Sunday, March 26, 2017

Animated, Awoken, Alive!

Pulpit in St. Bavo's Cathedral, in the City of Ghent, Belgium

(4th Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 25, 2017 at St. Eugene's Church in Chepachet, R.I. and March 26, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.  See 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14 and John 9:1-41)

Most of us are familiar with the name, Helen Keller.  Unlike the man in the gospel this weekend, Helen Keller was born with the faculty of sight.  It was at the age of two that, struck by an unknown illness, she began to lose both sight and hearing.  Before she even realized what was taking place, her young life was locked into a world or darkness and silence.  The last word that she held on to was, "water," and that, also, was soon forgotten.

After several, painful years of trying to communicate with their dear daughter, a ray of hope dawned for Helen's parents.  There was a woman, they were told, who had a special gift for working with the blind and the deaf.  Her name was Anne Sullivan, and she was considered to be a "miracle worker."  You might remember the movie about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan by that same name.  Anne had remarkable success with "word associations," a technique in which she would place an object in the person's hand, and then tap out syllables or letters on the palm of the other hand, signifying the name of the object.

Anne Sullivan's initial efforts were met with complete failure.  Nothing seemed to work and a defiant young Helen became almost impossible to manage.  Then one day Sullivan poured cold water into Helen Keller's hand and tapped in the word "water."  Suddenly the last word that two-year-old Helen had forgotten became the first one she remembered. Along with it, a flood of memories came pouring through.  By the end of the day she had learned thirty more words!  Before she died, Helen Keller had spoken to presidents and heads of state, written an autobiography and books of poetry, and had literally connected to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.  All of it began with just a handful of water.

That would surprise a lot of people, but it should not surprise us.  God, who is the original Miracle Worker, does that all the time!  In the Sacrament of Baptism, with words and just a handful of water, God reconnects us to spiritual life, opening the door to heaven itself and a world beyond our wildest imaginations.  In Baptism, Christ connects us to an entire web of relationships and friendships within His Church here on earth, and in the life to come.  Our lives are literally transformed by God in the Sacrament of Baptism, through faith and a handful of water.

The readings for this Laetare Sunday help us to see the remarkable vitality and resilience of the Catholic faith and the sacraments given to us by Christ.  Our First Reading relates the story of David, chosen by God and anointed as king of Israel.  The description found in 1 Samuel is vivid and provocative.  God chooses the most unlikely of instruments and the anointing of this future king takes place before his brothers; they are an impressive lot, though not chosen.  The oil of God's favor falls upon the youngest, the shepherd, "and from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David" (1 Samuel 16:13).

The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.  The Holy Spirit continued to favor David.  God's Spirit was persistent in helping him and guiding him in his life and mission for the people of Israel.  David would be one of the most charismatic and successful leaders in that nation's history . . . and also, at times, one of its greatest disappointments.  David, of course, as we read in Scripture itself, would commit the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and the sin of murder to cover it up.  He would totally and completely fail God and the people.  And yet, as soon as David is confronted with that failure, he comes back to God with a depth of devotion second to none. The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.   God never gave up on David, even when he failed.  The Holy Spirit never stopped pursuing David and seeking to draw him ever closer to Himself.  The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.

Even so, in the Sacrament of Baptism, does God pursue us and persistently press upon us to draw us into a deeper communion with Christ and the Church.  Baptism is one of several sacraments in the Church that can never be repeated.  If we were to commit apostasy, deny the faith or denounce God Himself; if we were to fall into a lifetime of grave and serious sin and live very far from all that God had created us for; we could return to God and to the Church but could never be re-baptized.  The reason is that the waters of grace that we encountered on the day of our baptism are perennial and God's grace is persistent.

We need only to return to the Lord with an open heart and a spirit of repentance and He begins immediately to draw us back into communion with Himself and the Church.  The spirit of the Lord rushed upon us the day we were baptized!  In truth, the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon us here, even now, drawing us ever closer to Christ.  The Holy Spirit rushes upon us when we receive the sacramental grace of forgiveness and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.  The sacraments of the Church have the power to reanimate our spiritual lives and renew us once again, restoring us to the goodness we were created for. How awesome and powerful are the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation!

