Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Homily on Dedication of St. John Lateran

DEDICATION OF ST. JOHN LATERAN
November 9, 2014


1. It is my guess that today’s feast day, supplanting the 32nd Sunday this year, needs some sort of explanation. November 9 marks the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome by Pope Sylvester in the year 324. This ancient, seemingly ageless, structure is honored as the cathedral church of our Holy Father under his title as “Bishop of Rome”. “It is the mother and head of all the churches” throughout the Catholic world. Today’s feast is understood as a sign of devotion to and of unity with the Chair of Peter – which, as St. Ignatius of Antioch writes, “presides over the whole assembly of charity”.

2. Surely, a first visit to Rome would involve the four major basilicas, all of which date from the 4th Century. The most familiar is the Basilica of St. Peter, built into the side of the Vatican Hill, over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Then there is the Basilica of St. Paul, built outside the City of Rome on the Ostian Way near Tre Fontane, where St. Paul suffered martyrdom. On the Esquiline Hill is the Church of St. Mary, called St. Mary Major because it is the first in honor of all the St. Mary churches throughout the world. Then, of course, there is the most significant of the four, the Church of the Most Holy Savior, which we recall today. When it was rededicated after it had been severely damaged, it was placed under the heavenly protection of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Its original site was on some property of the Laterani family, hence its popular title – St. John Lateran.

3. Three actual church buildings should be of great significance for all of us who worship here Sunday after Sunday. As we gather at our St. John the Evangelist Church here in Wellesley Hills, we say to God our Father in prayer – “We thank you now for this house of prayer in which you bless your family as we come to you on pilgrimage. Here you reveal your presence by sacramental signs and make us one with you through the unseen bond of grace.” But St. John the Evangelist Church is not some isolated reality. We are united with our bishop and with all who make up our diocese. Hence we venerate and esteem our bishop’s cathedral – the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But the church in Boston is in communion with the Bishop of Rome who presides over the Church Catholic throughout the world. Hence our reverence for the Pope’s Cathedral – St. John Lateran.

4. Today’s feast reminds us that God’s Church, though we think of buildings, is much more than buildings. You and I as Christ’s members make up the true and living Church of God. We, too, constitute a House of God. Just think of what was done when St. John the Evangelist Parish was built over 140 years ago. It is not unlike what was done when you and I, as followers of the Lord Jesus, first encountered Christ the Lord. When we first came to believe, as St. Augustine reminds us, we were like timber and stone taken from woods and mountains. Through Baptism, catechetical instruction and the sacraments, we were shaped, leveled and smoothed as by the hands of carpenters and craftsmen. But, as Augustine reminds us, Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan; they must be joined in perfect harmony; they must give each other the support of love – or no one would enter the building. When one sees the stones and beams of a building holding together in a secure way, one enters the building with an easy mind; one is not afraid of it falling down in ruin.
5. In our first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel envisions the waters flowing from the temple, God’s dwelling place, and bringing forth life and growth and salvation. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the temple of his own body, although his hearers thought he was speaking about the Jewish temple. Jesus is the living sanctuary of which the temple in Jerusalem was the sign and the figure. In our second reading, St. Paul speaks to the Corinthian disciples and to us too – “We are God’s temple, the Spirit of God dwelling within us. The temple of God is holy and we are that temple.”

6. I was reading the other day about a new cathedral in the diocese of Oakland, California. It is entitled – the Cathedral of Christ the Light. This cathedral, and every parish church no matter how humble, is meant to be a place of encounter between God and his people. This happens in Jesus Christ and particularly in the great sacraments in which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ – Baptism and Eucharist. There are four ways that we encounter Christ when we enter into any church building: Christ is present in the gathered assembly of his people; Christ is present in the Holy Scriptures; Christ is present in the person of the minister; and, most especially, Christ is present in the Eucharistic species that are consecrated during the Eucharistic celebration. The altar, of course, is at the heart of our worship. It is a table of joy where friends of Christ may hasten to cast upon our living Lord their burdens and cares, so as to take up their journey restored. It is a place of communion and peace, so that those who share the Body and Blood of Christ may be filled with his Spirit and grow together in love. It is a source of unity and friendship where God’s people may gather as one to share God’s great gift of mutual love. Joined together with Christ in Baptism and Eucharist we are now called by God to bring the light of Christ into all the communities in which we dwell – the family, the workplace, the neighborhood, the town or the city. Our townsfolk and we ourselves are always going in and out of various building – the drugstore, the hardware store, the supermarket, the public library. Not many of our townsfolk join us going in and out of St. John’s Church, yet this is where we find the source of our great happiness – the very presence of the Lord Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. How can we share this happiness with others?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Homily for All Souls Day

