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The Fourth Sunday of Lent – A

1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

 

Dear Reader,

Years have not dulled the impact of that encounter.  The mother had come to see me to beg me to visit her son.  I was embarrassed by the depth and anxiety of her supplication.  There was no need for her to implore, I said, I would be happy to visit her son. 

Are you sure, she asked?  My son is dying from AIDS.  I was baptized Catholic ten years ago.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I love the Lord.  But I weep when I think about my son and those like him who are judged as evil and deemed destined for eternal damnation.  I remember the first time I held him moments after his birth.  He nuzzled me to nurse and as he suckled his little hand reached up as if to caress my breast, the source of the nourishment that would sustain him.  Oh, how I loved him.

I watched him grow, she said.  I remember his first steps and his first words.  He is an only child and so there are no others’ beginnings to compare with his, no others to rival for my affection.  His father left me, abandoned us when my son was barely a year.  He was my joy and consolation.  He excelled in every facet of school.  He was a fine athlete and a linguist.  He painted and acted in plays.  He was popular.  And he carried his secret.  I didn’t know.  It was years after he was away from home that he told me, when he introduced me to the one he said he loved.

I’m watching you, she said, to see how you will react.  If I see revulsion I will thank you for your time and be on my way.  I am not looking for pity.  I am looking for a representative of my church to go to my son and tell him that God loves him and that Jesus’ dying has saved him.  He doesn’t need any more rejection.  There has been plenty of that in his life.  Do you think that God hates my son?  Do you think that God will send my son to hell because of who he is?

I had not had the opportunity to say anything.  All I could do was listen and feel the pain in the woman who sat across the desk from me.  In those days, I had a picture of my parents on my desk taken at a reception given in my honor.  As this mother talked my eyes drifted to my own.  I knew how she would have suffered if my brother or sister or I would ever have experienced the condemnation and rejection this woman’s son had endured.  I could almost feel my mother nudging me and whispering, you know what you have to do.

Where is your son, I asked?

Not far from here, she said.  Will you go to him?

Of course, I said.

But do you know what you will find?  They live in a little house that is kept neat as a pin.  It is small but airy with windows that look out on a sweeping seascape.  They are fortunate in that regard.  My son can still sit in his chair and gaze out at the sound and watch the gulls and eagles soar.  But there is not much left of my son and there are odors.  There are signs that death is approaching.  He is fragile and can do very little for himself.  I thank God for the devotion of his partner.  I don’t know where he would be without him.

I think we should go, I said.

*  *  *  *

The house sat on a knoll overlooking the sound, just as the mother had said.  It was autumn and a chilly wind tugged golden leaves from the maple trees and deposited them, sending them swirling across the lawn.  The late afternoon sun created angled shadows and haloed the house against the sky.  We walked up the path and I felt my stomach tighten even as I prayed that no one would know that.  Before one of us could ring the doorbell, the door opened and a young man in his early thirties ushered us in.  He embraced the mother and, after her introduction, he shook my hand.

He whispered that the son had just awakened and seemed to be doing much better than he had the day before.  He has been agitated, he said.  He keeps pulling on a button on the front of his shirt as he looks out the window.  He hasn’t eaten today.

He led us down a short hall to a doorway that opened onto a rather spacious room, given the size of the house.  A small gas fire burned in the hearth in one corner of the room and next to it sat the son.  He didn’t turn to us at first.  His mother said, Hello dear, and moved to kiss him.  Then she introduced me.  I shook his emaciated hand.  He was gaunt with deep-set eyes that still sparkled giving evidence of alertness and wit.  He was nearly bald.  We talked.

From this vantage point I marvel at the journey we took in that room on that October afternoon.  When I first sat opposite him, he studied me.  I remembered what his mother had said to me early in our conversation.  If I see revulsion I’ll thank you and be on my way.  There was no revulsion.  Sicknesses, sores, even bleeding wounds do not make me squeamish.  The smell of cancer might make me queasy for a moment but I am soon able to block out the smell and be present to the person at hand.  I don’t know why this is so other than once in my childhood when my brother gashed his knee and I panicked about the sight of blood, my father told me to get over it.  This is not about you.  You must care for your brother.  And so it has been ever since.  It’s not about me.

In the first few moments, we talked about nothing – the weather, how fast time goes, who would win the football game on Saturday.  Abruptly he said, I’m dying, you know.  His mother protested and so did his partner.  I looked at him and was silent.  What do you think about that, he said?  I told him I was sorry that he was dying at such a young age with what should be so much life yet to be lived.  But death isn’t the end.

He asked me what I thought the other side would be like.  I told him I had no idea, only that it would be beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.  I quoted the scripture that says, Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it hasn’t entered the human heart what God has prepared for those who love God. 

Will I be aware, he asked?  Will I know and be known?

Eternity isn’t like anything we have experienced, I said.  We only know time.  But one thing is for sure, it will take all of eternity to know the God who loved you into creation and sustains you in existence.

His gazed shifted back to the view outside the window.  How long was the pause?  The only sound was from a ticking walk clock that chimed the quarter hour.  As a listener I have learned that every pause does not have to be filled with another’s words.  I am not afraid of silence.  I waited.

There was a sudden intake of air and a shudder, or rather, something like the shiver that comes with a thrilling insight or when the beauty of a symphonic phrase is almost unbearable.  He looked back to me and said, do you think so?  Do you really believe that?  Is that what death will be like?

Oh, yes, I said.  And Jesus will be there.  You will recognize him among those others more familiar to you who will gather around your bed to encourage you.  You might not recognize him at first because he probably won’t look like any of the romantic pictures of Jesus that you have seen.  But from the crowd one will speak up and begin to thank you for all the good that you did for him when he was hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison or hospital.  You will notice that all those standing about your bed will be nodding.  And when you ask, when did I do these things for you?  The answer will be whenever you did it for one of these you did it for me.  Then the Lord will reach out and take you by the hand and say, arise and come.  Inherit the kingdom.

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  He didn’t stop them from falling onto his shirtfront.  His chin didn’t tremble.  His hands didn’t fidget.  They lay quite relaxed in his lap.  Then he sat up and leaned toward the window.  Look, he said.  I followed his gaze.  Two eagles with wings outstretched soared on the early evening currents, rising and falling like the waves far beneath them.  I have a friend, he said.  He told me that when the eagles gather it is the angels come to take you home.

Can I be baptized, he asked?  There was no transition, no preamble.  Can I be baptized now?  My mother would like it.  I’ve thought about it and so would I.

Silly the responses we make when taken by surprise.  I started talking about a preparation course and the proper time of the year when an adult baptism should happen.  Usually, I said, adults are baptized in the course of the Easter Vigil.  I talked about the night and the fire and the Candle lit from that fire.  I spoke of the church shrouded in darkness and the people assembled and how they would break into song proclaiming Christ to be our Light as the Candle is carried in procession to the font.  And on that night the story of God’s love from the beginning is proclaimed in passages from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In the Candle’s glow, the Candle that is the sign of the Lord’s resurrection, the baptisms take place in the font. 

I found myself jabbering on, unleashed by the opportunity to talk about a favorite topic.  The litany of the Saints invoked to pray with us, the Saints who are our ancestors in the faith.  The oil.  The white robes worn by the newly baptized.  I wasn’t really mindless of him.  I thought the information was important for him.  But still, he was fragile and his medications might make him drowsy and unable to follow.  Instead he was riveted as I talked about the font as tomb and womb, that in the early church those being baptized stripped naked, leaving the old self behind as they entered the font to die and rise.  He thrilled when I said that the person dies in the waters to be born anew in Christ.  I said that when he would be baptized all of creation would respond.  The earth would quake, the waters would part, the heavens would open and God would call him by name and say that he was God’s beloved son.

Oh, he said.  That was all.  Oh.  And he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes long enough for me to think that he might want to sleep.  I looked at his mother and partner meaning to apologize for having gone on so long and exhausting him.  Their eyes were fixed on him.  Each seemed to barely breathe.  And the clock chimed.

He didn’t open his eyes.  Can we do it now, he said.  I don’t think I’ll see Easter next year from here.

I thought about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  They met and took a chariot ride together and talked about Jesus.  One ride.  One day.  And when Phillip was about to leave, the Ethiopian said, Look, there is some water right there.  What is to keep me from being baptized?

I told his partner to fill the tub with warm water.  In what seemed like a moment, he returned and said the tub was ready.  I went into the bathroom to check the scene for myself.  I worried how awkward this might be if the tub were too small or too high or too deep.  None proved to be a concern.

I went back into the bedroom and he stood naked, framed in the window by the light from the setting sun.  His robe and pajamas lay in a heap nearby.  His body was gaunt and covered with sores and dark splotches.  Are you ready, I asked?  I reached my hand out to him.  He took it, tripped and faltered and seemed about to sink to the floor.  I moved toward him and caught him in my arms and lifted him.  His arm went around my shoulder and I marveled how light was the burden.

We made our way the few yards to the tub.  His mother and his partner knelt on the tile floor.  Tears streaked their cheeks.  His mother’s hands were clasped in a tight grip beneath her chin.  Her eyes were closed as her lips moved in what I was certain was a prayer.  Don’t kneel, he said with a sternness in his voice I had not heard before.  Stand and witness this.

I held him over the font and asked him, Do you believe?  Do you want to be baptized?  And to each question his answer was, Oh, yes.  Yes, I do.

His mother and his partner supported my arms as I knelt to plunge him into the water.  As he began to enter it, he looked up and with his right arm he seemed to point to the heavens.

Lazarus, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

*  *  *  *

We watched as the casket was lowered into the gaping grave.  His mother and his partner stood and watched.  Strange how silent the moment was.  I looked up a wondered if the eagles would gather.  I thought there should be a prayer to cover the moment.  Only silence.  Eternal rest…we prayed.  And may perpetual light shine on Lazarus forever.

We walked back to the waiting cars.  His mother held the crucifix that had adorned her son’s casket. She stooped to enter the car but then stood and faced me.  You will never know, she said.  She kissed me on the right cheek and touched the spot with her hand.  You will never know.

 

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The Third Sunday of Lent – A

Exodus 17:3-7

Romans 5:1-2, 5-8

John 4:5-42

 Dear Reader,

The fact is people live busy lives.  Frenzied lives in many cases would not be an exaggeration.  So much to do and so little time in which to do it might be a mantra that runs through people’s minds unawares.  Conscious of the clock perpetually ticking, not a few will say that there is this much time for such and such and not one second more or they’ll be late for the next appointment.  That goes for the amount of time they have for God, too.  It is not unusual for someone to make an announcement prior to the start of Liturgy, reminding everyone to turn of cell phones and pagers, or at the very least to put them on vibrate.  It’s too bad the announcer couldn’t include wristwatches.  That is especially true for this Sunday and the remaining Sundays of Lent.  If you’re in a hurry you’re going to be frustrated.  The readings, especially the gospels, are long.  To accommodate this time consciousness, some parishes will use abbreviated gospels.  My prayer is that will not be the case where you worship.  The readings, the gospels are rich.  We need to sit under them, or stand in the case of the gospel, and let the living word wash over us.  We need to be vulnerable, put aside the barriers, and let that word enter and transform our hearts.  In every case God speaks words of love to us.   We have to listen in order to be convinced.

The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent are the Scrutiny Sundays.  In every parish where there is an active Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, on these Sundays those in the final weeks of preparation for Baptism now called The Elect come before the Assembly.  They kneel and feel the imposition of hands by the presider, their sponsors, and indeed the whole Assembly, as the Spirit is invoked to keep The Elect, thirsting for the Waters.  May they experience the new Light of Faith to help them see everything in that new light. May the Elect not be afraid of the death they will die in Baptism so that they will rise in the new life that is theirs in the Risen Christ. To celebrate these rites well takes time.  I urge you to enter into these moments with your consciousness of time suspended.  In the process ,you just might be transformed, too.

The other day the radio was playing providing white noise rather than being something to which I was attentively listening.  In a moment I sat bolt upright and thought that I couldn’t be hearing what I just heard.  The words of the song more than the melody amazed me.  These were the words that stunned, then thrilled me: Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying!  In the lyrics of the song, that is what someone had lovingly said to the singer.  The person singing has faith and is convinced that death is the transition from this world to heaven.  But more than that the one who loved the singer challenged him to savor every moment and every encounter, every walk along the shore and every mountain climbed, each kiss, and appreciate the wonder of now as if it might be the last time for the encounter, the walk, the climb, the kiss.  Maybe you had to be there.  But for me it was an aha moment.

 If I took that singer’s insight seriously, I would enter the Exodus reading and be with the Israelites before that rock and look on as Moses strikes the rock and the water flows from it.  Of course, if I were thirsty as desert experiences often make people, imagine what I would feel.  It isn’t just the water that thrills and satisfies my thirst.  The experience could stop there.  But the reality is that if I am aware and attentive to the moment, this water gushing is the reminder that the Lord is in our midst and we are loved.  How many signs do we miss because we are preoccupied?  We can be so busy that we might not even see the sun set.

St. Paul uses a water image to remind us that hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…. While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  It is all gift.  Imagine it.  The wonder.  We are loved not for what we have done.  The love doesn’t end if we sin.  We are saved by the blood of Christ and loved by a God who loves unconditionally and forever.  Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

The Samaritan woman in the Gospel seeks meaning, longs for an anchor in her life.  Every day she comes to the well, burdened with her cares, joyless.  Rather than being a multi-married and discarded woman, she more likely was a woman seeking God, a woman who thought in five different circumstances that she had found God – only to be disappointed.  Then she meets Jesus who asks her for a drink.  Jesus puts all convention aside.  He is at the well alone in conversation with an unaccompanied woman.  That just wasn’t done in Jesus’ day.  And what about the long-standing enmity between Jews and Samaritans?  Jesus casts all of that aside and heedless of the danger to his reputation asks the woman for a drink of water.

Our God is a God of surprises and so is the Word made Flesh and the Spirit he brings.  In the banter that follows Jesus brings the woman to a new understanding of her poverty.  She seeks but may well have concluded that her search will be in vain.  Jesus, in effect, says: Just ask and what you seek will be given to you in ways beyond your wildest imagining.  She seeks faith.  Jesus is the giver of that gift through the Spirit – the living water.  The woman has sought God on the mountain where Samaritans worshipped and in household gods.  Jesus and the Jews have worshiped in the temple.  Here is the wonder of wonders.  The implication of God having taken on flesh is that God has taken on all human flesh.  The woman who seeks, through the out-pouring of the Spirit will have God living within and she will worship in Spirit and truth.  The chasm exists no more.  This God is an imminent God evident in every aspect of creation and present in human kind.  This is God who desires intimate relationship with humankind.  Amazing.  Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

Through the course of their dialog the woman comes to feel that at last she is known and valued.  She has found that for which she has been searching, or rather, been found and claimed as beloved.  She listened and understood the significance of what Jesus said in one of the great I am statements in John’s Gospel: I am he (the Messiah), the one speaking with you.

Notice that the water jar is left behind.  She drank in the water Jesus gives and it has become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  The woman, with full dignity restored, heads back into her village to invite her neighbors to come, to see, to drink and to believe.  Her testimony?  He told me everything I have ever done.  Isn’t God the only all knowing one?

Let the words wash over you.  Pay attention to that for which you search.  Preoccupied with so many things, you might endure rather than listen and be touched.  Listen.  Be open to the Spirit washing over you and those gathered with you in worship.  It’s all about love and the possibilities when you live in that love.

Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

The Second Sunday of Lent – A

Genesis 12:1-4a

2 Timothy 1:8b-10

Matthew 17:1-9

 

Dear Reader,

We need Lent.  If we enter into the spirit of the season and do what the Church prescribes, we will emerge prepared to celebrate the renewal of the Lord’s dying and rising, our salvation.  We ought not forget that Lent is put before us as a joyful season of grace.  It oughtn’t be a dour time even though it is recommended that we spend the forty days fasting, praying and giving alms.  How better to get our attention than to ask us to focus on the kind of lives we should be living as those who have died to sin with Christ in the waters of Baptism and risen to new life in, with, and through Christ.

Two groups of people are the objects of the Church’s special attention during these forty days.  Both groups are on a journey.  In fact it is safe to say that living a life of faith is committing one’s self to being on the Way, always journeying with Christ to the kingdom.  Where do you find yourself this Second Sunday?  Are you among those Baptized who came at Lent’s beginning to do penance, that is, to turn away from sin and so let the Spirit open you more completely to the union God has in mind for you.  St. Paul challenges the Church to remember that God saved us and called us to a holy life.  God wants you to remember the promise in the first reading: I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you….  All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.  Notice who the actor is.  God.  It is God who is always seeking, always pleading with us to let God be our God and so know God’s love.  In this season of Lent rejoice in remembering the God who seeks and saves.  You, the Baptized, are always a work in progress. 

Or, you might be in the second group of those who are the objects of the Church’s special attention and care – the Elect. You are the ones preparing for Baptism, the ones to whom the readings for the next three Sundays will speak in a special way.  You too are on a journey that began when faith first stirred in your hearts, when you first wondered if God was peaking in through the lattice behind which you hid and was whispering words of love.  Arise my love, my dove, my beautiful one and come!  It began when you wondered if that God-inspired relationship would be lived out in the midst of this people with whom you have been worshiping in the Liturgy of the Word for some time now.  It began as you inquired about the ways of faith lived in the Catholic community and the Church said: Come and see.  The church asked you to journey with the Baptized and experience worship with them, to experience the full cycle of the Church’s year through the Liturgy of the Word, to go out from the Assembly to continue breaking open the Word and experience an increasing longing for the Eucharist even as you long for the Waters where you will meet Christ to die and rise with him.  This Lent is a forty-day retreat preparing you to celebrate the Great Vigil of the Lord’s Rising, a night you will never forget.  The heavens will open over you.  You will be called by name.  God will claim you in Christ as beloved.

This will be the Gospel proclamation this Second Sunday of Lent.  Baptized and Elect alike, let yourself be drawn into the heart of the Good News.  Jesus invites you to the Mountain to see him as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in the persons of Moses and Elijah, the fulfillment of God’s ongoing call and formation.  Jesus invites you to look on and see the reality of who he is in that total Yes to God’s will as the glory bursts forth in radiant raiment and brilliant face.  How would you describe such glory?  Regardless, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be present for such a revealing moment?  Wouldn’t you want to cling to that moment, to do anything to make it last?  Ecstatic moments are like that.  Peter, James and John wanted to live in that moment for the rest of their lives – until the cloud overshadowed them the way the Cloud had settled over the Arc of the Covenant during the desert wanderings to let Israel know of God’s presence.  Then the heavens open and the Voice declares: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.  And the disciples are terrified.  How close dare they draw to God?  No one can look on the face of God and live.  They did not yet know the intimacy that God had in mind for them initiated in Christ.

Why do you suppose that Jesus charges you, Baptized and Elect, to not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead?  Because, you are called to be a new creation, a people of the Resurrection.  Each time you, the Baptized, approach the Font on the way to the Eucharistic Table, you ought to pause and remember what happened to you there when God called you Beloved.  That is why the Font ought to be in the middle of the path to the Table.  The only path to the Table passes through the Font. 

You, Elect, during these weeks of your great Lent, pause at the Font and ponder the living waters.  Stand at the far side and gaze across to the Table and consider the totality of the change that will happen during the Vigil when you will enter the Font to die with Christ and rise out of the Font to live in Christ.  For you, the old order passes away there as the waters rush over you and the new order symbolized by the White Robe the newly baptized will wear through the Easter Season, begins on the other side.

Stand in the reality.  You are the Body of Christ.  Stand when you pray in witness to the reality.  You have listened to Jesus and must live what you have heard even as you live what you eat in the Eucharist because you have been drawn into the Resurrection.  Strengthened by that meal you will be sent to be Bread broken and Cup poured out in imitation of the one whose life you share.  Through the good works done in union with Christ you will reach out to others and invite them to come and see the goodness of the Lord and to know God’s love.  And the journey continues.  You walk with Christ on the Way.  New Catechumens and Elect will come after you.  Remember the promise in the first reading today:  All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.

Lots to think about.  Lots to remember.  Lots to look forward to.  Lent is a time to be reminded and a time for looking forward with longing to what begins soon and very soon.

Now do you become more convinced that Lent is a joyful season of Grace?  The clouds of gloom have parted and been banished forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus