Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lead, Kindly Light

El Greco: Jesus heals the blind man
The word of God challenges us to always look beyond appearances, and with the gift of faith, discover three realities:
Jesus as the light who illumines the purpose of life;
ourselves as a light to others in our attitude and behavior; and
our fellow human beings as bearers of the light or presence of God,
no matter how hidden that presence may be.

The word of God takes us back over 3,000 years.  King Saul made a mess of things, perhaps like some political dictators today.  God inspired the prophet Samuel to look for another king in a sheepherder’s family.  At first, David is overlooked.  He’s the youngest, the most unlikely choice. Think of great leaders in our country and how unlikely they may have appeared to be.  The unlikely David became king of ancient Israel, with incredible potential for leadership that others didn’t see.

The word challenges us not to stereotype people—not to write them off, so to speak -- but rather to look underneath and beyond appearances to the incredible potential for good that people have, and try to bring out their best qualities by affirming them.

Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Ephesus in Turkey reflects upon light and darkness. Light warms, nurtures, sustains, reveals and cheers.  Light enables us to study, to discover, to behold the wonders of God’s universe.

Blessed John Henry Newman captured Jesus as light in a wonderful poem:
"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on! ….

Jesus is the light who illumines our pathway into eternal life.  We too are called to be light to people, to let our life shine forth with virtues such as honesty, integrity, responsibility, courage, perseverance, compassion and faith in God.

 In the Gospel according to John, Jesus opens the eyes of this blind man so that he can see reality.  But notice how blind some of the characters in this story were.  The Pharisees were blinded by protocol—how dare Jesus heal on the Sabbath!--blind to the power of God working outside their own religious structures.  The parents too were blinded by fear.

The Gospel author challenges us to see Jesus, through the lens of faith, as the light who illumines the purpose of life.

Thomas Merton wrote about his own search for light in his best-selling autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain.”  He corresponded with political movers and shakers and people of different faiths or no faith.  Faithful to his Catholic tradition, Merton was always open to the truth in other religious traditions, especially eastern religions.  He sensed the oneness of God all about him, in all creatures and in all creation.  All were holy.  The invisible light of God in all creatures simply had to be made visible.

Our Lenten task, Merton would argue, is to let the light of God become manifest in who we are so that we become the very likeness of God.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Life-giving Water

Jesus and the Woman at the Well
We are in the middle of a six-week journey.  Each Sunday in Lent reflects on life as in a prism.  First Sunday: a hungry Jesus tells the tempter what makes for life: not bread alone but every word from God. Last Sunday: the Transfiguration. God reveals the divine in the human Jesus, our life.  And today Jesus is life-giving water.

A central moment in the life of the Hebrews was their Exodus or liberation.  Yet here they are wandering and complaining!  Where is God now, they wonder, as they face hunger and thirst.  Moses cries to God for help, and God demonstrates his presence. Water suddenly flows from a rock and quenches their thirst.  

The life-giving waters allude to the waters of baptism and the promises made to God in baptism: a rite of initiation into a global community.  God's love and life has been poured out upon us and into us so that we can reflect the glory or presence of God in our daily lives.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus asks a woman for water, only to engage her in a conversation about thirst.  Jesus reveals who he is: the messiah, living water who can satisfy our quest for meaning.  And in faith, this woman heralds the good news to her townsfolk.

We all thirst like Jesus and the woman at the well, don't we?  Some simply thirst for a decent livelihood.  Others thirst for health, wealth, pleasure, power and fame. Still others for purpose in life.

Therese of Lisieux’s remarkable autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” documents her own search and made her a guru in Catholic Spirituality.  She died at 24, still struggling with doubts about God  and yet holding onto a crucifix as she spoke her dying words: “My God, I love You.”

She pursued a spiritual pathway that she came to call the “little way.”  What is this “little way” that anyone supposedly can follow? For me, it has three ingredients.

First, Therese realized her own insignificance.  Think about it.  There are about seven billion people on this planet.  Some say there are at least ten trillion planets in our galaxy alone, and at least 200 billion galaxies.  We really are insignificant.  And yet God gave us significance.  God who is love created us out of love from nothingness so that God could be one with us.  Therese personified humility.  Her response was always gratitude to God that she even existed.

Second, Therese recognized that God loved her unconditionally. That's why she had a childlike trust, receptive to whatever gifts God bestowed upon her.

Finally, she loved God unconditionally, even though she often wondered where God was.  The words of Thomas the Apostle could have been hers, and perhaps ours sometimes: I believe; help my unbelief.  In every situation, she willed the good of the other.  Her “little way” quenched her thirst for God as Jesus quenched the thirst of the Samaritan at the well and ours as well.

