Two years ago, I got a horrible phone call. I’m sorry to say that many of you have gotten this same call. Perhaps yours came on a warm, sunny day or in the middle of the night. Mine came unexpectedly on an otherwise uneventful Saturday evening in February, when I was gathered with some friends. It ended with me racing down the expressway to my father’s bedside.
He never did open his eyes or even squeeze my hand. But I stayed close by. As the doctors’ prognosis got more and more bleak, I kept almost constant vigil. I slept on awful, creaky chairs and didn’t shower. I’d worry even if I ran to the cafeteria. I talked to him a lot. I read to him. I combed his hair. I washed his face. I answered a million of the same questions over and over again as the doctors streamed in and out. I asked my own millions of questions to doctors and nurses and God. I made phone calls furiously, as if this would somehow help. I wept and prayed. And in the week that followed, I buried my dad.
What I was doing at the time felt like absolute necessity. I don’t know that I thought about it in these terms, but I certainly felt like I was doing the right thing in forsaking other responsibilities for my dad. And yet, we read in today’s gospel what might sound like an oddly callous response to one disciples request.
Two disciples are pledging themselves as devoted followers of Christ. But one has some important tasks to first attend to: "Lord, let me go first and bury my father." Upon hearing this, Jesus answered, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead." Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yikes! Christ in all His love and compassion is telling this man to just leave his father?
I am far from a Theologian. But, I certainly don’t think that Christ is somehow saying that tending to our parents-that caring for them especially in times of great need-is not a good and honorable undertaking. But He is not one to mince words. If there was an example that would get our attention, this is sure it.
Following Christ is a real commitment, and one not to be taken lightly. If there are other obligations you have that precede that commitment, then perhaps, what our Lord is saying, maybe you need to realign your priorities. I think the dilemma that Jesus poses here is-what will keep you from Christ?
As I sat with my father, I thought about all the things I didn’t get to say to him (and all the unkind things I did say to him in life). I worried about how I would take care of my mom. I thought about what our first Christmas would look like without him. In other words, so much of my energy was spent on fear and anxiety about dad missing from the world and what it would mean for me. And so, in some ways, this worldly task of "burying" my father did in fact keep me from Christ.
What I think we often forget is that following Christ isn’t another task in our daily life, it is life.
Marlo Serritella is on staff at the Holy Cross Province Development Office in Chicago, Illinois.