Of course, for the baptized Christian, the very presence and person of Christ is Himself the source of great awakening and life-giving renewal. In our Second Reading for this weekend, St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ has the power to illumine our hearts and produce in us "every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth" (Ephesians 5:9).  Christ is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it (John 1:5).  St. Paul relates, in fact, that the light of Christ has the power to wake us up in the spiritual life and raise our souls from the dead:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
—Ephesians 5:14

St. Paul would be the first to tell us that this amazing transformation happens, in a preeminent way, when we listen to the Word of God in Sacred Scripture (see 2 Timothy 3:16).  We also find that same lesson in the history of the Church.  In the years following the Protestant Reformation, many of those who had left the Catholic Church began to claim that they alone had a firm grasp on the meaning of Sacred Scripture.  They claimed fidelity to the word of God while they caricatured Catholics as believing only in the pope and the sacraments. In response to this claim, the Catholic Churches throughout Europe began to construct enormous, wood-carved pulpits as high as twenty feet, ornamented with various sculptures and vibrant biblical scenes. The message being sent was that the word of God, just as much as the sacraments and fidelity to the Vicar of Christ, mattered and made a difference in the lives of the Catholic faithful.

In the Flemish City of Ghent, in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, there is a magnificent wooden pulpit that is as ornate as it is enormous. There is a sculpture of an old man set into the base of that pulpit, with a blanket being pulled off from over his head; he appears almost to be holding onto it desperately as angels blow their trumpets and other heavenly beings lift high the cross of Christ. At the base of that sculpture are the words of St. Paul, which we find in our second reading this morning:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
—Ephesians 5:14

The word of God, like the waters of baptism and the grace of sacramental absolution, has the power to reanimate our spiritual lives and shed the light of Jesus Christ forth into our hearts.  When we hear the word of God proclaimed in the Liturgy, or when we take the time to meditate on the Psalms or some passage from the Bible, we allow the light of Christ to shine into our darkness and illumine the path before us.  Do we take seriously this power of God's word to transform the spiritual life we have received from Him?  Do we allow the Sacred Scriptures to direct and guide our baptismal call to sanctity?  Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give YOU light!

Finally, in our Gospel this weekend, we see in the man born blind the path that Jesus traces out for all the baptized.  He was desperate for healing and cried out in his need.  Suddenly Christ heals him, but in the strangest of ways.  Jesus spat on the ground!  The Son of God "spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes" (John 9:6).  How odd is that?  Then Jesus tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.  Now, certainly Christ does not need to make clay with spittle and rub it into this man's eyes; the man born blind does not need to wash his face in a pool to be healed.  Christ could have simply spoken to this man and it would have been enough.  But we are physical, not simply spiritual.  We need to feel Christ, physically, to hear His voice, to be touched by Him and to experience with our entire being the healing power of the living God.  Christ, who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary for the very purpose of revealing the fullness of redemptive love, institutes the sacraments of the Church to meet this very need we have to experience God physically and spiritually:

In baptism water is poured over our heads and we are cleansed from sin; new life in the Holy Spirit comes to us as the doorway to eternal life is thrown wide open.

In the Eucharist bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ, nourishing us and strengthening us for the journey of faith and the path of holiness.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we hear Jesus' words spoken out loud, setting us free by His generous gift of love on Calvary: "I absolve you of your sins."

And so it is with all the sacraments, beginning with the amazing gift of baptism.  But, of course, the sacraments are not magic.  They require our response if they are to bear fruit sufficient for the life that God desires.  The man born blind was healed, but he had to continue in that healing gift by responding to the God who gave him sight.  He persevered through the doubt and even discouragement of those around him, and eventually came face-to-face with Christ once again.  Jesus invites him to a life of faith, belief in the Son of Man.  When the man goes on to question who this Son of Man is, Christ appeals to the man's senses, seeking to engage him completely in his spiritual and physical nature: "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he" (John 9:37).  John relates, then, how the man believed in Christ, and worshiped Him.

Friends in Christ, we live in a world that has grown increasingly blind and deaf to the things of God.  God is seeking to bring healing to a broken world and sight for the spiritually blind.  Christ has come to bring light to those who dwell in darkness.  But that will only happen when we are willing to live out our baptismal call to holiness and to be the light of Jesus Christ in this world.  God is counting on us, this week, to live the Gospel and to be fully engaged in the sacramental life of the Church.  Christ is seeking to shine His light into the lives of all those who sleep, awakening them with His life-giving word.  How are we called to be the Christians capable of making Him known in a world desperately in need of renewal and new life?  God can transform the entire world with words, faith and a handful of water, but He humbly chooses to do so through His body, the Church.