Saturday, March 28, 2020

Came to Believe

The 5th Sunday of Lent, Gospel of John 11:1-45. Came to Believe…

In today’s Gospel, St. John takes to the village of Bethany, to the tomb of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus. By placing this Gospel on the 5th Sunday of Lent, the Church asks us, as Easter gets closer, if we really do believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.  Those of us who have been regular participants at Sunday Mass are quite used to professing this belief.  We do so week after week when we recite in the Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the dead and in life everlasting.
Perhaps we’ve gotten used to reciting this Creed out of habit, as if on auto-pilot. But at times such as these- when disease and thoughts of our mortality are in our ears and on our minds - it’s as if a bucket of cold water has been thrown upon us, jolting us out of our comfortable routine faith. However, this can be for us an opportunity to discern if we really have hope that these words of the Creed are true.

And I do not mean hope as in “maybe” or “I sure hope so”.  Christian hope is built upon faith, which is an inner conviction that is grounded in trust.  It is the faith that grew inside of Martha when she heard that Jesus had arrived in Bethany.  I say that Martha’s faith grew because if you notice by “reading between the lines” of our Gospel story today, Martha did not always have this level of hope rooted in faith. The translation of Scripture which we use at Mass tells us that she came to believe. Did you notice those words “came to believe”?

Those words – “came to believe” - remind us that our faith relationship with Jesus is a dynamic process. And each one of us are most likely at different stages of that process. You see, some people think that in order to have a genuine faith in God, we have to know and believe everything about him. Then, and only then, they say, can we truly believe.  But Martha shows us another way, the way of the Gospel.

She shows us that we can begin to trust Jesus before even really understanding who he is; before ever really grasping what he wishes to offer us. Martha demonstrates that faith and hope grow as our experience of Jesus grows. She shows us that our relationship with Christ, like all relationships in our lives, is a dynamic ever-deepening reality. The more we get to know him, the more we find ourselves loving and trusting him.

I think it helps us to see that in her friendship with Jesus, Martha was still growing, open to Jesus and willing to trust him, but not always yet quite there. She had more to learn, more to absorb of her own experience of Jesus. And I am sure the same can be said of us. Perhaps we are “not quite there”.  Perhaps some of us have more to absorb, more to experience about Christ. But that doesn’t mean we lack faith or hope or trust in him.  It simply means we’re not quite there, we’re on the way. Again, let’s look at Martha.

She never gave up growing in her understanding of who Jesus is and fortunately, she reached the goal. She passes through the door of suffering and arrives at the conviction that Lazarus will, indeed, rise up and live again. She can profess this conviction because she has indeed come to believe, which means to trust.  She has genuine hope in the reality of Jesus as Resurrection and Life.
And now through this gospel she invites each one of us to come to believe, to trust and have a solid hope. She invites each one of us to walk with Jesus no matter what stage of the relationship we are at with him. She encourages each one of us to trust in Jesus.  Through the pages of the Gospel she urges us to believe that while disease and death are indeed enemies of human life, they do not have the last word, they do not wield the ultimate power over us. In Jesus, who is truly the Resurrection and the Life, we shall overcome even death, because it does not end our life but rather simply changes our mode of existence.

This was the faith Martha.  This is the trust she placed in Jesus. This was the hope that she had in Jesus. Let's strive very hard to come to believe, to learn to trust. No matter where we might be in the process of our relationship with Jesus, He offers us his hand and wants to accompany us along the pathways and experiences – both good and bad - of life. 

So, let's live with Christian hope during these days of warnings and confinement, of disease and the threat of death. Let’s not give in to the doomsday attitudes and the panic born of fear. Let’s have the confidence to proclaim with Martha: Yes Lord, I have come to believe, I have come to trust, that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, he who was to come into this world as the Resurrection and the Life.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Seeing With Spiritual Vision

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), March 22, 2020. Gospel of St. John 9:1-41. Theme: Seeing With Spiritual Vision

Last Sunday John took us to Samaria to become part of the story of the Woman at the Well. With her we were called to have our thirst for love quenched by the living water of Jesus. Next Sunday he will take to the village of Bethany, to the tomb of Lazarus, and ask us, as Easter gets closer, if we really do believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

But today John takes us into the great city of Jerusalem and has us participate in one of the most intriguing stories found in the Gospels: the double healing of the Man Born Blind. But also, we witness the tragedy of the Sighted Pharisees losing what spiritual vision they had.  It is a story that is marvelously appropriate for what we are going through these days of COVID-19 and suspended Liturgies.  It is a story about how we perceive things, how we can all experience the same thing and yet look at it so very differently.