ALL SOULS
November 2, 2014


1. Yesterday, we kept festival in honor of All Saints. We joined with the angels in joyful praise to the Son of God. Our Preface Prayer gave us an excellent summation of our celebration. It told us in words addressed to God the Father – "Around your throne, the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise forever. Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength, as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them." The Feast of All Saints underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Our basic vocation, our very reason for existence, is holiness of life; and
(b) We are a pilgrim people. We have here in Wellesley Hills no lasting home. Our
destiny in history is God and his gift of eternal life.

2. Today, we will celebrate the Feast of All Souls. We remember our loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. We say in prayer to God – "You are the glory of believers and the life of the just. Your Son redeemed us by his dying and rising. Since our sisters and brothers believed in Christ’s resurrection, let them now share in the joys and blessings of the life to come." The Feast of All Souls underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Each one of us must say – "At some particular moment I shall die; at any
particular moment I could die"; and
(b) Though we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, we can and
will choose the sort of death we will die.

3. Theologians ask the question – “How do we think of a human life in relationship to the eternal God? Although our life is but a moment or a sigh in God’s perspective, our life of 50 or 100 years becomes complete and whole only in our death. It is at the time of death that we can face God knowing at last who we are. But this is a topic about which many of us do not even wish to think. We may even try to deny it when we encounter death in others or when it is approaching for ourselves.” (Commonweal, September 12, 2008).

4. For men and women everywhere, the fact of death is a profound puzzle; in the face of the riddle of human history, it grows most acute. Sometimes death comes after a prolonged illness and we ask – Why death is so slow in coming? At other times, death comes so suddenly and we ask – Why death for this person at this time under these circumstances? We all, of course, experience pain and the advancing deterioration of the body, and all the endeavors of technology cannot calm the anxiety to which death gives rise to the human spirit. Even the prolongation of biological life would be unable to satisfy the desire for higher life, for that life that lasts which we instinctively recognize as part and parcel of the human condition. For the Christian, death’s enigma is resolved in Christ. Death means dying with Christ to whom we often say at the Eucharist – “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus come in glory!” And this Lord of ours, who is with us now in word and in sacrament and who indeed will come again, is the very Lord who assured his first followers – “I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, even if he or she dies, shall live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”.

5. I have already said that we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, but we will choose the sort of death we will die. What does this mean? From one point-of-view, common to men and women everywhere, death lies outside our freedom. An elderly person dies after years of a debilitating illness; a young person at the dawn of adulthood is cut down by a tragic accident; a thirty-three year old man is nailed to a cross and dies by crucifixion between two thieves. In all of these instances we speak of death as necessity, death as natural phenomenon. However, this is only a fraction of the story. Death is also and most importantly a mystery of Christ and therefore an act of our freedom and so we begin to understand death as freedom, death as liberty. When we focus on the death of the Lord Jesus, we notice first what the Lord Jesus said about his own death. Even though evil men were going to nail him to the cross, he told his disciples – “The Father loves me for this that I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down freely. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again.” The Lord Jesus, conqueror of death, is telling us who follow him that death does lie within our human freedom. Did Jesus die the death he chose to die in terms of his being nailed to a cross? The answer is “No”. In terms of his lifelong obedience to the Father, even unto death, the answer is “Yes”. And so it is with ourselves. We will not choose the events of our last days on earth, but in the course of our lives as Christians, we make significant choices to live in and for the Lord. At Baptism we were plunged into the mystery of the Lord’s death. Every Eucharist we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again. In our struggle to live for God and to die to sin, in our grace-inspired efforts to do the truth in love, we choose both life and death in the Lord. Because we see our calling as the grace to live and die in the Lord, the event we call our biological death is raised to the level of a divine mystery. The Christian’s task is to understand this mystery and to perform it well in the light of everyday life. To die well means to live well. To live well means to love well, to follow the Lord’s command of love, to follow the Lord’s command of forgiveness, to put the Gospel to work in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our social lives, in our economic lives, in our political lives. In the end, our choices, our behaviors, and the actions of others towards us can make all the difference – whoever we are or whatever we do. It might help us to note that every human being all over the globe at this particular time in human history is in one of two spiritual situations. As St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans: A person is either “in the Spirit” or in the flesh. These two expressions have definitive meanings. “In the Spirit” means we are friends with God under the grace of the Holy Spirit; or we are alienated from God under the regime of sin. Think of the two realities called grace and glory: grace this side of the grave, and glory beyond the grave. What then is grace: Grace is glory in exile. What is glory? Glory is grace gone home.

