Over the years, I’ve read my share of student essays; some are wonderful, some execrable, and the vast majority, well…“extremely mediocre.” (How’s that for an oxymoron?) Besides grammatical mistakes and poor syntax, there is the question of style. I would like to mention two (among many) ways of speaking and writing that, according to the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White, are not so much incorrect as they are weak. The first is the use of the “passive” voice instead of the “active.” (E.g., “The ball was thrown” instead of “Jimmy threw the ball”); the other is the use of the subjunctive mood (“If I were a rich man”) instead of the indicative (“I am a rich man”). The passive voice not only seems anemic, but it allows the speaker to omit important information if he so wishes. (Who threw the ball?) Likewise, the subjunctive mood is indefinite in contrast to the indicative because the situation it describes is not actually the case. Something may be, could be, ought to be, or would be, but as of right here, right now, it is not so.
In today’s passage from St. John’s Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, characters use both forms of vague phraseology. Martha and her sister Mary declare to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…” Earlier, Jesus’ disciples use the passive voice: “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” Fine: but in the first case, Jesus was not with Lazarus when he died. What then? As for Lazarus being saved, who exactly will do the saving?” Contrast this with God’s word in the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel…” Likewise, St. Paul tells the Romans: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the spirit…” It is arguable that the tentative words of the disciples and the sisters call our attention to the divine power Christ wields over the forces of this world, and to the confidence we disciples are to put in his saving will.
Friends, if ever we were living in a time of uncertainty, as though we were subject to forces beyond our control, it is now. As I listen to the news briefings by the most well-informed, powerful people in the country, to say nothing of our parishioners’ stories, it occurs to me that hollow words of reassurance that “everything will be OK” only diminish the sense of upheaval that presently grips our national family. Evil, whether moral (when it is intentional) or natural (when it is no one’s fault) makes us respond: this should not be, and yet it is. We Catholics are realists, but we heed the Lord’s call to the perfection of holiness in an imperfect world. We recognize the creative tension that lies between the divine and the human, grace and nature, time and eternity, the spirit and the flesh. In both good times and bad, we place our ultimate confidence, not in earthly treasure (which Jesus says passes away), but in the Lord alone. In the meantime, concrete acts of charity that alleviate the suffering of our neighbor do not escape the notice of our Lord, who tells the just: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” The most powerful evidence of our faith in Christ is our love for our neighbor. Forget the subjunctive (what if?); let us live in the indicative (God is with us).