Sunday, March 02, 2008

Miracle Worker

(4th Sunday of Lent-Year A; I did not preach this weekend, so this reflection is taken from an earlier Lenten homily based upon this weekend's readings; See 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23 and John 9:1-41)

What does the grace of God look like? Would we be able to recognize someone who had received the grace and favor of God?

This weekend’s first reading tells the story of Samuel who is sent to anoint the one chosen by God to lead the people of Israel. It’s no easy task, as we soon find out, because Samuel is unable to recognize exactly which one of Jesse’s sons God has chosen. Finally he encounters David: a simple shepherd boy, an unlikely candidate. “This is the one,” God tells him. “Anoint him”.

Samuel then anoints David with oil so that everyone can see that God has chosen David in a particular way to receive His grace and favor. It was an event that David himself never forgot. Years later, when writing the Psalm which sums up his entire life—our Responsorial Psalm this weekend—David sings to the Lord:

“The Lord is my shepherd...[he] anoints my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

That is what the grace of God looks like. Through the simple things of this world, like oil, God makes Himself known to us. He makes His grace and favor visible.

I am sure that all of us are familiar with the story of Helen Keller. When she was still a young girl, not yet 2 years old, Helen was suddenly struck by an unknown disease that left her without hearing or sight. Before she knew what had happened, Helen found herself locked into a world of darkness and silence. The few words she had learned in her brief life quickly began to fade away. The last one she remembered holding onto was “water”, and soon that was gone, as well.

Many painful years later, someone suggested to Helen’s parents that there might be someone who could help. There was a young woman named Anne Sullivan who, it was said, had a gift of working with the blind and deaf. They called her “The Miracle Worker”, and you may remember the movie that was made under that very title.

She came to Helen and tried to teach her what she called “word associations”. She would give Helen an object and then try to spell out the word by tapping it into her hand, but nothing worked. Everything she tried failed…until one day she poured cold water over Helen’s hands and tapped the word, “water”. Suddenly Helen remembered!

The last word that she had forgotten as a child was the first one she remembered, and with that small miracle Helen had broken through—once again—to the outside world. The connection had been remade, and she learned quickly how to communicate once again. By the end of her life she had talked with kings and queens, and several U.S. Presidents. She lived a life intimately connected to the people around her. And it all began with a handful of water.

As remarkable as this may seem, none of us should be surprised as Catholics, because this is the kind of thing that God does on a daily basis. God constantly uses the common, ordinary things of this world to reconnect His people to the world around them, and ultimately, to Himself.

Jesus, in the gospel this weekend, encounters a man blind from birth. St. John tells us that “he spat on the ground, made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.” How strange is that? Why would He possibly do such a thing? Jesus is the Son of God. He doesn’t have to make clay to heal someone’s blindness. Yet he chooses to do so in order that this man, and those around him, could see, and feel and experience the healing grace of God.

This saving action of Jesus is at the heart of our faith as Catholics, at the very core of our understanding of the sacraments. God—who could come into our lives any way He wanted to—chooses to come to us in the ordinary things of life.

Like Helen Keller, we were once locked away in a dark world and separated from God, but the connection has been remade through water at our Baptism. Those of us who have received Confirmation had this connection strengthened through the anointing with oil. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God Himself speaks to us in a human voice, saying, “I absolve you of your sins”. Bread and wine become, for us, the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacraments are real. They change us, they transform us, they make us whole again. Through them God uses the natural world to touch us in a supernatural way.

But the sacraments do demand something from us. They demand a response. The sacraments are not magic. They are doorways through which God pours out His grace into our lives, but we have to be willing to open the door. We have to say, “Yes” to God’s invitation to holiness and life in Christ.

When David was anointed we are told, “from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon [him].” From the day of our own Baptism, the Holy Spirit has rushed upon us, and calls us even now to a deeper response, a deeper commitment to the life that Christ comes to bring us.

How is God challenging us this Lent to respond well to the grace and favor we have received in Christ? When the people in our lives look at us this week, will they be able to see—in a real and tangible way—that we have been touched by the grace of God?