6. What then on this feast day of All Souls are we to say about death? Perhaps we could recite to ourselves the opening lines of one of the poems of John Donne, the English writer from several centuries ago. John Donne composed his poem in medieval English. He entitled it “Death Be Not Proud”. And so we read:

• Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
• Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
• For those whom thou think’st thou doest overthrow,
• Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)


1. We can call the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the chapter of the three questions. The Pharisees were plotting how they might trap Jesus in his speech. So they asked him – Teacher, give us your opinion. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Last Sunday we reflected on this question and on the Lord’s response. The second question came from the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They offered Jesus a hypothetical case about a wife and her seven husbands – and they asked – though not believing in the resurrection – Whose wife will she be at the resurrection? The Pharisees tried again in the question asked in our Gospel reading today – Which commandment in the law is the greatest? Although the Lord was asked about one commandment, he replied by giving two. These two commandments were not original with Jesus. Rather, Jesus quotes from Chapter 6 of the Book of Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength; and from Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. What was original with Jesus was his putting these two commandments together as the two sides of one coin. It is interesting to note how St. Paul expresses the commandment of love in his Letter to the Romans. He writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be – are summed up in this saying: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

2. No one in recent times has spoken so compellingly of love as our present Holy Father Emeritus in his first encyclical letter, entitled “God is Love”. This title is taken from the I Letter of John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him”. These words express with remarkable clarity the heart of Christian faith: The Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. As I John expresses it – “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.

3. What is the meaning of this little word "love"? We Americans tend to assume that love is found only in our feelings – a love relationship, for example, is good when it feels right, so we say. What happens to a feel-right love when the needs of two individuals come into conflict? Given the way the Lord God has created us, we have both the passion of love and the virtue of love. Our passions are our friends although they can lead us astray. If we did not have passions, we would all be as attractive as telephone poles. The passion of love is good when it promotes the virtue of love. It is the virtue of love that enables us to love God and our neighbor even when our feelings and emotions are moving in the opposite direction. God has made us body and soul so it is not the spirit alone nor the body alone, but it is the person, the human being, the unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united does the exercise of love attain its full stature.

4. When we first begin to love, we go out to get. Our Holy Father calls this “possessive” love, ascending love. C. S. Lewis calls it “need” love. More importantly there is gift love which centers not on the lover but on the beloved. The challenge for one who loves is make progress by the grace of the Spirit from need love to gift love. St. Ignatius of Loyola incorporates this notion into his Spiritual Exercises. In the course of the second week of the Exercises, the retreatant comes to understand how good God is for him or for her. This is a form of self-seeking love, but it is a good self-seeking love. Other kinds of self-seeking love can lead us astray. It is only in the third and fourth weeks of the Exercises that the retreatant comes to realize that God is good – period, that God is all good in himself and deserving of all my love.

5. St. Bernard has a wonderful description of love. He writes – “Love is sufficient of itself; love gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. Love is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Love’s profit lies in its practice. I love because I love. I love that I may love.”

6. The Gospel question, of course, in all of this love talk is this – And who is my neighbor? Pope Benedict suggests quite simply in response – “Anyone who needs me and whom I can help is my neighbor”. And this question and answer should lead us to the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and to the great parable of the Last Judgment in which love becomes the criteria for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, those who are hungry or thirsty, those who are strangers and those in prison. As you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. In this way, love of God and love of neighbor become one. In the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself and in Jesus we find God.

7. The command to love God and neighbor find concrete expression in the Sacrament of Marriage – described by Pope John Paul II as “a noble, high and sacred calling”. God has intended that the Sacrament of Marriage be a living sign of Christ’s love for his Church, for all his members, and for the entire world. It is precisely in their married love that husband and wife bring each other to holiness of life. A sacramental marriage isn’t an accident; it is not something “by chance”. God chose this particular man and this particular woman to be a sacrament sign – showing forth to all who can see the living presence of God for the wider world.

8. Sometimes, I conclude my wedding homilies by suggesting a meditation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the symbol of God’s great love for the world, a symbol of Christ’s love for his heavenly Father and for each one of his members as he gave himself in sacrifice for the world’s salvation. Prevailing philosophies down through history often tell us that every living being strives for its own preservation and fulfillment, but this is not what the Gospel teaches. The Gospel teaches, through the imagery of the Sacred Heart, that the way to happiness and holiness is not so much by self-preservation but by self-abandonment. Christ’s heart saves us indeed, but it saves us by giving itself away in love. This is what makes love truly sacrificial. This is what the saints have discovered to their great joy. This is what marriage is supposed to proclaim. Sacrifice, as we know, is always difficult and irksome; only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)

29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
October 19, 2014

1. In the Gospels we often find Jesus in conflict with both religious and secular authorities. However, never does he challenge legitimate authority but only the ways individuals may exercise that authority. In fact, the Lord Jesus instructs his followers to fulfill lawful civic duties. Caesar is not always the enemy. Our first and third readings today provide the springboard for our reflections. They concern difficult political realities in scriptural times and they speak a similar message to us as well.

2. Notice what the Prophet Isaiah has written: "Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus… I have called you by your name, giving you a title though you know me not." Who is this Cyrus and why does he receive the title – the anointed one – an expression the Old Testament used with reference to Israel’s kings. But Cyrus was not a king of Israel. Like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus in later times, Cyrus in the fifth century before Christ was the most powerful ruler in the then known world. He was king of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, who were the ones who had conquered Israel, destroyed Jerusalem and led the Jews into the dark days of the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus was an enlightened despot. He liberated the Jews, permitted them to return to their land and helped them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. This was a new political experience for the Israelites. They found themselves under a pagan ruler who was chosen and in fact praised by God, whom God made – though Cyrus did not know the Lord – God’s own agent for the advancement of God’s own purposes and the rebuilding of God’s people, Israel. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Persia is really Iran in our warring, terrorist world today.)

3. Our Gospel presents another sort of political issue. Out of malice, the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus in his speech, hoping he might say something hostile about the hated Romans who ruled Palestine at that time. The story of the coins with the inscription of Caesar is familiar to us all. The Lord instructs his hearers that both God and Caesar are to be respected. The same sort of question is asked of us today. As Catholics in the United States take on an evermore-prominent role in the economic, educational and political mainstreams of our country, we who are Catholic find ourselves discussing the relationship of our Church to the American society in which we live. The Lord gives us a sacred principle. With his help we must work out the specifics.

4. We should note that over two millennia the Church has lived under every conceivable political structure – the Roman Empire of the Caesars, the Barbarian rulers of the unchristianized West, the Holy Roman Empire, benevolent and hostile kings and queens, the developing democracies of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Fascism, Nazism and Communism of the last century. What about our own country and its democratic government which is becoming evermore secular and consumerist? If the Lord Jesus were to look at our coins or paper money today, He would see not Caesar but the images of various presidents and He would read the Latin inscription "E pluribus unum" – one country from many different states – at first thirteen, and now fifty. Our culture is a pluralistic culture made up of many nationalities, languages, philosophies and religions of all kinds and – probably for the majority – no religion whatsoever. In such pluralism, we find a civic posture which leaves matters of religious beliefs and philosophical convictions outside the pale of official public concerns. Originally – unlike the wooden-headed axiom about the so-called wall of separation between church and state – this does not mean that religious beliefs and philosophical convictions were of no importance and should have no influence on corporate or individual behavior. Rather, it meant that government is limited and religion and philosophy and political theory and editorial opinion all lie outside government jurisdiction. This traditional understanding is threatened in our day by the reduction of natural law values, by political correctness and by the popular embracing of many aspects of what has been termed "a culture of death".

5. The question remains – What is the relationship between faith and culture, better perhaps we should say – church and state, that is, how are we to do justice to God and to Caesar? The Catholic Church is not a sect. Catholics by very definition cannot refrain from societal participation. This mission belongs primarily to laymen and women. By their very calling they are to seek God’s kingdom by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering temporal affairs in accord with God’s teaching. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life from which the very web of their existence is woven. Forty years ago this very month, the Second Vatican Council said to lay persons in the Church – "This Council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age."

6. What does this challenge involve? We cannot be true believers if we are unwilling to translate our beliefs into social practice. We cannot be good citizens of our two cities if we are unwilling to have our voices heard in the public square. We must be ready to answer with courage both the challenge of the Church and the demands of Caesar. In a word, we must do justice to God and to Caesar.

Friday, April 11, 2014

5th SUNDAY OF LENT (A)

1. The Gospels, which nourish our faith at every Eucharist, were written by believers for believers, that is, for those already baptized or for those who by God’s providence might be seeking baptism. This is why John the Evangelist can say to his readers – Jesus performed many other signs as well, signs not recorded in my Gospel, but these signs, I have recorded, have as their purpose to help you, the readers, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Promised One, so that through this faith you may have life in his name. The four Gospels whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts faithfully hands on to us all that the Lord Jesus, while living among us, did and taught until the day he was taken up into heaven. Does this mean that today’s account of the raising of Lazarus is like the work of a newspaper reporter, submitting copy for the Jerusalem Times? The answer, of course, is “No”. John is writing many decades after the Lord’s resurrection, many decades after the raising of Lazarus. John wants to tell his readers about Jesus and about the impact Jesus had on people like Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. Nevertheless, transparent in John’s narrative is the historical situation of the particular Church community to which John belonged and for whose benefit he wrote his Gospel. In a word, he wants to describe the impact the risen Christ continues to have on many other persons, many Marys, Marthas and Lazaruses in the course of Church history. In this way, he wants to confront the ever-present issue of belief and unbelief – the issue St. Paul discusses in our second reading – an issue never very far from our lives here at Saint John the Evangelist Parish.

2. The story of Lazarus is the story of one man’s encounter with Christ, the story of God’s power at work in Christ to restore life to someone who had died. Wherever the work of evangelization takes place, the story of Lazarus is an important element in the conversion journey of those who anticipate the reception of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Candidates for these sacraments are instructed to see themselves in the person of Lazarus and to find Christ the Lord summoning them to life through the mediation of Christ’s body, which is the Church. Just as Christ gave physical life to the dead Lazarus, so through the sacraments God gives the divine life of grace to those who turn away from sin and profess faithfulness to the Gospel. Lazarus was really, truly, physically restored to natural life. You and I are really, truly, sacramentally restored to the faith, hope and charity which unite us to God.

3. Our Gospel reading is familiar in part to many of us who have heard it so often proclaimed at funeral liturgies. The dialogue between Jesus and Martha is most instructive. Martha had said to Jesus – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. “Your brother will rise again”, Jesus replied. Then he said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Then the Lord asked Martha, who was the first to hear these words, and the Lords asks us who now hear them at this very Liturgy – “Do you believe this?” St. John records Martha’s response. Only God knows the response of each one here.

4. Whoever believes in me, even if she dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. What does this mean? There is physical life and physical death; there is spiritual or eternal life and eternal death. In our narrative, Jesus makes two claims. First he says, “I am the resurrection”. This means that whoever believes in the Lord Jesus, even though she may go down to the grave in physical death, would enjoy eternal life in heaven. This is the life the Holy Spirit first gives us at holy Baptism. Then Jesus says – “I am the life” – meaning whoever receives Christ’s life in Baptism and perseveres in God’s love will never experience eternal death. This is why we say at every funeral Liturgy – “When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

5. The Gospel of John is a call to faith, faith in God, faith in Jeus his divine Son made flesh, faith in the Holy Spirit at work in the Church. Two weeks ago, we met the woman at the well in Samaria, and we joined with her town-folks who said to the woman – “We no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that Jesus is truly Savior of the world”. Last week, we met the man born blind whom Jesus cured and to whom Jesus revealed himself. We joined the blind man in his response – “I do believe, Lord” – and he worshiped him. Today we hear what the Lord Jesus said to Martha. He then asked her – “Do you believe me and what I have said? Do you believe me?” Hopefully, we say with Martha – “Yes, Lord, I do believe”.

4th SUNDAY OF LENT (A)

1. In the seventh chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds his fractious Israelites – “You are a people sacred to the Lord, your God; God has chosen you from all the nations to be a people peculiarly his own. It is not because you are the largest of all nations that God has set his heart on you. It was because the Lord loved you that he ransomed you from Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” God said something like this to each one of us on the occasion of holy Baptism: Through Baptism and all that follows therefrom, God has chosen us to be faithful to his Gospel, to be his evangelists, certainly not for personal privilege, certainly not for merits of our own, but because in his love he invites us – he empowers us – to be light for the nations.

2. This passage from Deuteronomy bears witness to what we call “the biblical doctrine of divine election”. If not carefully understood, this doctrine can create difficulties in the minds of some of our contemporaries. Does God have a particular love for some people or a universal love for all peoples? In choosing ancient Israel, was God rejecting the ancient Egyptians? By no means! The Church teaches us that God has a true, sincere, saving will for all peoples. Divine election is not a choosing for the personal advantage of the one chosen but a choosing for particular responsibility. In our first reading today, the prophet Samuel tells us – “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart”. At times, in a seemingly scandalizing manner, God chooses the least likely for the most important missions. God chose David for the salvation of ancient Israel. God chose ancient Israel for the salvation of the ancient Egyptians. How odd of God to choose David; how odd of God to choose the Jews; how odd of God to choose you and me – certainly for no reason but for discipleship-responsibility. Divine election really works because God himself is the main “persona” in the drama – at work through David, at work through ancient Israel, at work in us in the Spirit-directed ministry of the Church. All the while, of course, we humans can very easily fail and thus derail the Holy Spirit.

3. Last week – in preparation for Easter – we reflected on the woman at the well in Samaria as our Savior moved her from sin to grace. Today, we have listened to the wonderful story of the man born blind as the grace of Christ moved him from darkness to the light of faith – according to the Lord’s great promise – “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine will ever walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”.

4. The story of the man born blind, just like the season of Lent, focuses on the question of conversion. The grace of the Holy Spirit draws the blind man to think of Jesus, first as a prophet, then as one sent by God, but finally as his Lord and Savior. Christ’s mission was not to open the eyes of all the blind in his days. He opens in our Gospel reading the blind man’s eyes to show his power and his love, and to show his will to open in us all that inner eye which is the grace of faith. Our second reading speaks to that inner eye of faith as St. Paul tells us – “We were once darkness, but now we are light in the Lord”. Light produces every kind of goodness, righteousness and truth. We are to live as children of the light. Paul then quotes from an early Christian hymn – an Easter message for each one of us, as it was an Easter message for the man born blind – “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ will give you light.”

P.S.: On the 4th Sunday of Lent, the Church prays especially for all those who will receive the Sacraments of Initiation at this year’s great Easter Vigil. Wherever the RCIA is operative, the 4th Sunday of Lent is the scheduled time for the second of three scrutinies to take place. What is meant by the scrutinies? We must not think of them as examinations to discern the doctrinal or moral readiness of the candidates to be baptized. The scrutinies have a two-fold purpose – they represent the Church’s prayer of intercession for those who are asking for Baptism. They also represent parish communities’ support to encourage the candidates who are soon to become fully initiated members of the parish. What do the scrutinies seek to encourage? They have several objectives: to aid the candidate to engage in a lifelong struggle to put aside the deeds of darkness and to put on the armor of light; to instruct the candidate about sin and darkness from which we have all been delivered by Christ who is our light; to fill the minds and hearts of the catechumens with knowledge and understanding about Christ the Redeemer. And so we pray:
Lord God, source of unfailing light, by the death and resurrection of Christ you have cast out the darkness of hatred and lies and poured forth the light of truth and love upon the human family. Hear our prayers for these elect, whom you have called to be your adopted children. Enable them, as you enabled the man born blind, to pass from darkness to light and, delivered from the prince of darkness, to live always as children of the light. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

3rd SUNDAY OF LENT (A)

