as a missionary to Germany. He devoted his life to reforming the young German Catholic Church and to converting the pagans living in the countryside. Now many times in art St. Boniface is shown swinging an axe, pretty cool. Because very early on in his life of missionary work he undertook the task of chopping down an enormous oak tree. This tree was considered sacred to the people worshipping Thor. St. Boniface advertised the fact that he was going to chop the tree down. People came from miles around just to watch the spectacle. They didn’t try to stop him because they thought he’d be struck dead for attacking this sacred tree.
He wasn’t struck dead. And after hours and hours of chopping, the tree finally fell. He used the wood to build a chapel. This was the beginning of that area’s conversion to Christianity. St. Boniface was a great missionary and as a result the Pope invited him to Rome. He didn’t stay long, however, because the Pope made him a bishop and then sent him right back to Germany. This time, he was sent to reform the Catholics that were already there and to continue his evangelization of the non-Christians.
As a reformer St. Boniface got very little respect, especially from those who needed reform. There were some very hard-headed priests in Germany, priests who were not doing what they were supposed to be doing. They were poorly educated, superstitious, and morally lax. Even the secular leaders were unappreciative of his reform efforts. They preferred working with the slacker priests. In a moment of exhaustion, disappointment, discouragement, or maybe even frustration St. Boniface wrote the following:
“In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon the ship but to keep her on course…I am terrified,” he goes onto say, “When I think of all this I would gladly give up the task of guiding the Church which I have accepted, if I could find such an action warranted by the example the early Christian Fathers or by holy Scripture. But I can’t. So let us stand fast in what is right and prepare our souls for trial. And let us wait upon God’s strengthening aid.”
All of us at one point or another have, like St. Boniface, felt exhausted, disappointed, discouraged, or frustrated. A trial of some sort. Somedays the cross just seems too heavy. For those of us who’ve felt this way, the Gospel today is for us. It’s proclaimed here today to give us courage in the face of whatever beats us down. It’s proclaimed here today to help us “stand firm” in the Lord. It’s proclaimed here today to give us a glimpse of the ending, of the glorious outcome, not only for Jesus but for each one of us, if we stay close to Him. It’s proclaimed here today to help us when our crosses, our struggles, and our challenges threaten to overwhelm us.
In the Bible our Gospel today is sandwiched between two predictions. The Transfiguration of Jesus, when the apostles catch a glimpse of our Lord’s glory and majesty shining through His human nature, happens immediately after Jesus’ first prediction of His betrayal, suffering, and death, and immediately before His second prediction of His betrayal, suffering, and death.
The first prediction happens right after Jesus asks the Apostles what the crowds are saying about Him. “Who do the people say that I am?” He asks. Peter steps up and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But then Jesus goes on to tell them that He, the Son of the living God, will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and suffer much, and be put to death, and, on the third day, rise from the dead. At this Peter grabs Him and says, “Never, Lord!” And then Jesus grabs Peter and says, “Get behind Me, Satan. You are not thinking as God does but as man does.” And if this wasn’t shock enough for the Apostles, Jesus goes on to tell them that if anyone would come after Him and be His disciple it will mean sharing in His suffering, it will mean taking up his or her own cross, it will mean dying to self. And only after this will that follower share in Jesus’ glory.
The cross, for the first century Palestinian was more than just an image for suffering. It was disgrace and torture. His listeners then, and today, can easily become discouraged at the prospect of a Cross. And so in the face of all of this, while on the mountaintop during the Transfiguration, it’s almost as if Jesus was saying to the Apostles, “What you are seeing right now is real! Hold on to it!” And, in our case, He’s saying to us, “What you are hearing proclaimed in your midst is real! Hold onto it! However, he goes on to add, “Before it all finally comes to pass there will be hardships. But remember this day on the mountain when those hardships come.” Now we too have other mountain top experiences. Those moments of profound happiness, those moments of great joy, those moments of intense closeness to God. Where there is true happiness and joy, God is present. They are times filled with light and presentiments of Heaven. God gives us these moments to give us strength for the difficult times of the cross. Remember them.
St. Boniface used the image of a ship to represent the Church. all of you, when you come to church and sit in a pew, are sitting in what church architects call the nave. Nave comes from the Latin word navis which means ship. It’s where we get the word navy from. As St. Boniface said the Church, the great ship, is being pounded by the waves. The Church as an institution and each individual within is pounded by the waves of the cross. But Jesus calls us to hold on! He calls us never to be ashamed of the cross. It has redeemed this world. He tells us not to fear to suffer for the sake of justice. He tells us not to lose confidence in the reward that He has promised. He reminds us all today that the way to rest is through toil. The way to life is through death. And if we are steadfast in our faith in Him and in our Love for Him and one another, we will win the victory He has won.
Let us never jump ship, because this ship will take us to Heaven.
Let us become great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley