Fourth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21
In the reading from 2nd Chronicles we see how the people, low and high, were living in infidelity to God. But the problem was not that they were making mistakes; they were defending their mistakes. They scorned the prophets who were sent to warn them. They had it backward. They were like a man going through an art gallery of classic masterpieces. He tells an attendant, “Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.” The attendant answered quietly: “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”
That is what Jesus is telling us today. Whether or not a person is condemned depends on the person’s decision to look at the cross and believe or to look away from the cross. That decision determines the outcome of the trial.
“And this is the verdict,” John writes, “that the light came into the world, but the people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” Evil works reveal what the heart is set upon. “Preferring” was the mistake they defended.
The judgment, then, is in one’s reaction to the cross, to how it affects him. Jesus notes that, when Moses lifted up the serpent, those who looked at it were saved. They looked at it and were saved because they were suffering and convinced they needed saving. “So, must the Son of Man be lifted up” so that those who know they are suffering may look at Him, believe in Him, know they need to be saved, and allow it. This is known as the gift of tears, the keenly felt sense of emptiness. The story one has been living out has left him empty. So, he wonders, “What is the story?”
The story from below is that we preferred darkness to light. The story from above is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” We need to get the two stories together and Pope Francis tells us how: “Only those who have been caressed by the tenderness of mercy truly know the Lord. The privileged place of encounter is the caress of mercy of Jesus Christ toward my sin. The privileged place of encounter with Jesus Christ is one’s sin. It is from this embrace of mercy that the desire to respond and change comes from and allows a new life to spring up.” That’s what happened to yesterday’s tax collector. That’s what happened to me.
The letter of Paul to the Ephesians reminds us that, “it is by grace that you have been saved through faith… It is a gift from God.” “A gift” means it is done to you. It changes one’s interior life; ones heart. One lives from a new intention. Because it makes such a difference in one’s life it becomes the great fact of one’s life; All else lines up behind it.
The embrace of Divine Mercy is way out of proportion to anything one did or could’ve done to deserve it. One realizes the experience of Divine Love is what one was seeking all along.
The emptiness once experienced made room to receive the gift. The gift of tears cleansed a place for the gift of faith. These are two gifts that seem to always come together. The gift of tears comes when we realize the emptiness and it comes again in gratitude when we realize the gift of faith and its impact on our life. One has not merely become a nice person; one has become a New Creation.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41
Soon after the man born blind received the gift of sight he looked at Jesus with love and worshiped him. We also want to look at Jesus and exchange with him the glance that lovers share. But how can we do that? Yes, we know how to see and serve Jesus in others: “Whatever you did for one of these least of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). But we still hunger for his own personal look of love for us.
Yes, we know the risen Lord is in heaven and that his loving gaze is always upon us. We hope to see him there. But like the blind man we want to see Jesus here and now. Yes, we know our greatest grace every day is to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and linger in his presence afterwards. But lovers want not only to touch but to look at each other.
So, Jesus gives us a real way to exchange the look that lovers share. We can really be with Jesus in the mysteries of his earthly life. We can be among the shepherds crowding into the dimly lit cave at Bethlehem, or with the adventurous apostles sailing with Jesus on the bumpy Sea of Galilee, or with the people on the green grass of the hillside who hungered more for his words than for food. We can stand with his mother in agony on the hard rock of Golgotha, or lie prostrate with the ecstatic Mary Magdalene in the garden clinging tightly to the pierced feet of the risen Christ. We are not too late to enter the presence of the historical Jesus during all the mysteries of his earthly life, to see and be seen by him, because all the events of Jesus’ life are both human and divine, in time and beyond time. That is what makes them mysteries.
How can we be there in the past? Can we enter into the actual presence of the earthly, historical Jesus and exchange a glance of love? Can we be present in the mysteries of his earthly life two thousand years after his birth? Yes, we can!
Pope Pius XI taught this in his encyclical on reparation to the Sacred Heart, (Miserentissimus Redemptor, Our Most Merciful Redeemer.) He writes, “How can [our reparation] bring solace now, when Christ is already reigning in the beatitude of heaven?” And he answers, “Anyone who has great love of God, looking back through time may dwell on Christ, and see Him laboring, sorrowing, suffering … well-nigh worn out with sadness, and with anguish … bruised for our sins. And the minds of the pious meditate on all these things the more truly, because the sins and crimes committed in every age … caused the passion of Our Lord. … Now if, because of our sins which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then also, he derived some solace from our reparation which was likewise foreseen. [We] in some manner fulfill the office of the Angel consoling Jesus in the garden,” (## 13-19).
