St. Lawrence and the Most Basic Lesson of All

A very happy feast of St. Lawrence to all! St. Lawrence was a Roman deacon, so it’s been great celebrating this feast day with the whole Church this year as a deacon.

The account of Lawrence’s martyrdom is pretty epic. During the persecution of Christians carried out by the Emperor Valerian between(ish) 257 and 260, the prefect of the city of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over to the state all of the treasures and wealth of the Church. Lawrence brought forward poor people he was serving as a deacon and said, “Behold, these are the treasures of the Church.” This didn’t make the prefect very happy and, the story goes, he had a gridiron prepared with hot coals and fire underneath it and had St. Lawrence grilled to death.

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The legend also says that St. Lawrence was so cheerful during his martyrdom that he told his executioners, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Perhaps this is why the first reading for today’s feast is from 2 Corinthians, wherein Paul reminds the Church in Corinth that “God loves a cheerful giver.”

The gospel passage for this feast is from John 12:24-26:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Throughout her entire history, from the mouth of Jesus himself to the writers and theologians of the 21st century, the Church in her wisdom has always returned us precisely to this place: unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will save it. If a person wishes to follow Jesus, he must lay down his life and sell what he has and take up his cross and go.

Today, we are reminded by St. Lawrence – both in his example of service as a deacon and by his martyrdom – that we are not the center of our lives, and that Christianity is not just a massive social service organization. It is a way of life whose first priority is configuration of one’s entire life to Jesus Christ. It is not a behavior management program, but is a complete transformation unto glory.

It can be a fearful thing to begin the process of turning one’s life over to Christ, but it doesn’t need to be. The process is dripping in practicality. The great Dominican writer Meister Eckhart wrote that if we want to be holy, we need only to “do the next thing in a holy way; think the next thing in a holy way; say the next thing in a holy way.” This will require little grains to fall from you and die, which will be sacrificial and maybe difficult. It also requires us to turn off our spiritual autopilot and begin to live reality intensely, to live with intentionality motivated by a sincere desire for freedom and truth.

The lesson taught by Lawrence in his life and his death can’t get more basic: unless a grain of wheat falls and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.

It’s hard, it’s scary, it isn’t always popular or convenient, but think of the alternative: remaining just a grain of wheat. Full of potential, full of life, full of hope, and all of it unused. We are being offered and promised so much more than that.