It starts off by telling us that the Man Born Blind miraculously receives the gift of physical vision. But as always happens in John’s Gospel, this healing just the first step to a deeper encounter with Jesus. The second healing occurs when the Man Born Blind sees more to Jesus than just a rabbi or a prophet.  He is given the spiritual vision to see that Jesus is the Son of Man, that is, the Promised One, the Christ, the Messiah.

At first, all the Man Born Blind simply says that he was healed by “that man called Jesus.” His understanding of Jesus is very basic. He reports on his healing as a kind of matter of fact re-telling of events and he says: “he put mud on my eyes, told me to wash and now I can see.”

But then the Man is brought before the influential Jewish leaders who do not like the fact that Jesus broke the Sabbath law and they are out to get him. Apparently, the law was more important to them than mercy. The Man Born Blind has to make a conscious choice about his Healer. This leads him to take a step deeper into who Jesus is and he proclaims, “He is a prophet…he is devout…he does God’s will…God is with him!”  The light of spiritual vision is getting brighter within him.
Finally, the healed man is excommunicated because he has come to believe that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah, the long-awaited Christ. His faith and his loyalty are under pressure and persecution has cost him something, but in return Jesus himself seeks the man out in a very personal encounter. The light is shining so brilliantly upon the Man Born Blind that he exclaims, “I do believe, Lord!” and he worships Jesus right then and there. His journey has finally brought him fully out of the darkness and into the light that gives life.

But now on to the tragedy in the story. The Pharisees start off with spiritual vision, that is, they are looking to see how God can be in what has happened. But the more they look at Jesus, the more they ponder the healing, the more blind they become. You see, they focus so exclusively on the externals of the law and religion that they cannot see who it is who stands before them and what an awesome miracle has taken place through him!  They fall into spiritual blindness and Jesus clearly points this danger out to them. And that’s the tragedy in this story.

What a difference in perception we see in this story! Through spiritual vision Man Born Blind sees the Finger of God at work in his healing. Through spiritual blindness the Pharisees see God’s Law disobeyed by someone who must be a sinner because he broke the Sabbath law. Both are looking at the same Person, Jesus of Nazareth.  Both are trying to discern the same phenomenon that has taken place. Yet, the Pharisees can only see a Threat and a Lawbreaker, while the Man Born Blind sees his Lord and Savior.

This Gospel story speaks to me about how people today are viewing the COVID-19 restrictions and Mass suspensions with two different sets of eyes, so to speak.   We are all looking at the same thing. We are all experiencing the same basic restrictions. Yet, some take on the limited short-sighted outlook of the Pharisees and focus on what is being deprived to them.  Others, it seems to me, are more like the Man Born Blind. They use spiritual vision to see in these restrictions a call to maintain and deepen their relationship with Christ in ways they may not have realized before. 

We can choose to see COVID-19 and its consequences as a tragedy that deprives us of our usual expressions of religious freedom; or we can choose to see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of being with Jesus, of developing a personal program of spiritual exercises to enable us to keep growing in our faith despite the restrictions.

We can choose to see the Church primarily in its more formal institutional aspect with ministers and ritual ceremonies to which we do not now have easy access, or we can choose to embrace the equally true vision of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, composed of people baptized into Christ, and realize that we can still stay in touch with one another, still pray for one another, and help any who might be in need so that no one walks through this difficulty alone.

We can choose to focus our sight on the Mass as the only way to worship and bemoan the fact that is now being denied to us, or we can choose to see this lack as an opportunity to practice other ways that our tradition and saint give us to remain in intimate communion with Jesus, such as spiritual communion, prayer in its various forms and meditation from the heart.

We can choose to see the Scriptures as something reserved for proclamation in the Church during the liturgy, or we can choose to take up the Bible in our own homes and develop a habit of reading the Word of God daily, remembering that Jesus said he would be with us always and come to dwell within us by means of this very Word.

Now, of course, the restrictions to the sacraments and the suspension of the Mass is not an ideal, but we can, indeed, choose to not waylaid in our faith-relationship with God and one another because of this.  We can make use of our spiritual vision to see Jesus still with us and among us!  Let’s try our best to avoid the tragedy of the Pharisees who saw only the negative.  The Messiah Lord was standing right in front of them but all they saw was a threat to their religious laws and formalities.  Let’s develop the 20/20 spiritual vision of the Man Born Blind and see Jesus reaching out to us in the present situation.  In this way, we can each continue on in our Lenten journey to Easter with serenity of mind and heart, trusting in the loving providence of God our Father.

