Wednesday, March 29, 2017

God doesn't perform on cue

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year A

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were close friends of Jesus.  We can imagine the pain, frustration, disappointment and even the anger the two sisters must have felt at the Lord’s delay in coming to their aid. They must be secretly blaming him for the death of their brother. What comes up out of their guts, is a raw expression of pain: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Martha at least, attempts to soften this by following it up with a statement of general respect and maybe some kind of veiled hope: “Even now, whatever you ask of God, He will grant you.” She still believes that He can remedy the situation; not perfectly, but at least to mitigate their pain.  But Mary is blunt. She remains sitting in the house and refuses to come out to greet the Lord. One can only speculate that she is sulking in her grief. Could this be on her mind? “Why didn’t you come? You say that you love us.  How could you let this happen?”

Why indeed? Jesus had advance notice. He knew what was going on.  He alone had the power to prevent something like that from happening, as He had previously done for others.  Hadn’t He healed Peter’s mother- in-law when she was very sick with fever? Didn’t He raise the little girl who was sick to the point of death with a simple touch and a word? Jesus is in the business of performing amazing miracles but why didn’t He perform it here? Why did He delay? Why wasn’t He here?

A painful truth that we need to realise today is this: God doesn’t always prevent bad things from happening. We already know this just by reading the news.  But sometimes it comes home to us in a way that is far too close for comfort.  We lose people we love.  We experience grief and loss.  And like Mary and Martha, we grapple with the mystery: why didn’t God preserve our loved ones from death? Where is God in this scenario?   

I think we all feel moved, and even angry, when we encounter situations like this, and Jesus is no different from us in that regard. The text says that He was in “great distress” and uttered a “sigh that came straight from the heart.” The Greek word translated as “distress” is closer to the meaning angry. It literally means His nostrils flared; He snorted; He was angry.  The text doesn’t tell us why, exactly, but we can imagine. Maybe Jesus was angry on behalf of all those who have ever died too young, angry for the same reason that all of us are angry when something like that happens. What kind of a world do we live in, that young people die and young families are homeless? He was angry at death and sin which is the ultimate cause of death!

Martha tries to engage the Lord in a theological conversation about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, but He will have none of it. He just says that He IS the resurrection and the life, right here, right now.  So Jesus goes to the tomb, makes them open the door, and He bellows.  He demands that Lazarus comes out.  The dead man hears Him and obeys.   

In John’s gospel, it is this act that finally tips the authorities over the edge and that which leads directly to Jesus’ own arrest and death. The story of the raising of Lazarus told on the threshold of Holy Week sets the stage of this event. This is the last straw, the last miracle of Jesus in John’s gospel, before His arrest and crucifixion. The Lord knew this would happen.  He knew that if He broke this unbreakable barrier between death and life, between hopelessness and hope, it would push the authorities over the edge and make them do anything they could to stop Him.  Which is exactly what happens.

What I want you to realise is that by raising Lazarus from the dead, the Lord is saying this: I AM with you.  I am willing to join you in your sufferings.  When Mary and Martha say “Lord, if you had been here ….,” The Lord’s response is to say, I AM WITH YOU.  When He is arrested, He is joining with all who have ever suffered, and saying, I AM WITH YOU.  When He breathes His last and cries out and dies, what He is saying, to all those who have ever questioned His love and said “Lord if you had been here,” is, I AM WITH YOU.  Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, joins us not by preventing death, but by dying with us and for us.  He then begins the remaking of all creation by rising from the dead. 

The real miracle of the story is NOT the resuscitation of Lazarus, however impressive and important that is. Martha and Mary wanted a miracle, and they got their miracle. Their request was granted, their prayer answered. But St John tells us it is merely a sign, and signs point beyond themselves to something else, something more important and real. This is St John’s theme throughout the gospel. The Lord feeds 5,000, which is the sign; but the point is that He is the true bread, and if we feed on Him we will never be hungry again. Then, He offers life-giving water to the Samaritan woman, but He is the true font of eternal life. The Lord then gives sight to a blind man which we heard last week; but He is the light of the world. Finally He resuscitates Lazarus, the last and the best sign; but the greater truth is that Jesus is not just a miracle worker, He is the resurrection and the life!

Miracles are nice; but they don’t solve our deepest problems. Yes, on balance I would rather have a nice life than a miserable one; I would rather live a normal life than a tumultuous one; I would rather be healthy than sick. But in the end none of us will have as much control as we would like. We will suffer losses; our children will experience pain and disappointment; our lives will not go as planned. Life will not turn out as we had imagined, expected, and hoped for. As much as we want Him to, God will not perform on cue.

Jesus Christ offers something more and definitely better. Not a nice life but a new one. He promises us not a long life but far better than that, an eternal life. He is the real miracle of the story.  He is the final and ultimate answer to prayer. He is the resurrection and the life. Not resuscitation but resurrection. Not reversal but renewal. Jesus defeated sin, death and hell. If we believe in Him—John’s point throughout the story—then we will have life; real, permanent, abundant, substantial, eternal life. If we die, we will still experience that life. But even now we can experience that life because it is bigger than both the life that we know and the death that we dread. “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in Me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Then the Lord adds, “Do you believe this?”  Do you believe this? It is my hope and prayer that everyone of you would get it right.  “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” AMEN!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Do we really see?

