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.
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.”
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?