FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
“For God so loved the world…. (Jn. 3:15)
In 1967, a song written by a then unknown country singer named Bobbie Gentry made it all the way to the top of the hit song list – even outdoing the latest Beatle tune! The song was entitled “Ode to Billie Joe,” and generated eight Grammy nominations.
Known for its haunting Southern Gothic tale of the news that “Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” the song is not just about the tragedy of a suicide, but even more so about the indifference that a family who knew the victim demonstrates at their dinner table while hearing about this chilling event.
Listen in while they discuss it: the narrator’s father says “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick o’ sense; pass the biscuits please;” the narrator’s brother seems momentarily shocked, but then dismissively says: “I’ll have another piece of apple pie; you know it don’t seem right;” Mama is more concerned about the narrator’s change of mood: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite? I been cookin’ all mornin’ and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
Sadly, the reality is that our society in general could fit right in with this family.
Every year 40,000 Americans die by suicide, one every 13 minutes. Homicides have fallen by half since 1991, but the suicide rate in America keeps climbing. It is now the second leading killer for those aged 15-34! (Read that line again!!). “And yet,” one article reports, “Americans simply shrug.”
Our indifference shows up in the fact that states have moved away from inpatient treatment for the mentally ill. And, to add insult to injury, the mentally ill are the first to be dismissed when states go about their budget cuts. Consequently, our sickest patients now end up in jails and homeless shelters and emergency rooms. As Bobbie Gentry, the author of the above song put it in an interview: there’s an “unconscious cruelty afoot” in our society when it comes to dealing with severe depression and suicide.
According to one writer: “Here’s the thing about depression: a human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog it creates is like living in a cage without a key.”
Like living in a cage without a key! Hopelessness.
Or, as another song writer puts it:
“Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.”
Thankfully, in the midst of all this sadness comes today’s “gospel” – a word meaning Good News!
It talks about a light that penetrates into the depth of our darkness. It talks about a God who “so loved the world that He sent His only Son.” It talks about a hope so glorious – eternal life with God – that it can lift the human spirit and connect it to the Source of all life.
John’s gospel is all about the One sent by the Father precisely to re-ignite the fire of compassion within our hearts so that we can find the energy to believe again, to re-embrace life, to cast out the demons of darkness. And even more than all this, the Good News is: it’s not about what we have to do to earn this. Instead it’s all about what God gratuitously does for us: he sends his Son.
He sends his Son so that we can see with our own eyes what St. Paul talks about in our second reading today when he describes our God as being “rich in mercy;” when he describes you and me as being “brought to life in Christ;” and when he tops it all off by calling each of us God’s “handiwork.”
May God give us the grace this Lent to re-discover the depths of God’s abundant love for each one of us – especially those immersed in the pain of depression.
Let us pray also that our community of Jesus followers can become more the “field hospital” that Pope Francis is calling us to be – a “hospital” that becomes the place where our compassion and our sharing of the great sacraments we believe in can make us into a beacon of light in the midst of so much darkness, an infirmary of hope in the midst of so much despair, and an abode of peace in the midst of so much pain.
Let us finally pray that together we can create a sense of mission in our society to bring an end to the tragedies of any future Billy Joe McAllister’s.
“For God so loved the world ….”
And everyone in it! Everyone!
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.