Sunday’s gospel reading (Jn 12:20-33) shows Jesus at a crucial time in his ministry, and we’re reading it at a crucial time in our history. Toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus’ message was reaching far beyond its original target audience. John tells us that even Greeks were being inspired to observe Passover. John’s gospel tells us of a couple of them even requesting an audience with the Master. When word of their interest in his ministry reached Jesus, he explained the price of admission: One’s very life.
“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.”
A couple centuries later, a Greek woman took that timeless advice with her into sainthood. Her fate inspired a profession dedicated to preserving our face’s window to the eternal human soul: our smile.
Now known as Saint Apollonia, this Greek woman was captured during an uprising against Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. She was beaten and her teeth were either broken or extracted. Her captors even threatened to burn her alive on the pyre they built, but rather than renounce her faith as they demanded, she jumped into their fire. Today she is the patron saint of dentistry.
Eighteen-hundred years later, religious persecution is still alive and well in this world. So are some saints. Take Talha Ali, for example. A few years ago he was a high schooler in Pakistan. One day, while laughing with his friends in class, some Taliban gunmen broke into his school, guns blazing. Ali was hit pointblank in the jaw, destroying bone and teeth. They didn’t wait for him to renounce any faith he might have had in God. Saintliness nevertheless sprang up from the wreckage of this scene.
A team of the best members of the dental profession St. Apollonia represented gathered and rebuilt Ali’s face at no cost to him, giving him the ability and reason to smile again. The CWRU-based team completed the oral rehabilitation of Ali’s jaw and teeth in two surgeries. The miracle they performed inspired the young man to vow that much fruit would grow from his second chance at life. From this hardship, he said, he would “create a change and be a hope for the hopeless, and inspire and serve humanity…”
This vow Ali made to be a model for others suffering from the world’s evils is an impressive imitation of the model Jesus established and St. Paul described for the Hebrews in Sunday’s second reading (Heb 5:7-9):
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
And Ali doesn’t have to cite Jesus or St. Apollonia as he goes about fulfilling his vow. His life and the lives of all who do God’s will in this miracle-starved world are modern examples of Jeremiah’s ancient prophecy from which we read this Sunday (Jer 31:31-34):
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; … No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD.
As we enter the most holy week of the year, let’s let others see Him in our smile.