Thursday, February 28, 2008

"I was blind and now I see." This is not only a line from the famous hymn, "Amazing Grace"; these words are spoken by the blind man in the passage from John's gospel that we will hear this Sunday. Blindness in the gospels is always a metaphor for coming to faith. The man in John's gospel is healed and becomes able to physically see, but much more important is the fact that he comes to believe in Jesus. Interestingly enough, this man does not come to Jesus and ask to be healed; Jesus takes the initiative in response to the disciples' question about whether the man or his parents had sinned. The man does respond to Jesus by doing what he is told - going to wash in the Pool of Siloam, but as a result, he does not see Jesus face to face. By the time he is healed and able to see, he is no longer in Jesus' presence. Consequently when he is questioned by the authorities about who Jesus is, he cannot tell them. He does maintain his belief that Jesus must be a man of God. Furthermore, when Jesus approaches him at the end of the story to ask him if he believes in the Son of Man, he does not seem to realize that Jesus is the one who healed him until he is told. When he asks who the Son of Man is that he might believe in him, Jesus responds, "You have seen him." In other words, the blind man recognized Jesus, who he was and that the source of his power was God, without ever having physically seen him. He has "seen" him without being able to see him. His response to Jesus' statement is to believe and to worship. The Pharisees are the foil to the blind man. They have no problem with their physical sight, but are unable to see Jesus, unable to recognize who he is and that the source of his power is God. It is precisely in their claim to have clear sight that Jesus faults them for being sinful.

Interestingly enough, I watched the movie Amazing Grace this past weekend, the true story about William Wilberforce, the man who fought tirelessly to end the slave trade in England, to get the people of his time to overcome their blindness to the evil that was being done in their midst and to see the truth. He was greatly influenced by his minister, John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned minister who wrote the hymn, "Amazing Grace," about his conversion experience. At the end of his movie, the minister has gone physically blind, but is finally willing to share his own story of being involved with the slave trade in order to open the eyes of others, to heal their spiritual and moral blindness.

Where are our own spiritual and moral blindspots? Individually and collectively? How are we participating in the healing ministry of Jesus, healing our own and others' blindness? Here at the parish on Tuesday night, we watched Dead Man Walking, and while no one is physically blind in the movie, Sr. Helen Prejean's eyes are certainly opened through her encounter with a man on death row. She in turn has done much to open other people's eyes on the issue of the death penalty in our country. Both movies also brought home the realization that individuals can change the world. We have each been created with great potential, and God's grace, each of us can see the world in a new way and help others to do so as well!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Last Sunday we read about the transfiguration. The transfiguration is one of the most important stories in the gospels because it tells us who Jesus is and who we are called to be in Christ. In the transfiguration, Jesus' face shines like the sun and his clothes are as white as light. The language describing Jesus echoes the language describing Moses on Sinai in Exodus 33-34 indicating the manifestation of the divine, the appearance of God to Israel. Similar language is used of the tent of the tabernacle in Exod. 40, where the cloud covers the tent and the glory of the Lord enters the tabernacle, the dwelling place of God. For Christians, Jesus is the dwelling place of God, the temple of God, the very presence of God. Jesus manifests the glory of God.

Mark puts the transfiguration right at the center of his gospel, and connects it to two other moments, the baptism of the Lord and the crucifixion. Mark's gospel opens with the baptism of the Lord, in which God says to Jesus, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased." In the transfiguration we hear God say to the disciples, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." Finally, on the cross Jesus breathes his last, the veil of the sanctuary is torn in two, and the centurion (the Roman soldier) says, "Truly this man was the Son of God." The same one who is crucified is the transfigured one. God's glory is manifest not just in the transfigured Christ, but in the crucified Christ.

The transfiguration, however, is not just about Christ. It is also about us. The veil in the sanctuary of the temple is what separated the Jewish people from the tabernacle of God, the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and he only did so once a year. At Jesus' death, the veil is torn in two; that which separated God and humanity is rendered asunder. No more is there a barrier between us - we are united in the person of Christ crucified and risen. In and through our union to Christ, we too are transfigured. We become tabernacles, dwelling places, of the presence of God. We are to manifest the glory of God in the world. The same Spirit that transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ transforms/transfigures US into the body of Christ. We are divinized. Christ became human so that we might become divine. We do not become God, but we become more and more God-like, more and more the image and likeness of God we were created to be.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Today is Valentine's Day, and appropriately I have been reading reflections on love from Thomas Merton's book, No Man is an Island, which I got as a gift from a friend this past Christmas. I have often thought it unfortunate that our concept of love on Valentine's Day tends to be a bit self-centered. Too often it is either about a couple in love focusing on their own relationship (not that that is in any way a bad thing) or a single person mourning the lack of a romantic relationship in his/her life. I would love to see a Valentine's Day when everyone focuses on loving as God loves - a day when we love those who are poor and most vulnerable in society, those who are downtrodden or the outcasts in our community, and yes, even our enemies. Of course, I guess that is supposed to be our focus every day!! Even the celebration of the love between a couple in a relationship should always be the celebration of a love that ultimately manifests itself in loving others. The concrete expression of this is when a couple has children, but it should not in anyway be limited to having children, but should extend out into the wider community. Love should ultimately make more of us, make us go outside of ourselves. A love that only turns us inward is a love that is lacking in maturity.

Thomas Merton reflects that
a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy. . . . True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared. There is no end to the sharing of love, and therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit.

My challenge to those who are in relationships this Valentine's Day would be to reflect on how your love enables you to go out toward others. How do you share your love with others? My challenge to those of us who are single is to reflect on what it truly means to love and be loved, and then let the love God has for us pour through us and touch all of the people we encounter in our lives.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lent is one of my favorite seasons of the Church year. I know that may sound strange, as Lent is often seen as a time of penance, but I have a different vision of Lent. For me, Lent is a time of conversion. In Greek the word for conversion is metanoia, literally a turning around. It is a time when we consciously focus on turning our hearts back to God. We try to spend a little more time with God in prayer. We make an extra effort to give to the poor and those in need, whether that need be physical, emotional or spiritual. We also fast, keeping ourselves in solidarity with those who do not have a ready supply of food as so many of us do.

Traditionally people ‘give something up’ in Lent. Such a practice can be a good way to be more mindful of all of the blessings we often take for granted on a day to day basis. I often add something to my life in Lent instead of or in addition to giving something up. Usually I add a way in which I will spend more time with God. It may be 10 minutes set aside to pray each day or it may be going to mass on a weekday each week. Whatever it is, adding something or giving something up, there is a certain discipline involved in our spiritual practices at Lent. We all maintain a measure of discipline around those things that are important in our lives. Most, if not all, of us are disciplined about getting up in the morning and going to work, because we know we would be fired if we didn’t have that discipline. Often we have a certain discipline to achieve a certain goal – we diet to lose weight, we practice to become a better pianist or basketball player, we study to get a certain degree. The word ‘discipline’ has such negative connotations because we think of it as punishment, something that happens to a child who misbehaves. That idea of discipline is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about the kind of discipline that we enjoy. It is a discipline that focuses our lives in the direction we want to go. It is the discipline that ‘turns us around’.

As good as such discipline is, it is not the goal of Lent. It is the means, not the end. The goal of Lent is to enter into a deeper relationship with God, the God who is the source of our salvation and who alone can fulfill all of our deepest longings and desires. The reading that we hear on Ash Wednesday is one of my favorites. In the reading, the prophet Joel tells the people what God desires. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart (Joel 2:12).” God tells us to “rend our hearts, not our garments (Joel 2:13).” It is not so much our outward actions that are important as our inward dispositions.

Lent can be a special time of retreat that prepares one to enter into the joy of the resurrection at Easter. In this time of conflict in our world, when it is so easy to turn to despair, we are called to remember that we are an Easter people. As such, we believe that the victory over sin and death has already been won. As we watch new members come into our community at the Easter Vigil, each of us can renew our own membership in the Body of Christ. We take these weeks of Lent to prepare for that moment, so that we can once again affirm who we are and what we believe. We take these weeks of preparation to place our hopes and our dreams for the future of the world in the hands of the God who loved us into life.