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FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – March 29, 2020

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 37:12-14
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 8:8-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45

Dear Readers,

I invite you to ponder the readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent before you read the narrative for this week’s reflection.

Didymus

I had not seen or heard from him for many years.  I recognized his voice with the first words that came to me over the telephone.  It was well past midnight.  I had been in deep sleep when the ring woke me.  By the third ring I had lifted the receiver and after a cough to clear my throat, I said, “Hello.”

“Do you know who this is?” he asked.

It amazes me the images that can flood the mind in a moment.  I saw him those many years ago as he sat across the table from me in a prison visiting room.  His usual posture was to sit hunched forward with his hands clutched between his knees.  Occasionally he would look at me; but for the most part, he stared at the floor as he spoke.  His voice was soft.  Often I had to strain to hear what he was saying.  When I first was getting to know him, I had thought that was because he did not want to be overheard.  I came to understand that the softness of his voice grew out of the gentle spirit that was at his core.

He spoke with pride of his ethnicity as a Native American.  I do not remember the tribe, but his surname was Eaglefeather.  His heart, he said, could soar like an eagle even when he was behind prison walls.  It is true that he was a criminal.  His crime resulted from alcohol abuse.  In sobriety and doing the time to which he was sentenced, he said he was embarrassed by what wine had driven him to do.

During the sessions when we were getting acquainted, he told me about his childhood and the poverty from which he came.  He spoke of the difficulty of life on the reservation and the alcoholism that plagued his family.  As a child he had vowed never to let alcohol dominate his life.  He had watched his father die and two of his siblings, all still comparatively young, none of them reaching fifty.

When he sketched he was oblivious of his surroundings.  From an early age he had wanted to be an artist.  He showed me books filled with his work.  Granted, his drawings in the beginning were crude; but even the earliest line drawings gave evidence of the talent he possessed.  As he refined his skills, he filled pages with details – leaves, flowers, profiles, hands, ears, and eyes.  And there were portraits of Jesus.  Some were obvious imitations of romantic religious art.  These evolved as his Jesus took on features of people Eaglefeather knew or imagined, all of them suffering.  His Jesus was masculine.  Sometimes he sat against a wall with a cup outstretched, begging.  Or Jesus cowered before those berating him.  Or, he sat whittling, telling stories to children seated at his feet.

Eaglefeather had a deep spirituality.  He prayed often, especially when he drew.  “I see Jesus in people, especially in the poor and the desperate.  I don’t know why it is so obvious to me.  When I was on the outside, I couldn’t pass by a beggar without giving something, even if it was the last dime I had.  And if someone was crying, I felt like weeping, too.  I shared the suffering until drink deadened my spirit and dulled me to the pain that was all around me.”

During our last visit in the prison room, Eaglefeather talked about his faith and how he envied my being a priest.  “You get to do the holy things, to help us to pray.  You tell us that God loves us.  And you get to touch the Holy, the Bread and the Wine.  Do you know what I have always wished I could do?”

“What is that?”

“I have always wished I could look in to the cup as you say the words to see the wine change.  Do you ever get used to that?”

“The appearance of the wine does not change anymore than its taste does.  Faith tells me it is different, not my eyes.  The people you see, how do they change when you see Jesus in them?  Aren’t they the same before and after?  Does anyone else see the difference you do?  It’s not your eyes that see the difference.  It is your faith that makes it so.”

A few days later, I received an Eaglefeather sketch in the mail.  Two hands held a chalice.  The contents of the cup were shadowed.  Just beyond the table, his eyes covered with a cloth that knotted at the back of his head, clad in period-less garb, a man sat in rags and leaned forward, supporting himself with one arm while his other open hand he held outstretched toward the cup.

“Do you know who this is?”

“Is that you, Lazarus?  It has been a long time.”

“I have called to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye?  What do you mean?”

“I am tired and I can’t do this anymore.  It has been such a long struggle.  You never knew about his, did you?  A short time after I got out of prison, my kidneys failed.  It wasn’t because of my drinking.  It was genetic and had to do with my high blood pressure.  I tried raging at God for a while which, as always, proved pointless.  Doctors told me that the only hope was a transplant.  In the meantime I would have to be on dialysis.