Yes, Christ sweat blood during his agony in Gethsemane by seeing every sin ever committed, because in his divine nature he is present to all of time, to all our thoughts, words, and actions. I make Jesus suffer then by my sins now. But I may also be an angel of consolation to Jesus then by my acts of reparation and love now. This is true for every moment of Christ’s life. Jesus, in the divinity of his mysteries, always sees me. If I sin now, I offend him then. If I bow down now in worship, I reverence him then. Jesus lying in the manger or hanging on the cross sees me doing it because he is the Son of God present to all of time. Christ, during the mysteries of his earthly life is always looking at you and me with love. So, when we pray and cast our gaze upon Jesus looking at us with love back then, the eyes of our hearts behold Jesus and we exchange with him the lover’s glance. The prayer of the psalmist applies to Jesus looking at me even during his earthly life: “O Lord, you search me and you know me … You mark when I walk or lie down. All my ways lie open to you” (Ps. 139).
In every mystery of Jesus’ life, he is looking at us, waiting for us to become aware of his gaze, to return his look of love. We are more fortunate than the shepherds at Bethlehem who came to the cave by night to worship the new born Savior, and then went back to their fields. We may enter the presence of Jesus in Bethlehem’s cave over and over again. We are more fortunate than the man born blind who was present one day in the life of Jesus, because we may look at Jesus with love throughout all the events of his life. Oh, how blessed we are!
When I pray the rosary by pacing back and forth before the Blessed Sacrament, (because pacing helps me stay awake, and gives my body something to do!), I’ll make a profound bow at the name of Jesus in the Hail Mary and gaze on him in one of his mysteries, like his resurrection from the dead. No one saw Jesus rise from the dead. But I am there outside the tomb, waiting and watching. When he comes forth I look at him with love bending low in adoration. The risen Lord actually sees me and returns my glance of love. Then prayers of intercession spring to my lips like this one: Please, Oh risen Lord, wipe away the tears of all who are suffering from the coronavirus. Help us to show your love to others by the way we care for them.“
How blessed we are! We can share with Jesus the glance that lovers share. “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is all lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14 and 3:4).
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21
“By grace you have been saved.” Saint Paul says this twice in today’s short second reading. Is Paul being presumptuous and should we be offended? Do I need to be saved or even want to be? And you want to ask, Saved by whom, Saved from what, and even, Saved for what? “By grace,” but what is grace? Or is Grace a Who, a Person? “By grace you have been saved.”
We get the Cascade Pioneer, the local newspaper. The Pioneer has terrific coverage of local high school sports so that local athletes, Bobcats and Cougars, get all kinds of affirmation and exposure in the hometown press. There are a lot of photographs, like last week there was a photograph of two local high school bowling teams. In each photograph the teams were striking confident but not arrogant poses, all bowlers wearing the same black bowlers’ pants and shirt and of course shoes. There was a main difference between the two photos. In one, the bowlers were all wearing a medal around their necks, and in the other they were not. The team with the medals had just won the State Championship, These guys were victors, winners, and had every right to look glowingly happy and confident, but not arrogant, as befits a guy from eastern Iowa. The team in the other picture had come in at fifth place. They were not winners, but the Pioneer affirmed them all the same. Bowlers in that photo had no medals. They were not victors. When I see photos like this, the winners and the losers, I have to confess I always put myself in the losers’ picture. I imagine what it much feel like to be a winner, but I identify with the losers. Even worse are the photographs of the wrestlers. Excuse me if there are any defeated wrestlers here, but nothing looks more like defeat than those guys pushed face down into the mat like a beetle pinned to a board by some taut-muscled opponent, the winner, on top of him. The Pioneer will have a two-page spread of these matches where who the winner is and who the loser cannot be more plain, and I know that I would be the guy with his face to the mat and after one match and one photograph of me like that for everyone to see I’d never suit up again.
Sports is one thing, where a good coach will impart the right way to think about and accept defeat so that you don’t generalize and identify with defeat and being a loser for the rest of your life. But in fact a lot of us deep down feel like losers a lot of the time, and when it gets dangerous and you know that that feeling of uselessness is out of control is when you start interpreting any casual remark or oversight on the part of others as a mortal threat to your entire person; when you start writing notes, “Well, you’ve just confirmed that I’m a Nobody, Useless, non-existent, and not worthy of any respect, even common courtesy.” Suicide is the next step for some. Feelings of being a loser can turn to ugly scenes.