During these Lenten days I invite all of us to renew ourselves spiritually and to rededicate ourselves in regular prayer to God and in generous service to one another.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Changing Our Lives

Raphael's Transfiguration
As we “spring forward,” as winter’s chill changes in many parts of the country to the warmth of spring, the Lenten season calls for a similar change within ourselves: letting the coldness of a self-centered life be transformed into a more God-centered, other-centered life of love, forgiveness, compassion and peacemaking.

Last Sunday we were in the wilderness in the presence of Jesus and the tempter. Evil seemed to abound. This week we're atop a mountain in the presence of God: Jesus’s transfiguration. Good abounds more.  Lent is a time to affirm our belief in the presence of God in our world, in the good news that Jesus Christ not only overcame evil but also gave us this Lenten time to believe more in the power of the good news than in the sadness of the bad.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta showed in words and deeds that holiness is not a luxury for the few; it is meant for all.  One of many stories: seeing a so-called “untouchable” dying on the sidewalk, she put her hands together as in prayer and bowed with a Hindu greeting: Namaste.  She saw the image and glory of God underneath this unkempt and emaciated man.  And, as the story goes, he looked at her and uttered his dying words:  I lived with animals and now I die with the angels.  Yes, to see God in other people despite a “distressing disguise” is to live a holy life.

Jesus had to live by faith, trusting completely in his Father's unconditional love for him.  That faith made Jesus a transformative person, ushering in the kingdom of God. That faith was tested on the cross.  To quote theologian Karl Rahner: “Jesus surrendered himself in his death unconditionally to the absolute mystery that he calls his Father, into whose hands he committed his existence when in the "night" of his death and God-forsakenness he was deprived of everything that is otherwise regarded as the content of a human existence: life, honor, acceptance and so forth.”

Jesus died as he had lived: with faith, with hope.  Yes, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)  And God transfigured Jesus into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.

Just as Jesus became a transformative person in ushering in the kingdom of God, so too Jesus calls us, his co-workers, to be transformative people as well.  We, as co-workers with God, have to do our best to transform unfairness and prejudice into fairness; to transform hate into peace, indifference into compassion, sorrow into joy and despair into hope.

Yes, we have to work to transform self-centeredness into Other-centeredness so that we, like Christ, can be transfigured into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.  Let this be our prayer for Lent:

Forgiving those we don’t want to forgive;
having compassion;
making peace;
caring for those in need, even though it’s inconvenient;
persevering when we are exhausted;
carrying our crosses when we want to run away from them; and
loving when the last thing we want to do is love.

Just practicing this prayer will make us transformative persons in the lives of people.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Journey Begins

Tissot's Jesus in the Wilderness
We have begun our Lenten journey from ashes to Easter.  Lent is a 40-day retreat: a time to ask who and what are our priorities in life.  It's a time to follow Jesus into the wilderness, to replenish ourselves with the gifts of the Spirit (for example, wisdom, good judgment, courage).  Lent is a time to recall how the Jews of old saw the desert: not only an abode of wild beasts and demons, but a place where a person encountered God and God encountered the person.

Maybe you're feeling an emptiness, dissatisfaction.   Things are going OK, but you're starting to wonder:  Is this what it's all about?  Let this be the season to focus on doing the right thing.

Maybe you find yourself facing new challenges, tough life-changing decisions.  As you struggle to find your way, remember that Jesus also trekked through the wilderness.  Stop and ask for directions; in the solitude of prayer and in conversation with those who love you.  Listen to Jesus' response to his “tempter”: God instead of bread, service instead of a self-centered life, humility and generosity instead of celebrity.

Lent is a time to stop, to look at our options, to ask who am I, where am I going and what's my purpose.  It's a time to reflect on why God gave us life in the first place. Lent challenges us to fix ourselves on the things that truly matter; to have a change of heart; to live in a better relationship with God and with one another.

The Book of Genesis tells us God fashioned a magnificent universe and created man and woman to enjoy it.   It's a symbolic story.  There's the tree of life.  And another tree, that gave knowledge of good and evil, a tree symboizing divine status. Enter the snake. It set people against one another and against God. They wanted divine status, to be self-sufficient; so, they ate the “forbidden fruit.” They suddenly were a laughing-stock, naked. They lost their friendship with God, they fell from grace.

God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth: so we could have God's friendship again.  The author may be asking us whether we see God as our friend, as our walking companion.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is tempted. Would Jesus simply satisfy his physical hunger at the expense of his mission or purpose in life?  No.  Work signs and wonders so that people would puff up his ego?  No. Seek political power so that people would kowtow to him?  No. Jesus will only seek to do the will of his heavenly Father.

Lent tells us to ask God for the grace to get our priorities straight.  It's a time for prayer; a time to do without unnecessary things; a time to reach out with a helping hand.  For hundreds of years, Lent has focused on prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Re-discover and re-treat yourselves to these age-old disciplines again this Lent.