1. Our Gospel reading this morning – you have already come to this conclusion – is longer than our average Sunday Gospel. This will be true next Sunday and the following Sunday as well. The Sunday Gospels for the third, fourth and fifth weeks of Lent – in the “A” cycle of readings – focus on the grace of Christian initiation. These Gospels, therefore, have special value to candidates who are moving through the last phases of that process which we call the RCIA – The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. These Gospels also speak volumes to all of us who are moving through another Lenten observance with the hope of celebrating the Easter mysteries with minds and hearts renewed. These Gospels make us intimate participants in three New Testament incidents. In today’s Gospel we are caught up in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, focusing on her passage and our own passage from sin to grace. Next Sunday we will meet that wonderful character in John’s Gospel described as the man who was born blind, and we will contemplate his own passage and our own passage from darkness to light. Finally, on the week before Holy Week, we will find ourselves with Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, as we contemplate his passage and our own passage from death to life. This morning we should note carefully what our Preface Prayer says about the Samaritan woman. When Jesus asked the woman from Samaria for water to drink, Christ had already prepared for her the gift of faith. In his thirst to receive her faith, he awakened in her heart the fire of God’s love.

2. Jesus lived in a part of the world where water was and still is a scarce commodity. Not only was clean water scarce; much of the water available was too dangerous to drink. It is hard for us to imagine in our culture a scarcity of water. Even though our water bills have quadrupled, our habits have not changed. We keep the tap running while we brush our teeth, we take marathon showers, we run washing machines when only half full. However, we are the exceptions. The majority of the world’s present population share in Jesus’ experience and that of the Samaritan woman who had to come daily to the public pump. Several years ago, our Holy Father entitled his Lenten message – “Water is Sacred: Protect It”. He wrote: “We are deeply worried to see that entire peoples have been reduced to destitution and are suffering hunger and disease because they lack drinking water. Hunger and many diseases are closely linked to drought and water pollution. Immense areas of Africa are experiencing the scourge as well as many other areas across the globe.”

3. Water, of course, figures as a prominent symbol in the Scriptures. The psalmist, describing the just person as one who follows not the counsel of the wicked but delights in the law of the Lord, has this to say: “The just person is like a tree planted near running water”. And in the familiar 23rd Psalm, the poet writes: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In green pastures he gives me repose. Beside restful waters he leads me. He refreshes my soul.” In our intriguing Gospel narrative this morning, Jesus distinguishes between the water of everyday life, which the woman could understand, and the living water that can become a fountain providing eternal life for the person who drinks it. Jesus leads the Samaritan woman from her understanding of the water of everyday life to the discovery of the living water that is God’s grace – the grace of the Holy Spirit – that provides eternal life. Thus John the Evangelist’s dramatic account of the incident of the Samaritan woman powerfully described for us the work of the Holy Spirit drawing the woman to Jesus, leading her to faith, turning her from sin, opening her ears to the Gospel, turning her into an evangelist, an apostle, someone who could tell others about the Jesus who had conversed with her at the well. It is the Holy Spirit who brings her town folks to faith, first because of her word, but basically and ultimately because of God’s word.

4. As we watch the Samaritan woman wrestling with the grace of faith, we can be strengthened in our faith-struggles as well. I’m referring here not so much to the Creed that we articulate each Sunday at the Eucharist; I’m referring to something deeper and more foundational, the faith that gives rise to the Creed, that is, our faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our faith-obedience to the demands of the Gospel, that faith which we call “the faith of the Church”. Take a good look at the first reading today. It locates God’s Old Testament people in the desert. They were grumbling against Moses and against God; their temptation was to opt for water and slavery back in Egypt rather than for thirst and freedom in the desert. The place of their grumbling was called Massah, that is, the place of the quarrel, and Meribah, the place where the people tested God by asking – Is the Lord our God in our midst or is he not? This is the faith-question, the God-question from the Old Testament. The New Testament asks the same question, but with its focus on Jesus. Is the Lord Jesus the very Son of God in the flesh, is God at work in Christ in our midst or is he not? This became the faith question of the Samaritan woman. What about ourselves? No one of us has ever seen God. No one of us has seen the Lord Jesus in his historical presence. Our question becomes the Holy Spirit question, or as we can also express it, the Church-question: Is the Holy Spirit at work in the Church – making the risen Christ present and active in our midst or is he not? This is the way and only way the God-question can be expressed for the Catholic Christian in the world of today. The Liturgy today is a wonderful opportunity to profess with the Church and with those Samaritans newly converted to the Church – the Body of Christ – “This is truly the Savior of the world”, and God the Father tells us – “Listen to him”.