But you wonder if the opposite if any better. Is the opposite any less false? That would be the inflated ego that says I am a winner and I will take the winner’s place in every circumstance. I am the winner, and so everyone else must be in some way a loser and disposable, someone to whom I can be patronizing, condescending, dismissive, whom I can bully and, in the extreme, eliminate. Modern politicians come to mind.
Like a beetle pinned to a board, or a serpent impaled on a pole. In the monks’ liturgy during Lent we frequently sing the antiphon, “The Lord reigns upon his Cross.” The image there is an oxymoron. It is the loser as the winner, the winner as the loser. Jesus lowering himself even to death, a slave’s death on the Cross; therefore God highly exalted him. As Jesus himself said, “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.” There is then a properly Christian and thoroughly healthy way to hold yourself a loser, unworthy, and expendable. The Christian way of humility, of a life lived in praise of God and service of others, is the imitation of Christ who learned obedience through what he suffered and who is the pioneer and perfector of our faith.
There is defeat in all three of our readings on this Laetare Sunday. In the first reading Jerusalem is destroyed and the people forced to emigrate; in the second, Paul says “we were dead in our transgressions”; in the third, the only Son of God is “given,” which means the Cross, which means that God himself is conquered and overcome by his very love for the world. But there is victory, too: Cyrus, charged to rebuild Jerusalem, tells the captive people, “Go up”; the world is saved, that is, made a victor, by faith in the Son who had been given; and, again, in our second reading, “By grace you have been saved.” Christian victory, though, as Paul makes clear, is not a result of personal achievement, much less an occasion for boasting. The saved Christian is as self-effacing as an eastern Iowa star: “this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” Even more, “we are his handiwork.” I am struck that Jesus, the defeated one on the Cross, becomes the winner when he says, “Father, forgive them.” He is too humble even to think his own forgiveness would mean anything or even be accepted much less change anything: he entrusts even his forgiveness to the One alone whose forgiveness matters.
What are we saved from by Grace? From the damaging evil in our hearts, the errors of our thinking, our inclination to morbid self-hatred, or over-the-top and self-serving pride. We are saved from all that disrupts relationships with others, with God, and with our world. We are saved from dangerous, and dolorous, estrangement from the only One who Forgives. Grace saves us from foolishness, which is sin, and elevates us to sonship with God, which is divinization. We are saved for, as Saint Paul put it in the second reading, “the good works that God has prepared in advance.” We are saved by grace. In the end, and in the beginning, Jesus in his Incarnation is the origin of all grace. Jesus is not only Savior, but he is Salvation. He is not just one model among others of upright living and being nice. He does not just show us the say to the Father; he is the way, the door, the life that is the victory out of defeat. He is the origin of all grace so that salvation consists in incorporating ourselves in repentance with other losers into his Victorious Resurrected life of which he is always saying, “Take, this is for you.”
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41
Those of you who have known the monks of New Melleray for many years, have noticed recently we are getting older and fewer in number. You are probably also aware we have been making efforts to invite and encourage new vocations to our monastery and with some success. The presence in our community of Bros. Nicholas, Juan Diego, and Charles is a quiet miracle for which we rejoice and give thanks on this Latere Sunday.
But we haven’t had a novice enter for more than two years, and one hears posed in the community a question something like the question asked by Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel: “Who sinned?” The disciples want to know, whose sin is responsible for the tragedy of a man born blind. Some monks are likewise wondering: “Who messed up? To whose failure might we attribute this dearth of vocations?” It has been suggested by some monks that we ourselves are to blame. Monks, after all, live a hidden life. Maybe our life is too hidden. Young men can’t choose a life they don’t know exists. Maybe monks need to come out of hiding, start passing out brochures, put up websites, and introduce ourselves to the world. But, I wonder if Jesus’ answer to his
disciple’s question in today’s gospel, might be his answer to us monks as well, as if Jesus were saying: “The scarcity of vocations is not the consequence of anybody’s sin, but has happened so that the works of God might be shown forth.” That’s something interesting to consider. Might the lack of vocations we see be a prelude to God’s unveiling some great new work? If so, then, living a hidden life, we monks are doing nothing wrong.
Maybe “hidden life” is best understood as something like a: “blind curve”. The curve – is not blind. It’s the driver coming around the curve who is blind. Driving on a curved road, you lose the long view; you can’t see very far ahead, but only what is immediately in front of you. Likewise, monks are not hiding from people. People just can’t see us. That’s because most people are speeding through life on a curved road that limits their vision to what is immediately in front of them. Monks are eschatological persons. We live at the end of history. Unless God has given you the grace to see the long view; to glimpse something of the eternal destiny God has in store for those who love Him, you cannot understand monks. In fact, you can’t see us. Most people in this world will choose to marry, and it is a wonderful thing to marry, but we know that this choice puts you on a curved path through life by which you tend to lose the long view; the eternal perspective on things, and are absorbed in more immediate concerns: pleasing your wife, caring for children, a career, professional relationships, and various civic duties. A monk is one whom God has separated and gifted with the long view of life in eternity; a man whom God has set on a path to Himself that is straighter, more direct, and less mediated than that of a married man. This is a gift of God, given to some and not to others. Why are not more men given this gift? The answer is – we don’t know. Marriage insures that most of the people around us are making their way through life on a curved path, occupied with what they see in front of them. But mobile devices, news feeds, and Facebook have made this an even sharper curve, keeping most people today fixated on what is happening right now, right here, as they speed through life with almost no distance vision.
Monks need to be realistic about the fact that many of our contemporaries simply cannot see us. The life of a monk is too far up the road, concealed around that blind curve they’re driving on. We can’t show a man the long view, if God hasn’t shown it to him. But maybe this is precisely cause for us to rejoice on this “Latere Sunday”. We can’t make men see. Our efforts to promote vocations has made this clearer than ever. But maybe our failure in this respect is only preparing us for a great work God himself is about to accomplish for us. Maybe we are just being set up to be more surprised, more delighted and more grateful on that day when, out of nowhere a man turns up in the guesthouse whose heart is seized by the long view of his eternal destiny, and asks to speak to the Vocation Director. This is a miracle. It is a miracle something like the one related in today’s gospel that leaves even the most religious people astounded and disconcerted. “How did he make you see?”,they want to know, and in response, the blind man says what any one of us here whom God has called to monastic life could say: “I don’t know how he did it. I only know, he touched my eyes – and now I can see.”
Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Josh 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32]
Traditionally, this Sunday is know as “Laetare Sunday,” deriving this name from the first word of the Latin Introit : “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.” This sounds a little like one of those imperatives that we often say: “Have a good day.” “Be good.” “Enjoy.” In spite of sounding like a command, I think they are probably just shortened versions of “I hope you have a good day.” Or: “I hope you will enjoy this.”
We are taught very early about enjoyment. In fact, as the verse of the Introit says, we learn it at our mother's breast. Our needs are immediately satisfied, with loving words and a smile. And we smile back. Life is not so bad. Just cry, and there is someone there to attend to you. But as we know, this unfailing satisfaction of our wants begins to suffer some frustration. Our parents introduce us to the world of the reality principle. Eden is disturbed, attention is withdrawn, gratification is delayed. We begin to adjust to this unreliable world by developing our own inner resources. We set out on our own.
But we never are entirely weaned from that first sense of primordial harmony and satisfaction. We carry it with us as an inner secret. We liked being the center of the universe, the king or queen whose will was law in our personal empire. We still feel entitled to it, victims of a palace coup. “Father, give me what is coming to me, my share of the inheritance. And I want it now.” There is a lurking sense of disappointment and an effort to smother it by possessions, entertainment, instant gratification. There is no thought of self-restraint, which would expose a sensed loss of self-esteem. It is a path of serving compulsions which can never be satisfied. The younger son plunges into a morass of self-contempt by hiring himself out and becoming less than the detestable pigs he must now serve. He ends up with “no place” and only a memory of his father's house.
The elder son carries his own inner secret by thinking that he can earn and merit the satisfaction he has lost. “I am what I can do.” His capacity to work and to earn is what gives him his worth and sense of superiority to his brother, the servants, and even to his father. His recognition is due to his effort, his obedience, his fidelity. He has invested himself in external achievements and cannot afford to look at his inner sense of inferiority, his denial of personal worth which he cannot find in himself or others. His resentment fuels his blame of others (his brother, his father). He is unable to enter a house which is given to celebrating life and reconciliation without calculating the cost. Indeed, he would have to die, first.
The over-arching drama of this parable is that everything the sons would want was already there. It was not there for the taking or the earning, but it was there for the asking. But asking puts one in a personal relationship. It is the disclosure to another of our need and desire. It uncovers the “secret” that we find hard to accept: we cannot live on our own. We fear the dependency, so lose the relationship. We fear the vulnerability, and so lose healing. We fear the disappointment, and so lose hope. We fear that to ask will diminish us, to ask for forgiveness will expose us to ridicule or contempt. We fear being seen as “unworthy” when it only means we admit to being incomplete. Merton has written that all sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. “Ultimately, the only way I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence” (New Seeds of Contemplation).
We are still strangers to the new creation which proclaims that all we would want is already there. But the laws of this new creation call us to be representatives, ambassadors, of the reconciliation being offered as a gift. We are not entitled to put conditions on this gift, to seek “punitive damages” from others before we make this “gift” available. The gift of forgiveness, like the gift of love, simply expands and grows in giving. This is the law of the new creation in which we are asked to share, to participate, to help it expand and rule as a new center of life. That comforting, assuring presence is already there in the Father's love, compassion and care. Those who know the gift of forgiveness in their own lives can be the presence of this love and compassion for others who still are not alive to the secret in their own hearts. Forgiveness is the gift to transgress all boundaries of propriety and welcome others into the circle of life which the presence of God has reintroduced in his gift of reconciliation. “For our sake, he made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).
Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Josh 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32]
Most of us here are probably not well informed about the sleeping patterns experienced by our fellow Americans, and may not be aware at all of a rather curious phenomenon manifesting itself in our country over the last six or seven years. Every night, long after the sun has gone down, for four solid hours, from ten o’clock in the evening, until two in the morning, millions of Americans all across the country lay on their beds awake, for one reason or another, unable to fall asleep. A large segment, thousands and thousands of those people, are listening to the radio. Alone, in the dark, their eyes wide open, they lie with their heads nestled in a pillow next to the radio, and listen to a man with a resonant, pleasantly reassuring voice named George Noory who talks to them on a rather bizarre array of subjects ranging from UFO sightings, to paranormal phenomena, out of body experiences, and, one of his very favorite topics, the control and manipulation of the global economy and politics by a handful of individuals whose names he claims to know but will not say on the air.
A recent article in Atlantic Monthly magazine says that this peculiar nocturnal dimension of the life of Americans began to manifest itself in the 1950’s, at which time, Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, tried to alert Americans about what was happening. He said, basically: you know, when the foundations of a Christian understanding of the world erode, people don’t just accept not having a Savior, they end up wandering through the streets at night looking for a new one. People want to go home. We all really just want to go home to our Father who loves us. But we are complex creatures, with complex desires. Something in us dreads the thought that the night should end, and so, we keep ourselves up later and later; press on into the darkness, many of us tired, discouraged, and lonely, and yet, somehow, not wanting the night to end.
Listening to the parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed in this morning’s gospel, our heart aches at the point in the story where the wayward child is caught in an agony of indecision, wondering whether he might be better off returning home and being reunited with his father, or whether there might still be hope of somehow finding happiness in his banishment, and we may not advert to the fact that for some people, that terrible moment of indecision between going home to their father and persevering in unhappiness, that terrible moment, gets prolonged, and keeps them awake all night, and that this little hell of ambivalence and indecision might be repeated the following night, and for many, many nights, stretching over the span of years, maybe even over the course of an adult’s life.
We are making a passage through the holy season of Lent, a time when the passion of Jesus Christ is especially real for us. We practice renunciation during these days in order to unite ourselves to Jesus’ suffering and death, believing that by so doing, we unite ourselves to his resurrection from the dead and bind ourselves to him in love for all eternity in the Father’s presence. The word for this mysterious sharing in Jesus’ death is “com-passion,” “com-passion” which literally means to “suffer with” another. Maybe, one way for us who are here this morning to suffer with Jesus, to enter into “com-passion” in and with the Lord, is by cultivating in ourselves, compassion for our neighbor. Perhaps, during this Lenten season, we might prepare a special place in our hearts for those many American brothers and sisters of ours who lie awake at night, and for whom the momentary anguish of the Prodigal Son has become a nightly ritual, almost a way of life.
A prayer you might offer on their behalf is the one we monks pray together as a community every other Thursday morning at Vigils. At about 4:00 in the morning, in a darkened church, with the votive candle over the Blessed Sacrament glimmering in the sanctuary, the monks listen as our abbot Dom Brendan raises up to God these words: “Lord, as we keep watch with you this night, we commend all people and their lives to you. We remember in particular, those who are working tonight, those who in their suffering cannot sleep; those who use the night to do evil; those who are afraid of the day about to dawn. May they all come out into the light of your day. We ask you this through Jesus Christ, the Lord.“
Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Jos 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32]
One very cold night in January over twenty years ago, at about one thirty in the morning I was asleep on the sofa in my sister’s New york city apartment when the doorbell rang. I was spending the night at Julie’s place because earlier that day we had received a phone call from my parents informing us that Cindy our younger sister suffering from leukemia had relapsed and probably didn’t have long to live. Julie and I immediately made plans to fly to the hospital in Houston early the next morning, and neither of us could sleep very well because of nervous tension which was by no means lessened when we heard the doorbell ring at one thirty in the morning. I stumbled off the sofa, across the cold wooden floor; made my way to the front door and reaching it, I did what any New Yorker does when the door bell rings at one thirty in the morning: I put my eye to that little peek hole in the door and took a good long look through it before touching one of the three iron bolts securing the front door. Thru the peekhole I saw a little owl shaped man in a dark overcoat with great big eyes and thick glasses; his face bulging like a big balloon because he was standing very close to the peek hole hoping I would recognize him. I recognized him.
He was Mr. Elias Golonka a Baptist chaplain who worked at the United Nations and a friend of my family. Elias had contacted me a few days earlier when he learned that I myself had been diagnosed with cancer. With relief and at the same time a sense of profound forboding I undid the bolts and opened the door. Stepping forward and taking my hand, I heard Elias say to me with a voice full of tenderness I will never forget: “Bob, Cindy is with the Lord.”
The reason Elias Golonka was bringing me this news himself at one thirty in morning was that earlier that day when mom had called to inform us that Cindy had relapsed, I had also had to tell her that a doctor had diagnosed me with cancer and, following that awful conversation, possibly flustered, I had failed to hang up the phone properly. That evening Cindy died. My parents made plans immediately to return to Atlanta with Cindy’s body. My mother, knowing Julie and I were planning to fly to Houston the next morning was frantically trying to call us on the phone but the receiver was ajar and she kept getting a busy signal. Finally at her wits end, she called Elias Golonka at about midnight. Elias lived in New Jersey, a good hour drive from Julie’s apartment in Queens, but had graciously offered to carry to us the news of our sister Cindy’s death.
In the days that followed, Elias Golonka took me on a tour of the United Nations, treated me to lunch at a nice restaurant, and invited me to his home in New Jersey along with along with many other demonstrations of his unaffected and genuinely selfless Christian love.
After a few weeks, I decided to leave New York City to convalesce with my family in Atlanta. I wasn’t home long when I was astonished to learn that Elias Golonka had died. I was more amazed to discover that Elias had died of an untreatable heart condition which he had known about for more than a yearsince before I had made his acquaintance. I marveled when I reflected that during the entire period I had known Elias he had been dying and he knew it. So wrapped up was I in concern for my own condition that it never occurred to me Elias himself might be suffering a graver illness than I was, but he was . . . Elias had been dying; dying that night my mother’s phone call woke him up after midnight; dying as he gently consoled and reassured her; dying as he dragged himself out of that nice warm bed and climbed into a car on that bitterly cold night in N.Y.C.; dying, as he drove an hour through the darkness to my sister’s apartment; dying as he stood on tip-toe with his face in front of the peekhole, wondering if I was going to open the door. What was most disconcerting for me was that, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember ever having said thank-you to Elias before he died. So absorbed had I been during our whole relationship with the experience of my own sufferingI wasn’t sure I could even remember feeling grateful.
Elias Golonka will always be for me an image of God whose kind concern for my family and I at a time of crisis revealed for me the amazing way in which God loves. Like the father in this morning’s gospel parable, of the Prodigal Son, God loves the ungrateful; the self absorbed; the oblivious. Those who are most unlovable God loves as if they were lovable, and he loves them without being loved in return. Elias also brought me to understand what I believe is the central teaching of this morning’s gospel: that we are all called as Christians to eventually love the way our Father in heaven loves; without being loved in return. We are to love while being overlooked and taken for granted. We are to love people, who like children, will take and take and take from us without concern whether this relationship is meeting our own needs. All of us if we are to grow into a mature love are called to, in a sense, “father” the unlovable, around us: to love and give away our very substance without counting the cost.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21 ]
An overworked businessman, Nicholas Cominsky, stared at the formal invitation he had just received. He thought the guys at work were pulling one of their practical jokes when he read, “You are invited to dinner with Jesus of Nazareth, Milano’s Restaurant – March 24 – Eight o’clock.” He decided to play along and showed up at the proper time. The maître d’ led him to a table where an olive complexioned man with bushy eyebrows and deep set eyes stood up and firmly grasped his hand. “Nick,” he said, “I’m Jesus.” Nick replied, “Excuse me, but am I supposed to know you?” Jesus answered, “Yes.” Nick countered, “But I’ve never met you before.” “That’s true,” Jesus replied. Nick bolted for the men’s room where he expected to see the guys from work hiding behind a lattice laughing at their latest joke. He couldn’t find them. “Enough of this,” he thought, “I’m leaving.” He told the stranger that he needed to get home to his wife and daughter. But Jesus replied, “Your wife, Mattie, has gone to a movie with her friend Jill, and she got Rebecca to baby-sit your daughter, Sara.” This guy knew a lot more than he should. Jesus suggested, “Why don’t you suspend your disbelief for a while and proceed as if I’m Jesus?” So Nick did. The rest of this short story entitled, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, by David Gregory, is a delightful conversation between a modern skeptical Nicodemus and a contemporary Jesus.
Nick starts out by being curious, “Tell me about Mary and Joseph.” Jesus jumps right in, “Joseph was a good father. His shop was next to the house. When he knew I was coming he always tried to finish his work before I could get my hands on it. At eight years old I wasn’t exactly a master carpenter.” Nick reflects, “The guys have hired a professional actor,” and then he asks, “[Was] it rough growing up with such a revered mom?” Jesus chuckles, “She was hardly revered. More like an outcast for having a child before the wedding… But faith kept her going — and her sense of humor. She never let me live down my remark that I had to be about my Father’s business. Someone would come looking for me and she would say, ‘I don’t know where he is; about his Father’s business, [I suppose].'” And so they spent the night talking about family relationships, world religions, and the afterlife. But most of all, Jesus told him about the heart of his Father who made the most difficult Lover’s choice: to give his only Son to save the world. Nick was moved from curiosity to admiration, and he was more influenced by this dinner conversation than he wanted to admit, whether it was really Jesus or not. When the waiter appeared at the end of the meal with the black leather bill holder and placed it on the table, Nick took hold of it. But Jesus stretched out his arm and put his hand over Nick’s, saying, “This is my gift.” The cuff on Jesus’ shirt sleeve pulled back and Nick saw a large puncture scar on Jesus’ wrist. Seeing that wound, Nick was drawn to love. He asked, “Will we get together for dinner again?” Jesus replied, “That’s up to you. Take this card it will tell you how to reach me.”
We might call Dinner With a Perfect Stranger, an historical novel based on the true story of a nighttime meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee. He also met Jesus alone at night, the outer darkness symbolizing his interior darkness and confusion. Just as others loved the cover of night because their deeds were evil, so Nicodemus came by night to cover his meeting with Jesus, as if it also was an evil deed. He began with curiosity about the signs Jesus performed. He ended the evening with admiration of Jesus’ teaching: about being born again, and about the heart of God making the most difficult Lover’s choice, to let his beloved Son be lifted up on a cross, like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, to save his people.
Perhaps it was daybreak when an enlightened Nicodemus left Jesus. The next time we see him, Nicodemus is at a meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees. He is no longer hiding in darkness. He openly urges the council not to judge Jesus without first giving him a hearing (Jn 7:51). The night visitor is now a daylight defender.
The last time we see Nicodemus is after the crucifixion. He comes with other disciples to bury Jesus. When Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up on the cross, all bloody and wounded, he experienced the power of Jesus’ love: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32). As St. Augustine said, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.” You are this tremendous Lover’s choice. The smallest sacrifice by Jesus would have been enough to save you. But only by crucifixion could Jesus show how bad sin really is, and how much he was willing to suffer because of his love for you.
When Nick, the businessman, returned home he read the note Jesus had written: Revelation, chapter 3, verse 20. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
A dinner with Jesus at Milano’s restaurant—what an invitation that would be! Fortunately, that is not the way Jesus chose to be with us. At a dinner per day for 100 years, six and a half billion people would still be waiting their turn to dine with Jesus. It would be too little for too few. Instead, he gave us the Eucharist so that we can sup with him every week, even every day, not as a perfect stranger, but as a friend, a lover. Together we are this Lover’s choice. Come, we’re invited to sup with Jesus who has been lifted up to the kingdom of heaven to draw us to himself. It is by grace that we are saved.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41]
The man born blind received two extraordinary blessings. First, the joy of being able to see. The second blessing was even greater. Jesus looked at him with love and offered him the gift of faith. Now he saw Jesus with his eyes and with his heart. He returned Jesus’ gaze with love and said, “Lord, I do believe,” and he worshiped him. We also want to gaze at Jesus in whom we believe, to look on him with love and worship. How can we exchange with Jesus the glance that lovers share? Oh, we know how to see and serve him in others: “Whatever you did for one of these least of mine, you did for me,”. But we still hunger for his personal love. With the man cured of blindness who lost sight of Jesus in the crowd we search for him: “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” . We know the risen Lord is in heaven and that his loving gaze is always upon us. We hope to see him there. But like the blind man whose eyes and heart were opened, we want to behold Jesus here and now. Our desire is most wonderfully fulfilled when we see and receive Jesus in the Eucharist. It is our greatest grace every day to embrace Jesus in the communion of his body and blood, with the joy of lingering in his presence afterwards. But Jesus gives us yet another way to exchange the look that lovers share. We can see and worship Jesus in the mysteries of his earthly life. We can be among the shepherds crowding into the dimly lit cave at Bethlehem, or with the adventurous apostles sailing next to Jesus on the bumpy Sea of Galilee, or with the people on the green grass of the hillside who were more hungry for his words than for food. We can stand with his mother in agony on the hard rock of Golgotha, or lie prostrate with the ecstatic Mary Magdalene in the garden clinging tightly to the pierced feet of the risen Christ. We are not too late to enter the presence of Jesus in all the mysteries of his earthly life, to look on him and to be seen by him, because all the events of Jesus’ life are both human and divine, in time and beyond time. That is what makes them mysteries.
How can we be there in the past? Can we actually enter the presence of the earthly, historical Jesus and exchange a glance of love? Can we share in the mysteries of his life two thousand years after his birth? Yes, by the way we pray. May I recall with you this way of prayer that often brings tears of joy to my eyes?
Pope Pius XI taught and encouraged this way of prayer in his encyclical on reparation to the Sacred Heart, (Miserentissimus Redemptor, Our Most Merciful Redeemer.) He asks, “How can [our reparation] bring solace now, when Christ is already reigning in the beatitude of heaven?” And he answers, “Any one who has great love of God, if he will look back through the tract of past time may dwell in meditation on Christ, and see Him laboring, sorrowing, suffering … well-nigh worn out with sadness, and with anguish, … bruised for our sins. And the minds of the pious meditate on all these things the more truly, because the sins and crimes committed in every age … caused the passion of our Lord. … Now if, because of our sins which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then also, he derived some solace from our reparation which was likewise foreseen. [We] in some manner fulfill the office of the Angel consoling Jesus in the garden,”.
Yes, Christ sweat blood during his agony in Gethsemane by seeing every sin ever committed, because in his divine nature he is present to all of time, to all our thoughts, words, and actions. I make Jesus suffer then by my sins now. But I may also be an angel of consolation to Jesus by my acts of repentance, reparation and love. This is true for every moment of Christ’s life. Jesus, in the divinity of his mysteries, always sees me. If I sin now, I offend him then. If I bow down now in worship, I reverence him then. Jesus lying in the manger or hanging on the cross sees me because he is the Son of God present to all of time. Christ, during the mysteries of his earthly life, is looking at you and me with love. So, when we pray and cast our gaze upon Jesus looking at us with love back then, the eyes of our hearts behold Jesus and exchange with him the lover’s glance. The prayer of the psalmist applies to Jesus even during his earthly life: “O Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down. All my ways lie open to you … Too wonderful this knowledge, too high, beyond my reach,”.
In all the mysteries of Jesus’ life, he is looking at us, waiting for us to become aware of his gaze, to return his look of love. We are more fortunate than the shepherds at Bethlehem who came to the cave by night to worship the new born Savior, and then went back to their fields. We may enter the presence of Jesus in Bethlehem’s cave over and over again. We are more fortunate than the man born blind who was present for part of one day in the life of Jesus, because we may look at Jesus with love throughout all the events of his life, every day of our lives. Oh, how blessed we are!
When I pray the rosary by pacing back and forth before the Blessed Sacrament, (because pacing helps me stay awake, and gives my body something to do!), I may make a profound bow at the name of Jesus in the Hail Mary as I gaze on him in one of his mysteries, like his resurrection from the dead. No one saw Jesus rise from the dead. But I am there by the tomb, waiting and watching. When he comes forth I look at him with awe and love. Out of adoration I bend low. Then I raise my head and open my arms wide, hungering for his embrace, gazing on the risen Lord who always returns my gaze with love. When he smiles on me my heart melts with joy and tears of happiness fill my eyes. Frequently, prayers of intercession spring to my lips, like this one: “O risen Lord, you know what it is to die tragically. Behold all the people who die in disasters from nature and from war. Please, Lord, embrace them and wipe away their tears. And help us to show your love to others by the way we care for them, by our generosity.” How blessed we are! We can see Jesus, we can behold him in prayer and share with him the glance that lovers share. We can say, “When I found him whom my heart loves I held him and would not let him go,”. That is our joy.