Do You Cry?
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
Second Sunday of Lent
23 February 1986
St. Norbert’s Parish
Do you cry? Sometimes crying hurts. Other times it feels good.
In the past four years, since my ordination, I only remember crying three times. One of those times doesn’t count. Determined never to grow up, I was acting like a teenager, riding a skateboard. I fell off and broke my leg in three places, and in my pain I reverted even farther and cried like a baby. That doesn’t count because I wasn’t really myself. (I hope!)
The other two times do count. One time was in the movie theater. It was opening night, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. The place was packed. None of us knew what would happen. Hollywood wove its spell, and we fell in love with that repulsive monster. Then he got sick. We felt bad. He got sicker. We felt worse. When he started dying, we felt terrible. But good guys never die, we thought. The theater fell silent as Elliot cried out to the scientists, “You’re killing us!” And you could have heard a pin drop when E.T. died. I wanted to cry, but of course I did not cry. I’m a man, and men don’t cry. I wanted to though. And then Elliot bent over the refrigerated coffin and sobbed, “E.T, I love you!” and some lady in the audience broke down and wailed. It was instantly contagious! Crying swept over the entire audience like a tidal wave! I cried too. And you know what? It felt good!
The other time I cried was last month. I’m still not over it. The news of the Challenger disaster left me numb. This isn’t really happening, I kept thinking. This isn’t real. It didn’t seem real until that afternoon when President Reagan addressed the nation and told us that the Challenger Seven had “slipped the surly bonds of earth, to touch the face of God.” Then it became real. I cried. I cried hard, and it hurt. I was embarrassed to cry in front of my students. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t help it. It was too real.
Now, what’s the difference between these two? I cried for E.T. because that’s what Hollywood wanted me to do. I cried because the clever screenplay gave the cue to cry. I cried because that’s what I paid five bucks for and I wanted to get my money’s worth. But there was nothing real about it. My eyes cried, but my heart-light never dimmed. We all have great powers of self-deception, and I pretended so well that it brought tears, even though E.T. was just an illusion dancing on the silver screen.
Why did I cry for the Challenger Seven? Was it because of the drama? It was dramatic, you must admit. It was dramatic that Christa McAuliffe was a teacher, an ordinary citizen, an Everyman we could all relate to. It was touching that her husband said today that he wished he could console us in our grief the way we have consoled him in his. It surely gives one pause to hear that afterwards a class of grade school children received a letter from her. They’d written to Christa, telling her that they had “adopted” her as their teacher. She sent them a beautiful letter, with a signed photograph, on which she wrote, “Reach for the stars!” Then she mailed it shortly before the launch, and they received it after the disaster, causing one child to say, “She can’t really be gone.”
If it’s drama you want, you can find it in the contrast between one community’s pre-launch celebration, and their memorial afterwards. Before the flight, thousands gathered to sing and laugh, and at the right moment, they all cheered and released thousands of brightly colored balloons into the air to symbolize their joy and freedom and individualism and mankind’s eternal desire to fly. After the catastrophe, they all gathered again, but this time in stunned silence. Without a word, one of them tied seven black balloons together and let them go. The only sound was the winter winds sighing through the leafless trees, and a sniffle or two as tear-filled eyes watched the balloons slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Dramatic enough to melt a heart of stone.
But that’s not why I cried. Not at all. Not even close. I didn’t cry because of the way they died, or the touching remembrances. I cried because of who they were.
Think about this! What kind of person spends his or her life for others, and then loses it in attempt to serve even better? Not just Christa, but all seven sought knowledge for all mankind. They boarded that time-bomb knowing the danger, but holding their quest for knowledge at a higher priority. They are heroes in my eyes not because they died, but because they were willing to die in order to help all of us. I cried because people who are great enough to risk their lives are precisely the people who deserve most not to die! The Challenger Seven were to me the best that humanity had to offer. I wish I’d known them. Their rare combination of courage in facing danger yet humility in their desire to serve gave me hope for mankind and for myself. I cannot let this loss rob me of hope, but I won’t deny my tears.
Of course, all of this is an analogy...
Look at the large Cross here at the front of the church. What do you see? Are you like the audience in the theater watching E.T.? Do you look at the Cross and pretend that it’s real? Do you sigh because if you try hard enough you can almost feel the drama? Do your eyes water, but your heart-light is aglow with warm fuzzy feelings? Is the only difference between going to church and going to a movie the fact that you don’t genuflect in the theater’s aisle? Is the Cross for you merely the greatest story ever told, a Reader’s Digest drama in real life, a useful object lesson?
Do you look at the Cross and see the greatest Man who ever lived? Do you see how He spent His life trying to teach us, and then died for His efforts? When you look at the Cross, do you see Someone who was without doubt the best humanity had to offer, the ultimate of courage and humility? Do you wish you’d known Him? Do you look at the Cross in horror and say to yourself, No no no, this can’t be happening! It can’t be real! And then know that it’s more real than anything else... and cry from the heart?
It’s Lent. It’s a good time to ask yourself. When you look at the Cross, does your heart go pit-a-pat?
Or do you cry?