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading where you heard the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well?   Very similarly, this week’s gospel passage is rich in symbolic imagery that points to the liturgy of baptism which the Elect will receive on the night of  the Easter Vigil: Light and Darkness, Sight and Blindness, Enlightenment, Baptism.

According to St Augustine, the blind man represents the human race wounded by original sin. Just like the blind man who could not be held responsible for his physical blindness, none of us can be personally faulted for the condition that has infected the whole human race.  However, the story of original sin, is the flip side of the story of saving grace.  By virtue of the sin of Adam, by virtue of the blindness which we suffer from original sin, God sent His only begotten Son to be our redeemer. Because of Adam’s sin, we are born “blind” but in the baptismal font we are illumined by the grace of Christ.  This, is what we see in this story - Jesus performs a ritual much like the way we are baptised: He first anoints the man’s eyes and then tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Anointing, washing, enlightenment–all these are “code words” for Baptism.  So after undergoing this ritual, the blind man’s eyes are restored. But, he only sees partially.

Having his physical sight restored, our protagonist is able to see Jesus, and yet, ‘he does not yet SEE our Lord’. Although he is able to see, he still has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, and face to face. He has a journey to make in order to do that. The same may be said of us. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning!  It renders us able to see; though we are still new born babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is so much we haven’t yet seen.  This is where the second half of the story makes sense.

The man must grow in his faith to come to know who Jesus Really Is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” It is merely hear-say and impersonal.  This surely describes a lot of modern Christians today. They know about Jesus but in truth, they do not know Him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalised but unevangelised,” and they remain ‘unconverted.' This is what some would call “pagans in the pews.”  That is, they have received the sacraments, but have never really met Jesus Christ and do not know Him any more than in an intellectual way. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus, and even know some basic facts, but He still remains a distant figure in their lives.  When asked questions about Jesus, they would respond just like this man, “I don’t know.” That’s why they become easy targets for Protestant proselytism.

The text proceeds to show us the progress this formerly referred ‘blind man’ makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Being witnesses of the Light can be hard work. Just as the gospel story unfolds, the ‘enlightened’ followers of Christ must be prepared to face incredulity, persecution, and hardship for the sake of that faith. It is one thing to have Jesus light up our lives but it is quite another thing to live that life in the same light day to day, especially in the midst of a world consumed by the darkness of sin and unbelief. 

Persecution, need not always be understood as being arrested and thrown in jail or even executed. Persecution of course, can come in many forms such as puzzlement and even rejection by relatives and friends, ridicule of our faith, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith.  But, in whatever form, persecution has a way of making us face the questions, and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.  Have you ever noticed how many Catholics eventually come to better know their faith after they have been challenged by non-Catholics. As he is challenged by his neighbours to say something about Jesus, the man moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and progresses to describe Jesus as a “prophet.”

Having been denounced by his own parents, the formerly referred ‘blind man' is subjected to further and more intensive interrogation. This is not entirely a bad thing as we note that the continuing persecution seemed to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness in the second interrogation he faces, which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath. The result of this has further deepen his vision of Jesus. For, at first, he saw Him only as “the man called Jesus,” then he sees Him as a prophet, now he goes further and sees Him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given to him in baptism is now resulting in an even clearer vision. This then, leads us to the climax of this man’s journey.

The final straw for him was when he was being thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world, and the loss of many things. Instead of being broken and disillusioned, the man had remained resiliently steadfast. Now, cast aside, and hated by the world, the Lord approaches him. Now it is the Lord's turn to interrogate him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Sir,” the man replied, ‘tell me who He is so that I may believe in Him.’ The Lord replies, “You are looking at Him, He is speaking to you.” And finally, we have a confession of faith from a man whose physical, as well as spiritual eyes, have been fully restored, “Lord, I believe.’ And he stooped to worship the Lord. This final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him, Jesus is not only a prophet, He is not only from God, he IS God. Christ has fully enlightened this man.

This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus. It is a journey not only for the elect as they prepare for baptism but it is a journey that all of us must take for the rest of our lives. Some of you know Jesus in an impersonal way. Some think that he’s just a good man, a prophet equal to the likes of the Buddha, Muhammad or Confucius. The challenge would be to finally arrive at this personal confession of faith, “You are the Christ of God! You are my Lord and my God.”  One day we will see Him face to face. But even before that time we are called to grow in faith by stages so that we can see Jesus for who He is. Remember the beautiful promise of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor 13:12). For now, we must make this journey.

May we ever cling to the Light that banishes the darkness which is all around us. When the world, which constantly seeks to undermine, manipulate and distort the Truth, twists the meaning of the words of the man whose sight was restored and asks us, “Do you want to become his disciple, too?”… let us shout, unafraid and in loving faithfulness, “We do and we are, because once we could not see, but now we see clearly!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mercy and Truth meets at the well

Third Sunday of Lent Year A

Hardly anyone would dispute that in today’s gospel passage, you would find one of the most beautiful dialogues from all of the four Gospels, and perhaps in all of Sacred Scripture. Christ our Lord, wearied from His travels, sits by a well in Samaria, and asks a woman who happens to be there to give Him a drink of water. The woman is taken aback, that a man should break taboo and speak to her, let alone a Jewish man (the Jews and Samaritans were not on good terms). So as expected, she reacts with cold defensiveness. The mutual aversion and hostility of both races to each other may be lost on many of us moderns. However, a Jewish Mishnah may provide a pretty accurate idea of how they felt about each other, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” Sounds familiar? Thereafter, their exchange seems to descend into a friendly battle of wit. Nevertheless, Christ is not put off by her initial unfriendliness. He gently persists and gradually brings their conversation to a point where she is ready for Truth, and He reveals Himself to her as the Messiah.

In the movie version, this particular scene of the Gospel of John, provided me with a fresh way of looking at the Samaritan woman. The actress who portrayed the Samaritan woman was certainly headstrong and certainly not shy. She was anything but pretty. Truth be told and pardon my uncharitable assessment, she reminded me of a haggard old whore who had seen better days. The association with five husbands and living in sin did not help. But what really struck me about the movie's artistic interpretation of the woman was that she was a little more “sassy” than what I had expected, in both her mannerism and wit. It was as if she was actually flirting with the Lord. The divine irony at play was this – it was the Lord, the Divine Bridegroom, who was actually wooing her over to salvation. It thus makes sense then that St Augustine speaks of her as “a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous.”

The conversation between the two fascinates me. It helped me understand how the Lord mercifully courts sinners even when the latter chooses to play hard ball. It pointed me to an amazing characteristic of the Lord in the face of the cynicism and sarcasm of a sceptic, and how authentic mercy can win over another hardened sinner. Aggressive polemics seldom win converts. There is a discernible process in which the Lord leads this woman out of her life of despondency and sin into that of grace.
First. He meets her where she is. He didn’t keep a safe distance by avoiding her like the plague for fear that any association with this woman would sully His reputation.
Second.  He gently but firmly helps her to recognise her weaknesses, her spiritual lack and her sinful lifestyle. In order to offer her mercy, He had to bring her to repentance; and to do that, He had to reveal to her the truth of her sins.  He did so, and he did so very clearly, and also gently.
Third.  He leads her to recognise Him. For indeed, the Lord Himself, is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can go to the Father except through Him. She didn’t need a counsellor, or a companion, or a confidante. She needed a Messiah, a Saviour.
Finally, He invites her to participate in that very mission of saving souls and commissions her to bear testimony of Him to others, thus putting her on par with the other apostles.

The story shows that Jesus offers divine mercy in the living water of grace, which washes away sins and cleanses souls. The woman went to the well to get a jug of water. Instead, she got so much more; she actually got a cleansed and refreshed spiritual life.

This story brings out two important underlying themes, Mercy and Truth. The popular notion is that Mercy and Truth are at odds with each other. Mercy dispenses with the need for Truth, and too much Truth is always unmerciful. What they fail to realise is that the Church holds both together in harmony. Today’s reading is a good reminder that there be no false divide between mercy and truth. In fact, they are one. Mercy is the best path to Truth and Mercy without Truth is not Mercy.

Obviously we should make one point clear: mercy is not about hiding or burying one’s face in the sand, or turning the other way so that you may appear not to have seen a situation that requires action. On the contrary, mercy can only be mercy when it rests on the bosom of truth, the truth about man – sinful man but also the truth about Jesus, Our Saviour and Our Lord, the Lamb of God who alone can take away the sins of the world. The encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers us a good example. Here, we see both mercy and truth working hand in glove to bring about the conversion of the Samaritan woman. The Lord dealt with her mercifully by not avoiding her and treating her like a human person worthy of respect. But He also challenged her with the Truth of her sinful life and that of true worship. Mercy demands that the truth be told. This story teaches us that people are not afraid about the truths of their lives, even the most embarrassing truths, as long as they come to recognise that that very Truth is not meant to be used as a weapon to further injure or humiliate them, but rather it is the very means by which they will be set free.

And to the Elect who are gathered here for the First Rite of Scrutiny and Exorcism, remember this story of the Samaritan woman because it is also your story. The thirst for truth –like the Samaritan woman, this is the first condition required of us in order to meet the Living God in life. Following the thirst for truth, you have journeyed in the RCIA these past few months. You have come to encounter the Truth not just merely in the dead text of doctrine or Sacred Scripture but in a person. Yes, for us Christians, Truth is not just a mathematical equation or a scientific discovery nor is it a philosophical hypothesis. Truth is the Lord Himself. It is He who tells us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But it is not enough that you thirst for the Truth and come to know Him. Here is the final condition, without which the sprout of the quickening spirit will wither. You need to live in truth every minute; you need to experience your life constantly in the presence of the Living God. Here He is, with me. He sees my actions, He anticipates the feelings of my heart, He sees the movement of my mind.

Saturate yourselves, our friends, with the water of life. Approach Christ, to its Source, and approach in “spirit and truth.” And sources of living water will flow through you to those who have not yet found the living Source and are suffering from thirst in the desert of life.