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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