I would like to end with a prayer that is extremely relevant to us today and which has given millions of people hope and perseverance in the midst of struggle. It is called the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make things right if I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him forever and ever in the next. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Thirsting for Love

The Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2020.  Gospel of St. John 4:5-42. Theme: Thirsting for Love

In today’s Gospel St. John takes us to Samaria, a place despised by the Jews as morally unclean and spiritually unworthy of God’s presence. And there we meet a Samaritan Woman who, because of her lifestyle, is considered even by her townsfolk to be unclean and unworthy.  She is an Outcast who is shunned by a people who are Outcasts. You cannot get much lower than that in the mind of 1st century Jews who are the original hearers of this story. And that’s a theme that St. John wants us to keep in mind as we ponder this story.

We are informed that the woman is coming to Jacob’s well at noontime. This reinforces the fact that she is an Outcast. It would strike the hearers of the story as extremely odd because they all knew that the women go to wells early in the morning or late in the evening so that they can escape the intense heat of the noonday sun.  There is only one reason why the woman would go at that time: to avoid her gossiping neighbors. She did not want to encounter yet again their condemning stares nor the screaming silence of their shunning.

And why did they treat her this way? Well, St. John rounds out the picture by telling us that she was living with a man who was 5th in a string of lovers who had replaced her original husband. He lets us in on this aspect of her life so that we can understand that she is someone who desperately seeks to be loved and accepted. She is someone who desperately needs the healing touch of Christ to pierce through the darkness and emptiness in her life.

But really, in all of this, St. John is saying to us: this woman is you and me. This woman stands for each one of us and of our deep need to encounter Jesus. For like her, we all Outcasts in one way or another, at least we often feel that way. We look for love and happiness in persons, events or materials things that fail to satisfy. And while these substitutes might quench our desire for a while they soon enough leave us still empty and wanting more. They cannot truly satisfy our innermost thirst to love and to be loved.

St. John wants us to realize that Jesus reaches out to us as he did to this woman. He knows every detail of our past and present lives just as he knew hers. And knowing this he does not avoid us but precisely because of our need, he comes to us, to sit down with us, so to speak, in a heart-to-heart conversation.  Our weakness and wounds, our sins and failings, are like shavings of iron that attract the magnet of his merciful love. If we give him our time and attention as did the Samaritan Woman, he will speak the truth to us about who we are, about what we have done with our lives and what we can become. But this is a revelation about us and our lives that is filled with hope.

By not hiding the truth about where she had gone wrong in her life, Christ led her from her physical need to her spiritual need for the Living Water of God’s love, the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. And like her we, too, must face the truth about ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Like her, we must ignore the false voices around us and those inside of us, that keep telling us we are outcasts, that we are unworthy of love. Like the Samaritan Woman we need to spend time with Jesus. Asking him questions. Listening to his word. This is what we Christians call “prayer”. 

Like this woman, we can also meet the One who alone is able to satisfy our deepest longing and desire for acceptance and love. She shows us that we don’t need to have a perfect understanding of who Jesus is in order to receive his grace and blessings. Just look at how she progressed in her knowledge of him. She starts off thinking he’s just a normal Jewish man and so she is surprised that he would speak with her, a woman and a Samaritan. Then she realizes that perhaps he is a learned rabbi and so respectfully calls him, “Sir”. Finally, she sees more and considers him a prophet until she arrives at the truth: that he is the Messiah sent by God!

In the same way, each one of us may be at very different places when it comes to our relationship with Christ. We may not all be on the same page in our understanding of who Jesus is and what he can do for us. But this doesn’t matter to him. What he looks at is the sincerity of our hearts, our reaching out for mercy and hope, so that the empty jars and deep wells of our lives can be filled with the Living Water of unconditional love and eternal life that bubbles up and never runs dry. He is more than willing and able to give us this Living Water freely if we but ask for it and trust in him as the Christ, that is, as the One sent by God to heal us of sin and restore us to God’s grace.

Through sincere prayer from the heart we can truly have an encounter with Christ today.  Through an honest and humble confession of our sins we can experience the spiritual freedom needed to live new lives.  Through the devout reception of the Lord Jesus really present in Holy Communion, we can personally meet and embrace Jesus as Savior. Then we, too, like the Samaritan Woman will find ourselves so filled with the joy and grace of the Holy Spirit that we will want to tell others about this Christ whom we have met and who has made all the difference in the world to our lives!