Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
In 1977, Óscar was appointed to be archbishop. With his conservative reputation, his appointment was welcomed by the government, but many progressives in the Church feared that he would lack a commitment to serving the poor of the country. However, before becoming archbishop, Óscar had served as the bishop of a poor, rural diocese; he had learned throughout his life and career to care deeply for all people, especially the poor and marginalized.
This concern compelled him to speak out against injustices committed by both the rebel guerrillas and the government. He became immensely popular among the people of El Salvador offering hope by standing up to pressure and persecution from both sides. In his sermons, he preached openly about what was happening in the country, listing the names of people who had been tortured, murdered, or “disappeared.” Despite increasing pressure from the government and threats to his life, he persisted in telling the truth. Even as friends and colleagues were arrested or assassinated, he continued to speak out for the voiceless, appealing to soldiers and guerrillas alike as Salvadorans, as Christians, and as human beings; calling on them to end the bloodshed.
Óscar knew that his work was dangerous. Though he never picked a side or picked up a weapon, he knew he was a target for both the army and the guerrillas. In 1977, a fellow priest and personal friend of Óscar’s named Rutilio Grande was assassinated. He had been working with the poor of El Salvador and speaking out against the government’s persecution of priests. Óscar later said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”
This is the irony of following Jesus. Although he comes to offer abundant life, so often those who follow him face death. Óscar faced a choice. He could have remained silent; he could have protected his own life and quietly done what he could for a few people, but instead he chose to speak out, to bring international attention to the oppression of the government and the brutal violence of the rebels, to call for peace amidst war. He chose to work for change and give the poor, frightened people of El Salvador hope. He chose the way of Christ. St. Paul writes that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We often boil this down to a theologically sketchy aphorism: “God won’t give you more than you can handle;” but that’s not what Paul is saying. He’s saying that when the world does give you more than you can handle, God always gives us a way out; Óscar ’s way out was the cross.
When faced with a hopeless situation—to save himself or to work to save others—Óscar Romero found his way out was in knowing that, whether he lived or died, God would continue his work; that he was planting a seed, and though he may not see it sprout, God would cause it to bear fruit. That hope gave him the courage to face his own hour of trial. That hope is what allowed him to continue to follow Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting in the promise of salvation—not only for himself, but for all Salvadorans, and for all people.
In Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, the work of God is most evident not in the vineyard owner who commands the removal of the barren tree, but in the gardener, who works to dig around the roots and spread fertilizer. The cross is the implement with which Christ digs around our roots; the cross is the manure which he spreads on them. We cannot “choose” to be fruitful, we cannot “try” to be more fertile. We are what we are; and by the grace and the labor of God in Christ, we are slowly being nurtured and built up so that we can be more fully who we have already been created to be.
During the season of Lent, we are called to trust the process—the pruning, the digging, the manure spreading—all of it; to trust that as slow as the progress may be, God is making us into the people—into the world—God wants us to be; and that creating is being done in the way of the cross: the way of self-sacrifice, the way of faithfulness, the way of love. The temptation is always to find other ways to bring the world we want to see; to use power and influence and legislation or guns and bombs to bring about the kind of peace we want. We are tempted to resist Jesus’ call to the cross and instead seek to establish our own kingdom.
When facing his own test, Óscar did not take the way of silence and complicity, nor did he take the way of violence. Instead, he chose the way of the cross. On the evening of March 24, 1980—39 years ago today—he celebrated Mass at a small chapel at a church-run hospital. As he finished his sermon, a red automobile came to a stop on the street in front of the chapel. Óscar stepped away from the lectern, and took a few steps to stand at the center of the altar. A gunman emerged from the vehicle, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired. The bullet struck Óscar in the heart, and the vehicle sped off. He died in front of the altar.
We remember Óscar Romero today not because he held fast to his principles. We don’t honor his memory because he was such an upright man. He was not canonized by the Church because of how good he was—he was canonized because of how good God is. We remember Óscar today because he showed that to us. He gave his life not because it was the “right thing to do,” but because Christ had dug around his roots and spread the fertilizer; because in Christ Óscar had experienced the love and the grace of God so fully that he dripped with it, that it flowed out of him.
He loved the poor, the oppressed and the disappeared so much that he put his own safety second to theirs. He called out injustice not because he hated the oppressors, but because he loved them, wanted them to see the destruction they were bringing upon themselves and their own people and to repent. We remember him today because he was a man who had been truly freed from sin and death by the love and the hope of the cross; and his story gives us hope for our own stories.
The God we see revealed in Jesus and in Óscar is not a God who is patiently waiting to punish sinners, but rather a God who is working tirelessly to save them. Jesus gave his life in service to the gospel, in service to proclaiming the good news of God’s saving love to a world in that is slowly strangling itself. The forces of sin and death that tear us apart and pit us against one another feed off fear and despair; but Jesus offers us hope: hope for a better future, hope for a world freed from death.
It was this hope that moved Óscar to be the voice of the voiceless, to offer his own life in service to the gospel. And although that life was taken from him, cut short by an assassin’s bullet, through the power of Christ and his gospel, Óscar’s life was not ended, but continues. The seeds he planted are still growing—in El Salvador, in the Church, and in us. The cross is the hoe and the fertilizer that gives those seeds what they need to flourish.
This is good news for us because when we are frightened or appalled by what happens around us, Christ reminds us—with the help of saints like Óscar—that God is at work, saving us from the power of sin. God isn’t threatening to cut you down if you don’t bear fruit; instead, God is patiently cultivating and nurturing you to be an instrument of God’s salvation. God is constantly at work, shaping this world into what God has always intended it to be, one person—one life—at a time.
There are, of course, people who resist this inevitable salvation of God; all of us sometimes resist Jesus’ call to the way of the cross, seeking our own paths instead; but Jesus reminds us that those paths lead only to destruction. He reminds us that God is patiently, lovingly calling us back, that God is always shaping us into people of Christ, people of the cross.