“Do you know what that means?”

I told him that I did know what dialysis is but that I had never dealt with anyone using the system.  He described how for four hours a day, three times a week, he was attached to the dialysis machine, a line coming out of one arm and another going into the other.  Four hours of purifying his blood of the toxins that, if allowed to build up in him, would kill him.  He spoke of exhaustion as he began the process and fatigue at its end.  The only day he felt normal and had any energy was the day after the treatment.

“I have a love/hate relationship with that awful machine.  I love it because it is a lifeline for me.  I hate it because I am enslaved to it and would die without it.

“I have tried to stay away, to quit, telling myself it is not worth it.  But I always went crawling back, limp, spent and barely able to stand.  They would hitch me up again and the process started all over again.  Five times I have done that.  I have decided I won’t go back again.  Ever.”

I heard the determination in his voice, even as I feared the implications of what he was saying.  I said nothing as I felt my heart pounding in my chest.  Finally I faltered: “Lazarus…Lazarus, is there anything I can do?”

“You are doing it,” he said.  “You’re listening to me.  I’m not telling you where I am so that you can’t come after me.  I won’t tell you where I am going so that you won’t be able to send help.  No one will find me until it is over.”

Tears welled in my eyes and my throat constricted.  I prayed for the right words, but nothing came.  I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked out into the night and the city lights.  I wondered if he could be in one of those windows looking out in my direction.  It was clear that he was alone at a time when no one should have to be.

“I want to ask you something,” he said.  “Do you think dying is the worst thing?”

“The worst thing?  I don’t know.  I do know that it is the one experience we will never understand until we go through it.  We can be with others as they die.  We can watch the last breath and see the change as life leaves the body.  But we can’t know death until we die.  I believe there is more.  But that is not because of what I have seen.  It is because of what I believe.”

“You told me once that we believe in the resurrection of the body because Jesus rose.  I have thought about that.  Will my body still be broken when it rises again?  Will my kidneys still not work?  Will I still be plagued with desires and feel the loneliness of my isolation?”

Oh, Lazarus, I don’t think so. I don’t know what your body will be like in the resurrection, only that it will be.  It is mystery.  It will lack nothing.  Your kidneys will work very well, if they have to.  Even the feminine part of you will be as complete as the masculine.  You are made in God’s image, after all, just like the Earthling before the fall.  And you will know love, inexhaustible love that is God.”

I’m blathering, I thought.  I felt desperate to find words that would soothe and comfort him.  I wanted to find a way to encourage him to try again, to continue with the dialysis process that he loved and hated.  But that was not what he was seeking from me.  He said he wanted me to listen.  I think he wanted me to support him and assure him that everything would be resolved in God’s love.

“Lazarus, I want you to feel my arms around you.  In the strength of that embrace, relax and rest your head on my shoulder.  I am with you.  I love you.  I will be with you to this journey’s end.  I promise you that.  That is all I can do.  And I will pray.”

I listened to the silence.  Then I heard a sob and a strangled voice cry out, “Oh, God!  Father, will Jesus be there?”

My cheeks were wet with tears.  I remember that my voice was clear and that I spoke with ease.  “Do you remember when you told me how you could see Jesus in all the people you met, especially in the poor and the suffering people?  God sees that way, too.  God is looking at you now.  In your suffering he recognizes Jesus in his passion.  God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus.  God is with you.  Nothing will separate you from that love.  God will take you by the hand and call you forth from the grave.  God will embrace you and lift you up.  God will wipe away your tears and put fine clothes on you and prepare a Feast….”

Is that where I stopped?  I don’t remember.  How did we say, “Goodbye?”  Could I have gone back to my bed and slept?  Or did I spend the night staring into the darkness yearning for the first signs of dawn?

I read the story in the newspaper.  They found Lazarus Eaglefeather in a campground on the other side of the mountains, seated cross-legged on a blanket on the ground and facing the east.

