Sunday, March 26, 2017

Children of Light

Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570), El Greco

One of the most important lessons in life is that reality is sometimes a little different than we perceive. There are a variety of familiar maxims which express this idea: “Looks can be deceiving;” “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

Children learn this idea as they age, but we adults have to relearn it at times as well. Maybe the major we always planned study for turns out to not be our cup of tea after all. Maybe the relationship that we thought was merely that between friends is actually something deeper and romantic. Maybe the dream job that we’ve sought for so long turns out to be less glamorous or more stressful than we had thought. Life is full of surprises, and often what we anticipate and expect is not what turns out to be.

The same is true our spiritual lives. “Not as man sees does God see,” we heard in our first reading. Or in the similar words of Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Our readings for today show this clearly. In the Gospel today, Jesus acts contrary to the expectations of those around him by taking notice of the blind man and healing him. People of the first century, if they had noticed him at all, would have assumed that his affliction was due to his own sinfulness, as the Pharisees state. But Jesus stops, stoops down, and changes the blind man’s entire life in an instant.

His encounter with Jesus gives him something much greater than just the physical ability to see. Did you notice how Jesus healed the blind man? He made clay and put it on his eyes. Just as God formed Adam from the clay in Eden so too does Jesus’s healing recreate the man, so to speak, giving him not just physical sight but also the spiritual vision by which he sees the world entirely anew. Just like the woman at the well in last week’s Gospel, he is changed by this encounter with Jesus. His neighbors even debate about whether it’s really him or someone who looks like him; more importantly, he now is able to testify about Jesus to the Pharisees, who have physical sight but who are blind to the power of God before them.

The story of the blind man is, in many ways, symbolic of the story of every Christian. You and I were born in blindness, lacking spiritual vision and discordant with the way that God desires us to be. But at our baptism, we encountered the healing power of Christ, restoring us to God’s friendship and giving us the gift of faith by which we can see the world anew. Our journey through Lent is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the power of what we have been given, of the dignity of the gift we have received. Christ has healed our blindness and brought light to our darkness; now he calls us also to be bearers of light in his name so that others also may come to see.

That’s the message of St. Paul in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus. He reminds us that having been called out of darkness, we are now “children of light”. Jesus is the Light of the World, and those who have seen his light – indeed, those who have been given new sight by him – are called to also be light for others. We can’t go back to darkness, to being spiritually blind. Rather, when others look at us, when they look at how we live, they should see in us He who is the Light of the World.

Friends, we are reminded often that things aren’t always what they seem. The same is true for God – he acts in ways that are unexpected, always reaching out to us to surprise us again with a love that heals and restores. Jesus brings us new vision, a way of seeing things anew with spiritual sight, a light by which we leave behind darkness. Let’s deepen our faith again in these last few weeks of Lent, so that others can see in us the way that we have been changed by meeting Jesus, and all of us can together say, like the blind man, “I do believe, Lord.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Slake Your Thirst

Last week, I received a distressing email from a man in eastern Africa. No, it wasn’t one of those scams, asking me to help a very rich person who has found themselves in sudden, dire need. Instead, it was from an American whom I have met before, and someone I admire quite a bit.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I spent some time in Ethiopia with Catholic Relief Services years ago, and I still serve today in their Global Fellows program, helping to build awareness for the important work that they do in our name as US Catholics. The email I received was from a man named Lane Bunkers, who serves as the CRS Country Representative for Kenya. He was writing to let us know of the severe drought that is currently affecting millions of people in eastern Africa. Entire crops have been lost; livestock are shriveling up and dying; families are uprooting to search for water for themselves and their animals.

We are blessed in America to generally not have to think much about where our water comes from, whether it’s safe to drink, and whether there’s enough of it. Outside of a pipe breaking or a bit of algae giving it a stranger taste than usual, our water is safe and plentiful. But that’s simply not the reality in much of the world, and it hasn’t been the reality for much of human history.

Our readings for today bear that out well. In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites are complaining out of thirst, reasonably enough. They are, after all, wandering in the desert of Sinai. Having been rescued from Egypt by the Lord, they are not yet ready to enter the Promised Land; they first must come to know who God is and what he commands of them. But despite their grumbling and ingratitude, God provides for them. Moses commands water to come forth from the rock, and they drink to their fill.

In the Gospel, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. She too is thirsty, though perhaps Jesus knows it better than she. This woman is alone, in the hottest part of the day, and someone who has scandalously been with a number of men. What she craves is not just water to slake her thirst, but the Living Water of mercy, of reconciliation, of starting anew. And she encounters in Jesus someone who not only speaks to her but enters into dialogue with her – who gives her the dignity to be someone worthy of attention. Jesus shows how God does not begin to address any of us with castigation, with overwhelming guilt – rather, he appeals to our desire, to our want.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (1639) by Guercino

What are you thirsting for? And where are you seeking to quench that thirst? The human spirit is constantly searching for satisfaction, for a remedy to our troubles, for something to refresh our parched spirits. But nothing truly fills us up, nothing really quenches our thirstiness such that we do not thirst again – nothing except, Jesus says, the One who can bring forth water from the rock, the One who is Living Water himself. We can uproot ourselves in constant search for the next fad, the next trend, the next thing that promises to bring us happiness – but ultimately these will leave us only more shriveled up than before unless we seek the satisfaction that comes from God.

Friends, the drought in eastern Africa is a tragic situation. Next week, we will have a second collection to benefit Catholic Relief Services, and I hope you will be moved to give alms generously to this worthy cause. But as dire as that need is, you and I can’t ignore our own dire need as well. Jesus invites each of us in this season of Lent, just as he invited the Samaritan woman, to find in him the fulfillment of the desire of our hearts, the One who wishes to encounter us, to enter into relationship with us, and to offer us a chance to start anew. Let us drink deeply of the life and love that only Christ can give.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dismissing the Devil

Throughout the liturgical year, our readings tend to revolve around Biblical figures who inspire us: Jesus, of course, most often; Mary, at times; sometimes Peter, sometimes Paul, sometimes an Old Testament figure, like Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah. Interestingly, though, the readings for this First Sunday of Lent seem to center around a much more unpleasant figure: that of Satan.

The figure of Satan in the Bible is portrayed in a few different ways. But his most prominent role is how he is described in the Book of Revelation: as “the Deceiver.” In my time as a priest, I’ve found that people typically tend to make one of two mistakes when thinking about the devil. Sometimes, we can be unreasonably interested in him, either too curious or too afraid. When I attended Saint Louis University, the fourth floor of the main administrative building was reportedly the site of the exorcism which later inspired the famous movie of the 1970’s. A few of my friends were inordinately fascinated by the story; the rest of us were too fearful to even venture up to the offices on that floor that we needed to visit! Being overly curious or overly fearful about the devil is not healthy for anyone.

More commonly, though, I think many of us pay the devil little mind. For all practical purposes, we don’t think much about him. Some of us might even be tempted to dismiss him as a fanciful notion – a sort of imaginary construct that we humans have invented to explain our own weaknesses and evils. But the Scriptures are clear – the devil is real, and he is our Enemy, because he seeks to divorce us from God.

In today’s first reading, Satan preys upon the desire of Adam and Eve to be “like gods,” that is, not only to know good and evil but to determine what was good and evil for themselves. This great deception causes their Fall, and ours as well, introducing sin and death into the world. In a certain sense, every sin that tempts us is a repetition of their sin. For whether it is pride or anger or lust or greed, or whatever else, when we sin we say, “I know what is best for me better than God does” – indeed, we say, “I know that this is better for me than God.”

When we sin, we are deceived, just as Adam and Eve were deceived, and the devil seems to have won. But as Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, the devil may win a battle here and there, but he’s lost the overall war. For while sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, Jesus has brought into the world the gift of God’s forgiveness. By taking upon himself our sins and by his total obedience to his Father’s will, Jesus undoes the curse of Adam and takes away the power of sin.

In the Gospel, Jesus shows us how to resist the devil’s deceptions. The aim of temptation is always to believe something that is untrue, namely, that God will not care for us in some particular way. Satan offers to Jesus three things that appear good – to satisfy his physical hunger after 40 days, to be cared for by the angels of heaven, to be honored by all the world. But Jesus resists each of these things, not because they are bad in themselves but because they are founded in the notion that his heavenly Father will not provide for him. The same is true with our own temptations – we are led to believe that God won’t satisfy our desires or provide for our greatest need.

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (c. 1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna

At the heart of temptation, at the base of any sin, is a fundamental lack of trust in God. Jesus did not sin because he was utterly confident in his Father’s love and providence, just as we must be. The deepest desire of our heart is to participate in the divinity that Adam and Eve desired – but the way to reach that is not by grasping for it, as they did, but by receiving it from a God who desires to give it to us as a gift. Like Jesus, we must realize that our deepest longing is not for food or honor or power or any material thing, but for God himself. Echoing the trust in our heavenly Father that Jesus showed, which gives us the knowledge of his love that we most deeply desire, we can orient ourselves in such a way that no temptation attracts us.

What does this mean practically? When we are tempted, first, we must recognize the fact. Jesus did not deny Satan’s presence; similarly, we must say, “I am being tempted now by pride or anger or lust or jealousy,” or whatever it is. That’s the first step. The next is to immediately turn to God – perhaps in vocal prayer, perhaps by Scripture, perhaps by meditating upon God’s presence. Bringing the Lord into the midst of our temptation, we can see the deception of the sin. Finally, we have to choose to grace over the temptation, saying with Jesus, “Get away, Satan!” No temptation is not also accompanied by a grace from God needed to resist.

Friends, though it may at times seem so, the devil is not the central character in anything – not our readings for today and not in our spiritual lives. He is always only a background figure, a foil – one who can deceive us about God’s love, but who offers nothing on his own in return. Jesus, on the other hand, has confronted and defeated Satan, and if we respond to temptation as he did – with a fundamental trust in God – then the devil has no power that can harm us. This Lent, let us open ourselves to responding to temptation in the way that Jesus has shown us to do – with faith in God, with fidelity in what he teaches, with trust in what he promises.