See the way Jesus sees (4th Sunday in Lent, Part II)

My initial intention was to have two posts per week, but sometimes it has not been possible. But it is the case this time around. After what has been explained in the previous post, the homily will focus (I think, there is still time) on what I believe the gospel is prompting us to change: We have to learn to see things, both people and situations, the way Jesus would see them.

Often, the reason why we do not see things the way Jesus sees them is because we let our pre-judgments and ideologies color the lenses with which we all see reality. Isn’t that the problem of the Pharisees in the gospel? Isn’t a cultural ideology to think that if the man was blind, it had to do with some sin his parents had committed? They do not see that Jesus has healed someone; they see that He did it on the Sabbath. For them, the value of healing someone was inferior to the fact that Jesus had broken the Law.

If I said in the previous post that the how of the miracle was significant, and I just reflected on the when of the miracle, we also should reflect about the where of the miracle. The healing takes place in a synagogue, the place where you would least expect to find so much fanaticism and ideology. Shouldn’t faith communities (the synagogues then, parishes today) be where you would least expect to find people so blinded by ideology?

As we continue this process of growth during Lent, we are invited to reflect about our pre-judgments and ideologies, what negative effects they have on how we see people and situations around us, and consider how much they slow our growth—as human beings and as disciples.

Ideologies are choices. Jesus chose not to see that it was the Sabbath. Jesus chose not to see that his actions would enrage the religious leadership of his time. Jesus saw a human being that was not living to his full potential and he turned him into a disciple—just as he did with the Samaritan woman last week, and as he will do with Lazarus next week.

PS: I was at Good Shepherd Parish in Alexandria, VA, to conduct a Parish Mission last week. Of course, I promoted the blog. I welcome 20 new followers from that parish, one that will always be in my heart. Welcome!

The Healing of the Blind Man (4th Sunday in Lent)

The gospel on the Fourth Sunday of Lent narrates the scene of the healing of the Blind Man (John 9:1-41). It is the second of three gospels from John, aimed at preparing the RCIA candidates and the rest of the Faith community for Holy Week. Like last week, the text could be interpreted and preached on many different ways.

Let us focus on one single aspect for now. If you have heard me preaching, you may have heard me saying this before: If the point of the gospels would only be to show that Jesus had the power to perform extraordinary miracles of healing, why is so much detail given on how the miracle is performed? There is something powerful about the way Jesus heals the man. In this one scene, Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.”

First thought, what Jesus does is messy, unclean. He touches the eyes of the man, the ground, he uses his own saliva… It is a lesson to us: we sometimes think that serving and helping others can be done in a clean, organized way. Authentic service will always be messy.

But the beauty of the specific way Jesus heals the blind man resonates with the story of the first Creation in Genesis. Out of the original clay, God created Adam, the first man. Out of clay, saliva—spat on the ground, Jesus creates the Blind Man anew—a man that now is able to see. The text says that his neighbors knew him as a beggar—someone who asks—and he becomes a disciple—someone who gives.  His growth is seen in how he is now able to stand up to the Pharisees.

Within the context of our Lenten theme of growth (in a faith that matters), we pray that we also can be created anew—the ultimate growth. What we read this Sunday is a miracle of sight: We will be created anew, we will grow in the measure that we see the way Jesus sees. We may even grow in a new understanding of faith, and live it not as expecting to receive (like a beggar), but as a gift that prompts us to give (like a disciple.)

The Woman at the Well: Obstacles to our Lenten Growth

The Third Sunday in Lent presents to us the gospel with the woman at the well (John 4:5-42). It is the first of the three texts from John that have been used from ancient times for the RCIA Scrutinies. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) is a process – just as we have said that Lent is a process – a process of growth (in a faith that matters).

This long and interesting gospel may be interpreted in many different ways, but it is especially useful to reflect about our general Lenten theme of growth. It speaks directly about three obstacles we often place—consciously or unconsciously—in the way of our own growth, in faith and in life in general.

Cultural Expectations: The gospel is about an encounter between Jesus, a male and a Jew, with a Samaritan woman. In short, Jews and Samaritans repudiated each other (they still do to this day). The cultural expectation of the time made this an unusual, almost illegal, encounter—certainly one to be avoided. The text even emphasizes the astonishment of the disciples when they arrive late at the scene. We, too, filter our social relationships on features like race, religion, ideology, gender, or financial status (just to mention a few). Society places labels on us and dictates with whom we should interact. Meeting people from backgrounds different than ours help us grow. Society may try to label me, but I am not defined by my nationality, my faith, my religion, my political ideology or my financial status, nor will my friendships depend on that. We have to overcome the “cultural expectation” that Jesus himself had to break through.  

The weight of the past: Part of the conversation with the woman is about her past (symbolized in the discussion about her eventful “matrimonial history”). We also let our past get in the way of growth. It is one of the aspects we reflected about when we preached on worry: we worry a lot about events of the past, when the past is well gone. The woman’s past does not define her identity, nor does it really affect the options she has at hand. Her past does not keep her from embracing the refreshing and liberating message of Christ—and, like a good disciple, inviting the other villages to listen to him.     

Thirst: Jesus and the woman have something in common that helps them to overcome their origins and cultural backgrounds: thirst. Jesus makes it clear in the conversation that he is speaking about a thirst that goes beyond physical thirst. It is around thirst that the conversation begins. The contrary of thirst is our very human tendency to settle, to stay in what we have already accomplished, and quit looking, discovering, learning, experiencing more. We settle in our relationships, in our faith, in our knowledge. It reminds me of the TV ad in which ‘the most interesting man’ closes the ad by saying, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

We can now review where we stand on our Lenten roadmap: We signed up for this process of growth on Ash Wednesday; we reflected about temptations, weaknesses in our personalities that place us in the proximity of sin; we reflected then about personal change around the Transfiguration—beginning to imagine the person we can become, closer to the person God created us to be; and now we have reflected on three specific obstacles that may hinder our growth: Cultural expectations, the weight of the past, and our lack of thirst. How is your Lent going?

Our Transfigured Self (2nd Sunday in Lent)

The gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent takes us to the top of the mountain where Jesus experiences the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9). If we pay attention to the details in the text, we will realize that the experience is not as glorious for Jesus as we may think at first. The disciples have struggled to understand Jesus’ message and it becomes apparent in this gospel. Jesus has told them that he will have to suffer and die, but that part of the message is difficult for the disciples, who would rather believe in a triumphant Messiah.

We all know Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter and the disciples wanted Jesus to fit into their own categories, into their own understanding of what the Messiah had to be.  

When Peter speaks about the tents, a voice interrupts him and just like happened during his baptism, God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” At that, the gospel says, the disciples felt fear. Our fear to change may be the biggest impediment to living a life of fulfillment.

Just imagine for a minute that we would take Lent seriously. Imagine that we would really grow; that we would really change in these areas of our lives that we have identified as weaknesses—temptations, which we have said is the step previous to sin. Imagine that our practice of the Lenten disciplines is leading to a real change in our behavior. Imagine it is beginning to work… we are slowly but surely becoming our “Transfigured Self.”

Just like when you start a diet and they tell you to gather motivation by imagining yourself without those extra pounds, this weekend we will invite people to start reflecting about our “Transfigured Self,” the person we can become without those extra sins. Change and growth is possible, if we are intentional, if we do not let fear hinder the adventure of becoming the person we can become, the person God has dreamed.

One more thought: In the Transfiguration, Jesus immediately takes the disciples down the mountain top. Peter’s temptation was to stay on the top, in the glory, but Jesus knows that it is down in the plain, in the less glorious back and forth of our daily lives, that we are called to act and live out our faith. It is one of the temptations we face, the tendency to take religion only for the glory, the liturgies, the incense, and forget to go down the mountain–where life and growth actually take place. 

The Temptations

On Ash Wednesday we “signed up” to the process of growth we call Lent. We also said that we want to Grow in a Faith that Matters. On the First Sunday of Lent, the Lectionary always takes us to the desert, where we contemplate Jesus experiencing the Temptations. Whether we take the narration from Mark, or Luke, or from Matthew—as we do in this Cycle A—you will find this to be one of the most powerful gospels of the whole year.

We have said that Lent is a process and Jesus also goes through a process in which he becomes increasingly aware of who he is and what his mission is all about. The temptations are a stage in this process. Despite our reaction to the word “temptation,” the text indicates early on that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the experience. God wills that Jesus goes through this experience of self-awareness. Right after Jesus has embraced his mission in his baptism, and before he calls his first disciples, Jesus must experience the temptations. The Devil tests Jesus with issues that would put into question Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus has embraced his identity and his mission in his Baptism, but it was just an initial assent. Now is time to test the depth of his conviction.

