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THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – March 30, 2014

 

From the first Book of Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a

From the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians 5:8-14

From the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41

 

Dear Reader,

I am afraid I will tax your patience by the telling of this tale from the past.  Yet it seems appropriate both in light of this Sunday’s Gospel and of condemning statements made recently regarding people like the young man you will meet through this telling.

Years have not dulled the impact of what proved to be that life-changing encounter.   It was late in the day when my secretary rang my office to tell me that a woman was in the parlor wanting to speak with me.  I groaned on the inside but told my secretary that I would be right there.

I did not recognize the woman as I entered the parlor and sat behind my desk.  She gave a halting smile and thanked me for seeing her.  Immediately she voiced her reason for her visit.  “Would you please visit my son?  He is very ill.”

“Of course,” I said.  “Is he a member of this parish?”

“Are you sure you’ll visit him?  My son is dying from AIDS.”

I said nothing and hoped that my face did not reveal my inner conflict.  Her anguish was evident but so also was her fury.  “I was baptized in the Catholic church ten years ago.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I love the Lord.  But I have been conflicted lately when I think about my son and those like him who are judged as evil by some in the church and are deemed destined for eternal damnation.

“I remember the first time I held him moments after his birth.  My first-born.  I remember the feeling the first time he nursed and I felt his tiny hand caress my breast, the source of the nourishment that would sustain him.  Oh, how I loved him.

“With pride I watched him grow.  I remember his first steps and his first words.  He is an only child.  I have 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 old.  My son was my joy and consolation.  He excelled in every facet of school.  He was a fine athlete and a linguist.  He painted pictures and acted in plays.  He was popular, all the while carrying his secret.  I didn’t know nor did I suspect.  It was a few years after he was away from home and in the final year of university that he told me as he introduced me to the one he said he loved.

“I’m watching you,” she said.  “I’m looking to see how you react.  If I see revulsion I will thank you for your time and be on my way.  You’re not the first priest I’ve talked to about this.  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 and rising saved him too.  He doesn’t need any more rejection or condemnation.  There has been plenty of that in his life.

“Do you think that God hates my son and the man he loves?  Do you think God will send them to hell because of who they are?”

My eyes had been fixed on her during her telling.  Her pain was obvious.  On my desk there was a picture of my parents taken at a reception given in my honor.  As this mother talked my eyes had drifted to my own.  I knew how she would have suffered if my brother or sister or I had ever experienced the rejection and condemnation this woman’s son had endured.  I could feel my mother nudging me.  I heard her whisper, “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.”

“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 the sound.  They are fortunate in that regard.  My son can still sit in his chair and gaze out at the water and watch as the gulls and eagles soar.  But there is not much left of my son and there are odors.  He is fragile and can’t do very much for himself.  I thank God for the devotion of his partner.  I don’t know where my son would be without him.”

“I think we should go,” I said.

* * * *

The house sat on a knoll and overlooked the bay, just as the mother had said.  That autumn afternoon the wind had a bite as it tugged golden leaves for maple trees and sent them swirling as it deposited them on the lawn.   The setting sun created long shadows and haloed the house against the sky.  We walked up the path.  I felt my stomach tighten even as I prayed that no one would sense 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, Paul shook my hand.

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

Paul 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 near it sat Aaron.  He didn’t turn to us at first.

“Hello, Dear,” his mother said as she embraced and kissed him.  Then she introduced me.  I shook his emaciated hand and he winced.  I apologized for the squeeze and released his hand.  He was gaunt with deep-set eyes that still shone 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.  As I 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 before me.  When I was a youngster, my brother gashed his knee and I panicked at the sight of blood.  My father told me to get over it.  “This is not about you.  You have to care for your brother.”  And that’s the way it has been ever since.  It is not about me.

In those first few moments we made small talk about the weather and how fast time goes and who would win the football game on Saturday.  Abruptly he said, “I am dying, you know.”  His mother protested and so did Aaron.  I looked at Paul, nodded, but said nothing.

“What do you think about that?” he asked.

“I’m sorry that you are dying at such a young age with what should be so much life yet to be lived.  But I don’t believe that death is an end.”

Paul asked me what I thought the other side would be like.  I told him I had not idea, only that it would beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.  I quoted one of my favorite Scripture texts: 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.  We only know time.  But one thing is for sure, it will take all of eternity to get to know the God who loved you into creation and sustains you in existence.”

He looked stunned and I saw a hint of tears in his eyes.  He shifted back to the view beyond the window.  How long was the pause?  The only sound was from a ticking wall 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 becomes almost unbearable.  Paul looked back at me and said, “Do you think so?  Do you really believe that?  Is that what death will be like?”

“Oh, yes.  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 might not 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 in agreement.  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 and you will inherit the Kingdom.”

Now the tears rolled own his cheeks.  He didn’t stop them from falling onto his shirtfront.  His chin didn’t tremble.  His hands didn’t fidget.  He wasn’t pulling on a button.  His hands 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 in the red sky on the 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?”  There was no transition, no preamble.  “Can I be baptized now?  My mother will like that.  I’ve thought about it.  I would like it too.”

Silly the responses we make when we’re 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 Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  In the Candles glow, the Candle that is the sign of the Lord’s resurrected presence, the Baptisms take place in the font.

I’m embarrassed to say that I jabbered 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 to be worn by the newly baptized.  I wasn’t really mindless of him.  I thought the tale I was telling 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 waters, there 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 the earth quakes during Baptism.  The waters part.  The heavens open and God calls him by name proclaiming him to be 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 at Aaron intending to apologize for having gone on so long and exhausting Paul.  Their eyes were fixed on him.  Each seemed barely able to breathe.  And the clock chimed.

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

I thought about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  They had met and taken a chariot ride together, talking 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 Aaron to fill the tub with warm water.  After 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 bight be if the tub were too small or too high or too deep.  None of that proved to be a concern.

I went back into the bedroom and Paul stood naked, framed in the window by the remaining light of sunset.  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, catching him in my arms.  As he slumped, I lifted him.  His arm went around my shoulder.  I marveled ho light was the burden.

We made our way the few yards to the tub.  His mother and Aaron knelt on the tile floor.  Tears streaked their cheeks.  His mother’s hands were clasped in a tight grip beneath her chin and her eyes were closed, as her lips moved in what I was certain was a prayer.

“Don’t kneel,” he said with 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 Aaron supported my arms as I knelt and plunged Paul into the water.  As he began to enter the water, he looked up and with his right arm he pointed to the heavens.

“Lazarus,” I said, “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 Aaron stood beside me.  Strange how silent the moment was.  I looked up and wondered if the eagles would gather.  I thought there should be a prayer to cover the moment.  Silence prevailed.  Only silence.

We walked back to the waiting cars.  His mother held the crucifix that had adorned Paul’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.”

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT –A– March 23, 2014

 From the Book of Exodus 17:3-7

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 5:1-2, 5-8

From the holy Gospel according to John 4:5-42

Dear Reader,

The fact is, in this day and age many people live busy lives.  In some cases, frenzied lives would not be an exaggeration.  There is so much to do and so little time in which to do it is a preoccupation for a lot of folks.  Conscious of the clock perpetually ticking, not a few will say that there is just so much time for such and such and not one second more or else they will be late for the next appointment.  That goes for the amount of time they have for God, too.  Haven’t you noticed at the start of Liturgy it is usual for someone to remind the Assembly to turn off cell phones and pagers, or at the very least to put them on vibrate?  I wish the announcer would include wristwatches – that they should be hidden from view.  A couple of Sundays ago, the one giving the announcements at the end of Mass congratulated the Presider for having gotten Liturgy done in under an hour and with three Baptisms to boot.  Inwardly I groaned and ground my teeth as some in the Assembly applauded.

Those with that state of mind could be frustrated for the next three Sundays of Lent.  Those in a hurry could get antsy.  The readings, especially the Gospels, are long.  To accommodate this time-consciousness, some parishes will use abbreviated Gospel texts, justifying it by concluding that people’s attention spans these days are shorter than they used to be.  Alas.  My prayer is that that will not be the case where you worship.  The readings all are rich and profound.  We need to sit under them, or stand in the case of the Gospels, and let the Living Word wash over us.  We ought to be vulnerable and put aside the barriers and so let that Word enter and transform our hearts.  In every case, if we listen with an open heart we will hear God speak words of love to us.  But we have to listen in order to be convinced of what we are hearing.

The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent are the Scrutiny Sundays.  In those parishes where there is an active Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, on these Sundays the Elect, those in the final weeks of preparation for Baptism, come before the Assembly.  They kneel and feel the imposition of hands by the presider, their sponsors, and indeed by the whole Assembly, as the Spirit is invoked to keep the Elect thirsting for the Waters.  We pray that they might experience the new Light of Faith to help them see everything in that new light.  May they not be afraid of the death Baptism is so that they will be filled with the new life that will be 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.  If you do, in the process you just might experience transformation too.

Moments of grace happen when you least expect them.  That’s why some say that our God is a god of surprises.  A radio was playing in the store providing white noise, the kind you often don’t really hear but miss when things go to silence.  In a moment I focused and thought I couldn’t be hearing what I just heard.  The words of the song more than the melody amazed me.  In a moment I was transported from being stunned to being thrilled: 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 had become 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.  That was an aha moment for me.

If I took that songwriter’s insight seriously, I would enter the Exodus reading this week and be with the Israelites standing before that rock and looking on as Moses strikes the rock.  I would be awe-struck as the water flows out from it.  Add to that that 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.  If that were the case, the experience could stop there.  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 that.  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 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 and 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 is a woman seeking God, a woman who in five different household gods thought she had found God – only to be disappointed.

Then she meets Jesus and he asks her for a drink.  Jesus puts all the conventions of his time aside.  He is at the well, sitting alone and in conversation with an unaccompanied woman.  That just wasn’t done then.  Then there is the long-standing enmity between Jews and Samaritans.  Jesus casts all of that aside and heedless of the danger to his reputation asks the Samaritan Woman for a drink of water.

Not only is our God a god of surprises, but 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 and is in danger of concluding that her search is 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 she has sought through 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 the human condition and 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 of separation between God and humankind exists no more.  This God is an imminent God evident in every aspect of creation and present in humanity.  This is God who desires intimate relationship with humans.  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.  Through Jesus she has found that for which she has been searching.  Rather, she has 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 as the woman rushes away, she leaves the water jar behind.  She has drunk 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 could be in danger of enduring rather than listening and being vulnerable to the touch.  Listen.  Be open to the Spirit washing over you and those gathered with you in worship, especially the Elect.  As one people hear that it is 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– March 16, 2014

 A reading from the Book of Genesis 12:1-4a

A reading from the second Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy 1:8b-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 17:1-9

Dear Reader,

Human kind are known for avoiding what’s good for them.  You know what I mean.  Proper diet.  Exercise.  Adequate sleep.  Then we experience a health crisis and all those recommendations suddenly make sense.  Catholic Christians might have a similar attitude toward Lent.  A sense of dread prevails as Ash Wednesday approaches.   Then forty days of endurance follow until Lent ends with Easter and life returns to normal – somewhat like the thaw that comes after a long and severe winter.

Dare I say that we need Lent, just like we need a proper diet and exercise for health’s sake?  If we enter into the spirit of the season and do what the Church prescribes, we will emerge renewed and prepared to celebrate the Triduum, the feast of three days that re-presents the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  And we renew our own dying and rising, our Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.  Remember that Lent is put before us as a joyful season of grace.  These weeks shouldn’t be a dour time even though it is recommended that we spend the forty days fasting, praying and giving alms.  If we enter into those three activities we will be able to focus on the kind of lives we should be living as those who are disciples of Christ, those who walk with Christ and seek to do what he does.

Two groups of people are the objects of the Church’s special attention during this season.  Both groups are on a journey.  To live a life of faith is to commit one’s self to being on the way, to journey with Christ to the kingdom.

Where do you find yourself this Second Sunday of Lent?  Are you one of the group we call the Baptized, those 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 come to 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.

Perhaps you are in the other group, those objects of the Church’s special attention and care during Lent – the Elect.  You are preparing for Baptism.  You are the ones to whom the readings for the next three Sundays will speak in a special way.  You are on a journey that began when faith first stirred in your hearts, that moment when you first wondered if God was peaking in through the lattice behind which you hid and was whispering words of love to you.  Those words are in the Song of Songs.  Arise my love, my dove, my beautiful one and come!  Your journey began when you wondered if that God-inspired relationship would be lived out in the midst of this people with whom you have been assembling for worship in the Liturgy of the Word.  You took the first steps as you inquired about the ways of faith in the Catholic community and you heard the Church say: 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.  These weeks the Assembly has sent you forth to continue breaking open the Word and in the process to experience an increasing longing for the Eucharist, even as you long for the Waters where you will meet Christ, there 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.  As the first light of dawn breaks God will clam you in Christ as beloved.

Baptized and Elect alike, let yourself be drawn into the heart of the Good News this Second Sunday of Lent.  Jesus invites us to the Mountain to see him as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets symbolized in the persons of Moses and Elijah.  Jesus invites us to look on and see the reality of who he is in his total Yes to God’s will as the glory bursts forth in radiant raiment and brilliant face.  How better would you describe such glory?  Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to be present for such a revealing moment and to experience the burning desire to do anything to make that moment last?  Ecstatic moments are like that.  Peter, James and John wanted to live in that moment for the rest of their lives.  Then the cloud overshadowed them just as the Cloud had settled over the Arc of the Covenant during the desert wanderings.  In both instances, the Cloud announced God’s presence.

Then, as Peter, James, and John stood in stunned silence they heard the Voice declare: This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.  The disciples’ amazement turns to terror.  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 the initiated in Christ.

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

You, Elect, during these weeks of your great Lent, pause at the Font and ponder the Living Waters.  Stand at the front 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 as the waters rush over you.  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.  We, the Baptized, are the Body of Christ.  Stand when you pray in witness to the reality.  We have listened to Jesus and must live what we have heard even as we are challenged to live what we eat in the Eucharistic meal.  We are being drawn into the Resurrection.  Strengthened by that meal we will be sent to be Bread broken and Cup poured out in imitation of the One whose life we share.  The journey continues.  We walk with Christ on the Way.  New Catechumens and Elect will come after us.  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 are parting soon to be banished forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus