by Fr. Guerric Heckel
Given the lock down/lock in and out nature of our community these days we are one of the few Eucharistic Communities able to celebrate Eucharist, in person, today. We are recording our entrance into this Eucharist, as well as the homily, and will post it on our website. This is our way of being in solidarity with those praying beyond our locked entrance gate this Sunday and probably in far less secure and safe spaces. We also hope to reflect on the coronavirus pandemic from more of a faith perspective.
So here we are, assembled to celebrate the 4th Sunday of The COVID – 19 Lent of 2020. And, nonetheless, on Laetare Sunday, rejoice or exult Sunday. I must confess I struggled, in the midst of this frightening moment in our human history, to dawn these rose vestments.
Then I said to myself, what if our current inconvenience and disruption focuses our attention on who and what really matters? What if we let it make us more intentional about what we choose to do or not do? That sounds a lot like a holy Lent, the kind by which lives are changed and resurrection is experienced.
But first, let us acknowledge the darkness of our fears, attachments and beliefs that keep us from seeing. They cover our eyes like the mud on the blind man’s eyes in our Gospel today. We come forward today as part of our penitential rite recognizing that the mud of darkness always gives way to the light of Christ.
O God whose face we long to see,
In Christ you come in search for us,
judging not by outward appearance
but by gazing into our hearts at the light you have kindled.
As once you gave Samuel insight to see young David as your shepherd-king,
As once you led the man born blind to look on Christ and behold
the face of the Anointed,
so now clear our vision and focus our sight
that all of us, the elect and the baptized,
may acknowledge Christ as the Light of the world.
We ask this through Christ, The Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.
Michael Marsh a gifted homilist approaches the Story of the Man Born Blind in Joh 9: 1-41 in this way. They all looked at him but they never saw him. He was the blind guy born that way. Day after day he sat and begged. They looked. They walked by but never saw him. He had never seen their faces until today. He had never seen his own face, his parents’ face, a sunrise, the stars until today. Before today it was as if he didn’t exist. Today he became a new creation, he was enlightened, he became a living testimony to the Son of Man but they still don’t see him. For some reason they are unable to see him.
The disciples look at him and see a theological question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their vision is distorted by popular belief that suffering is caused by sin and you get what you deserve.
The neighbors looked at him but couldn’t see past the image of the way things had always been, a blind man sitting and begging. It’s all they had ever known. Blinded by disbelief they keep asking him, “how are your eyes opened?”
Two times the religious leaders call him in. Two times they interrogate him. Two times he gives glory to God. They cannot see the prophet, the man from God, that was formerly blind but now sees. They cannot see new life, the new man, the new creation that bears testimony to the man from God. Two times they turn a blind eye to this man and his God. No one, as the saying goes, is more blind than he or she who chooses not to see. They have chosen power, rules, boundaries over the truth and their eyes have grown dim.
Even this man’s own parents distance themselves from him. They can talk about their blind son but not their seeing son. To see him, the enlightened son, meant they would have to tell the story. “We do not know how it is that he now sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” They deny what is right before their eyes. Fear does that. It keeps us from seeing a larger reality, from living with a larger vision. So, we live with tunnel vision seeing the one thing we most fear.
Blindness, Marsh says, is not about the quality of our vision or the condition of our eyes. It is not about the darkness around us but, rather, the darkness within us. How we see others, what we see in the world, the way we see life is less about the objects of our seeing and more about ourselves. We do not see God, people, things or circumstances as they are but as we are. Until our eyes are opened by Christ our seeing is really just a projection of ourselves onto the world. They point to the fears, attachments and beliefs within us.
In our first reading today from 1 Samuel the great prophet Samuel had to learn to see things differently. The biblical narrative delights in underlining that here again God chooses the least. As St Paul says in 2 Cor. 12:9 “power is made perfect in weakness.” I find myself asking in what ways are we being invited to see things differently as we struggle to make our way through this frightening moment in our human history – the unprecedented stealth of virus contagion. The virus transmission by silent spreaders, unidentified transmitters and asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infectors.
Vulnerability is all around us during these times and we are blind to the virus, no matter how wide we open our eyes. How is COVID -19 inviting us to face and wrestle with our vulnerability? Is it God’s invitation to regain our sight and enter into a deeper trust in mystery and name the gift and grace hidden in this pandemic? I see the gift and grace emerging in four areas: 1. an awakening to a felt sense of global connectedness, 2. a new courage to confront suffering and death, and uncertainty and fear, 3. a new appreciation for the gift of solitude, and 4. a new sense of where God is in all of this.
In an NCR article Fr. Daniel Horan who teaches Theology at Notre Dame calls us back to the “Communion of Saints,” as an important tenant of our faith that can help during coronavirus times. He quotes Sr. Elizabeth Johnson from her book, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints. “This doctrinal symbol does not in the first instance refer to paradigmatic figures, those outstanding individuals traditional called ‘saints,’ but rather, the community of living persons is the primary referent…”. As Vatican II states “all the faithful, scattered though they be throughout the world, are in communion with each other in the Spirit.”
David Brooks, in my opinion, a brilliant and prophetic New York Times’ Opinion Columnist, speaks to this awakening to a felt global connectedness in his March 20th column. “…we are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of our human interdependence.” He says the great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart to feel together. There is a distinction between social connection, feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them in normal times, and social solidarity. Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s active commitment to the common good – the kind of thing needed in times like now.
Br. Don Bisson speaks to the courage to confront suffering and death, uncertainty and fear when he asks the question, “Why do we have to be wounded in order to be healed?” Confronting suffering and death awakens us to a reality we don’t see. Facing suffering and death makes us desire life. It reawakens us to choose life but not necessarily life as we have had it. Brooks calls us to appreciate the wisdom cancer patients often share. We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation by some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal. He says, “There is a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When plans are upset, there is a quieter and better you beneath them.”
Angela Fisher from “The Global Peace Initiative of Women” helps us see the gift that solitude can be during these pandemic times. “One reason for the present state of the world is that we have focused on the material world in a way that we have forgotten the immaterial, the inner worlds, and how they both, matter and spirit, belong to each other. In other words: we as humanity have forgotten the sacred within life, within creation, within our bodies, within the body of the earth.” She goes on to say, “as mystics we know and do experience that we can ‘meet in the night’ –which means not in our physical bodies. We are not separated through space, nor through time. This inner knowing, and to live this knowing, can be awakened and affirmed in these times of quarantine. “This is so evidenced in the great number of worldwide invitations for people to come together on zoom to sit in silence with one another.”
Pope Francis cites a grace for us when he says the pandemic can be a time to rediscover the importance of small concrete gestures of affection and care toward others. An example of this concreteness is the self-sacrifice of those who are on the frontlines working to save lives. Again, Brooks says, it is out of solidarity, which he describes as not a feeling but a virtue, that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not do for yourself or another but for the common whole.
Where is God in all of this? Sr. Ilia Delio who teaches theology at Villanova University and hosts a website, Omega Center, in an article entitled, Dear God, she writes,
I share these thoughts with you God because many people ask, how come God does not save us or spare us from tragedy and death? Others interpret these times as the beginning of the apocalypse, thinking that You are standing ready in judgment, as we approach “end times.” Still others say religion is the problem and not the solution. Yet, all of these ideas are foreign to You who are Life itself. You have nowhere to go but to remain with us because you are Life itself. You do not punish because the world is blind, deaf and dumb; rather we punish ourselves by losing trust in You. You remain faithful in love because the world is integral to Your life and You need the world to be truly who You are. You are always present, faithful and empowering in love. You are absolute oneness in love and will not rest until we are joined together fully in love—not just every person—but the whole world, the planet, the galaxies, the entire universe—You are in all and all share in your light and life.
She ends her letter the way I would like to end this homily on this Fourth Sunday of COVID – 19 Lent, 2020.
I know you asked my thoughts on the present situation with the coronavirus because You are struggling to breathe new life into this world; to gather all peoples, all creatures, all that exists, into a new unity so that we may become a new earth community where you are at home in the unfolding of life and the dynamism of love. I suppose it will take a number of existential threats for us to realize that You need us to be You, and we need You to be ourselves. We are in this together and no matter what happens, O God, You are Love itself and You will always be our future.