EMPTY CHAIR

This reflection is based on Matthew 16:21-27.

Sting sang a little-known, but heartbreaking song at the Oscars last February. The song is called “Empty Chair,” from the film, “Jim,” which is about the journalist James Foley, who had been beheaded by the Islamic State three years ago.

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The lines go: “And when the winter comes and the trees lie bare/And you just stare out the window in the darkness there/Well I was always late for every meal you’ll swear/But keep my place and the empty chair/And somehow I’ll be there.”

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Today’s Gospel could have been about Jim. Today  our Lord tells us what following him entails: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

These words were scandalous and shocking when they were first spoken, but today we tend to just nod in vague agreement whenever we hear them. These words have simply grown too familiar, and we’ve probably heard every sort of reflection and preaching on it that we feel we’ve heard it all.

It is a pretty radical call, but how literally are we supposed to take it?
The young American journalist, James Foley, seems to be one of those who did. He was kidnapped in November of 2012 in northwest Syria, where he was working as a freelance reporter for the Global Post. This was not his first skirmish with terrorists. For 44 days, he had been imprisoned in Libya by forces loyal to Gaddafi back in April 2011, but was fortunately released. In a letter to the community at Marquette, the Jesuit university from which he had graduated, Foley described how his faith and prayer had helped him survive those dark days.

“I began to pray the rosary,” he wrote. “It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused. Clare Gillis and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.”

You would think that after surviving a trauma like that, Foley would keep away from dangerous places, but his friend, Jessica Desvarieux, explained why Foley flew to Syria despite the dangers: “Jim wanted to speak to the [Syrian] people so that we would get a sense of what’s really going on. . . . He wanted to share with the world [their] stories.”

In other words, he wanted to give the victims a voice. He believed in his faith that he was being called to do that even if it was dangerous. It was his way of following the Lord.

Unfortunately, this time, he did not survive. As a retaliation against the American airstrikes against the militants over the last two weeks, Foley was tortured by waterboarding and after 635 days in captivity, murdered by beheading, the gruesome crime recorded on video and posted on YouTube. The world is still reeling from the sheer brutality of his death.

What a wasted life, many people say. But the same can be said about the Lord. Even in death, Jim Foley followed Jesus, and his death inspires but also questions those of us who claim to be followers of the Lord. An authentic following of the Lord can be risky business, as shown by the countless followers who have been martyred all through the centuries. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we willing to take the risk?

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6 thoughts on “EMPTY CHAIR”

  1. Not all of us are challenged to die for our faith, but all of us are called to live out what it demands of us. Many times it is just a matter of saying no to the ease and convenience that the world offers, and taking “the road less travelled” for our less fortunate brethren. We used to hear it said: “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” I believe this is one concrete way of denying our selves and taking up our cross daily.

  2. Fr J sobrang teardrops naman ito. I am amazed at how you are able to connect the bible to contemporary songs/events.
    You are so in touch. Up to now I keep on playing the song you sent months ago -Christ has no body now but yours.I have sent this to dozens of friends. Thank you for the simple but profound reflections.

  3. Picking up our crosses and following Jesus to Calvary is sainthood. But Jesus must be on sight all the time. It’s like having terminal cancer, knowing that as your nails turn blue your rib cage is slowly collapsing on your lungs. Suffering through all this, without Jesus, makes cancer just a burdensome disease. Without Jesus, our Calvary is merely a whining post. How can we keep Jesus on sight throughout our life-journey? So many distractions!

  4. Thanks for reviving the memory of Jim Foley, also adding depth to what I knew about his story and sharing Sting’s moving song!

    Surely the “Son of Man with his angels in his Father’s glory” rushed forth to meet him at the moment of his passing.

    Surely in the face of Jim’s inspiring, loving, true and heroic embrace of his mission, I should strive to do some of the many “small things” that pepper my life that I know are right but out of self-centeredness/ selfishness (plain and simple) I find hard or resist doing!

  5. I just watched a 2017 film “The Case for Christ” & am reminded of how excruciating the death of Jesus was.
    I am ashamed of cringing at even the slightest hint of suffering, its a stark contrast to how the martyrs have taken up their crosses for The Lord.
    May I be willing to take the risk.

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