Jesus is tempted on power (I will give you all these kingdoms…), on becoming just a “miracle worker” (who would be able to transform stones into bread, thus giving people what they want instead of what they need), and on testing God (by being asked to jump from the parapet of the Temple). In years past, I have been more into analyzing the temptations of Jesus, but this time around, I am much more concerned with reflecting about our own temptations—understanding temptations as the step previous to sin, and understanding sin as an impediment to our living out our identity as disciples of the Lord.

Like Jesus, we can be tempted with power, and I do not think this one needs much explanation. We are also tempted with our constant need to consider our popularity—and thus, like Jesus, we are tempted to give people what they want instead of what they need. We also have the temptation of testing God’s love and testing the love others have for us. These temptations would be directly related to the ones described in the gospel.

But there are more. Worry, what we preached about last Sunday, is a temptation. We are also tempted with frivolity. We all experience the temptation of indifference with regards to the realities of others, especially those who suffer. There is the temptation of comfort: we succumb to that temptation when we just stay within the confines of our comfort zone, not venturing ourselves physically and spiritually beyond people and situations we know and control. We should also recognize the temptation of the “isms” (racism, sexism, classism, etc.). The temptations are tricky because they are about our weaknesses—I am not tempted about areas in which I am strong—otherwise they would not be temptations. I believe you cannot tempt me with money, for instance, but you can produce a lot of anxiety in me if you toy with the idea of what others think about me.

In faith, there is the temptation of living out an anemic, superficial faith. This is why we are speaking this Lent of a faith that matters, a faith that actually means something. A faith that shapes my life, pushes me outwards, even affects my schedule.

The journey of Lent takes a deep look at what tempts us. Real personal transformation can only happen by taking a deep, hard look at who we are—only then we can begin to reflect about who we can become—which will be the matter of our next Sunday reflection on the Transfiguration.

Ash Wednesday: Signing up to ‘Growing in a Faith that matters’

During Lent we are asked to change. Change into what? American spiritual writer and mystic Thomas Merton spoke of three images: the image we have of ourselves; the images others have of us; two images which cannot compare to the most beautiful one: the image God has of us—the person God dreams of, the person God created us to be. Lent is about becoming someone closer to the person God has dreamed we can become.

Lent is a process, because any serious transformation takes stages. On Ash Wednesday, we are only “signing up” for this process, a process here we will call “Growing in a Faith that matters,” following the guiding principle we are using at Sacred Heart this year: We want to make Faith matter (by making and growing disciples).

The gospel for today’s celebration (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) sets the Lenten “penances”: prayer, alms giving and fasting. These practices and the imposition of ashes are only external symbols of the larger transformation we want to make happen inside us.

Here at Sacred Heart, we are going to ask people to be more intentional about what we give up (or decide to do) during Lent. We are going to ask people to give up (or do) things in two different levels:

On a material level: people give up coffee, or chocolate, or desert… These are certainly little changes, little sacrifices compared to what we really need to change. The origin of giving up material things was so that the money saved would be given to the poor. Then, the sacrifice makes sense because it is not only about me, but also it helps someone else.

On a more spiritual level, we are proposing that people do not decide what they are to give up or take on themselves. We are asking our people to consider asking someone else, someone who loves us, what we should do or give up. If I ask someone who really loves me, that person will probably not tell me to give up chocolate, or desert. This person may tell me to give up impatience, or anger, or my quick judgments on persons and things…

The five Sundays of Lent constitute a road map on this Growing in a Faith that matters: we “sign up” today; then we are taken to the desert to reflect about the Temptations Jesus went through, invited to reflect about the Temptations (impediments to growth) we experience ourselves. Then we will be taken up to the Mount of the Transfiguration and reflect there about the person we can become, our transfigured self. Then we enter into the Lenten gospels from John, we meet the Samaritan Woman at the Well (reflecting about our own thirst or lack of thereof); the healing of the Blind Man (reflecting about our own inability to see things the way God sees them); and finally, we will reflect about our death and resurrection, as we contemplate Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Lent is an exciting journey. Come, live it out by growing in a Faith that actually matters.