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT –  A – March 22, 2020

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 5:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

I encourage you to read the Scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Lent before you read my reflection.  My hope is that the application will resonate with you.  These many years later, the experience is still vivid in my memory.  We can be surprised by grace and the Holy Spirit.

Years have not dulled the impact of that encounter.  The mother had come to see me to ask if I would visit her son. I was embarrassed by her anxiety as she pleaded with me. I told her that she did not have to beg with me, 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 am sad 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 and remember his first steps and his first words.  He is an only child.  There are no others’ beginnings for me 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 my consolation.  He excelled in every facet of school.  He was a fine athlete and a linguist.  He painted and he 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.”

She paused, looked down, and drummed her fingers gently on the desk.  “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 saved him.  He doesn’t need any more rejection.  There has been more than enough of that in his life.

“Do you think that God hates my son?  Do you think God will send my son to hell because of who he is?”

I had not said anything.  All I had done 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 that had been taken at a reception given in my honor.  As this mother talked, my eyes drifted to the picture of my own.  I knew how she would have suffered if my brother or sister or I would have  experienced the condemnation and rejection this woman’s son had endured.  I could feel my mother nudging me and whispering, “You know what you have to do.”

“Where is your son,” I asked?

“Not far from here.  Will you go to him?”

“Of course,” I said.

“But I have to warn you about 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 look out at the sound and watch the gulls and eagles soar.  There is not much left of my son.  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 my son 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.  I felt my stomach tighten, even as I prayed that no would would notice that.  Before one of us could ring the doorbell, the door opened and a young man 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 done 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, spacious, given the size of the house.  A small gas fire burned in the hearth in one corner of the room.  Next to it sat the son.  He did not 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 the evidence of his alertness and wit.  He was nearly bald.  We talked.

These years later, 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 will 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 do not know why this is so other than once in my childhood, when 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.  It is about your brother.  You must take care of him.”  And so it has been ever since.  It is not about me.

In the first few minutes we made small talk – 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.  So did his partner.  I looked at him and was silent.  “What do you think about that,” he asked?  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 is not 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 is not 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 gaze shifted back to the view outside the window.  How long was the pause?  The only sound was the ticking of the 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 a 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.  They 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 prepared for you.

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  He did not stop them from falling onto his shirtfront.  His chin didn’t tremble.  His hands didn’t fidget.  They lay 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 have 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 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 Scripture.  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.  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 told him 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.  The clock chimed.

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

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 asked 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 to the bedroom.  He stood naked, framed in the window by the light of the setting sun.  His robe and pajamas laid 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.  I marveled how light was the burden.

We made our way the few yards to the tub, now the font.  His mother and partner knelt on the 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 “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 the water, 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 and 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.”

THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Dear Friends in Christ,

These are difficult times.  The Coronavirus, now pandemic, in addition to the toll it is taking on lives, has resulted in many dioceses suspending Masses.  I cannot remember another time when such a restriction has been mandated.  No one knows how long this could last.  Some are hoping for only a couple of weeks.  Others say it could go on until August or later.  How can we get along for that long without Sunday Mass and the Sacraments?

This is an opportunity for us to remember that God lives in us even if we can’t go to church and Mass.  Christ lives in us even if we cannot receive Holy Communion.  What I would encourage you to do is to be church in your own household.  Gather as family around the Liturgy of the Word.  Share the Scriptures.  I hope my Didymus reflections will help you to delve deeply into the Word and to be transformed by them.  (My reflections will continue to come to you each week through this difficult time.) Sit in silence under the Word for a period and then share with each other what the Spirit has inspired within you.  Listen especially to the children.  You might be amazed by the wisdom of their responses.

After sharing and responding to the Liturgy of the Word, think of the intentions to be held up in prayer.  Pray for those suffering from the virus, those in isolation, and those with developed symptoms and those who have died.  Pray for those in war zones, and for those aliens at boarders seeking refuge.  Pray for our church that this time of trial will awaken in us a renewed awareness of our union in Christ.  And give thanks to God for the love that lives in us and unites us, not only for now, but for all eternity.

Then have a joyful breakfast together – or supper, depending on the time you choose to celebrate the Word.  As you beak bread together, remember.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus