a homily from Sunday May 7, 2023
I know a woman who had a remarkable experience the day her husband died. He died in the morning, at home. A few minutes later she was walking out of his room. She had taken a couple of steps down the narrow hall when she felt something like a wind rushing by her, close to the floor, about knee-high, whooshing towards the front door, and it felt like joy, like glee. It felt like freedom.
That was several years ago, and the woman hasn’t had anything like that experience again. She’s still not sure what it meant. She’s in her early nineties now, a little wobbly and frail, and every day she slowly walks to the mailboxes down the block, and as she walks, she prays the Our Father, line by line, again and again, Our Father who art in heaven . . . Our Father who art in heaven . . . She gets in about ten, up and back. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes the sun is shining. Sometimes the trees are leafing out and everything is green.
Today in the Gospel the disciples ask Jesus to show them the Father, to help them see God, and Jesus says, a little exasperated, I think, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And sometimes in his company the disciples have felt something like a rushing wind. They have witnessed the Transfiguration. They have seen Lazarus coming out of the tomb. And sometimes the days have just flowed by, one thing after another. Jesus has lived among them like any other man, getting up in the morning and eating breakfast and going about the day, and he hasn’t done anything interesting at all. He’s just like everybody else.
And we believe that now, after all this, this Jesus who had a body and lived in a place and time rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sent his Spirit to fill the whole earth, and we believe as John says in his marvelous prologue to his gospel, in this great poem, that in another mode the Word was with God from the beginning of time and has always been filling the world with his life and still is.
And for us, too, as for the disciples, but in this different, subtler way, in our own time and place, there is sometimes a flash, a single, vivid moment, and sometimes, and more often, there are weeks and months and years when nothing seems to be happening at all, we’re just living our lives, until finally one day we realize that Jesus has been there all along, woven into the fabric of things. Not a particle, a wave. Not a photograph, a video. Every day we walk to the mailbox, up and back, saying the Our Father, and sometimes the trees are blooming.
So many people say that they see no evidence of God in their lives, and I think they mean they haven’t felt a rush of wind, they haven’t seen a blinding light. But the disciples have seen a blinding light, and they still don’t get it, as the old woman doesn’t know if what she felt in the hallway was true, if Jesus really was bringing her husband home, if he really has prepared a place for him.
I think we all want things to be more obvious than they are. We all want the fireworks and the special effects. For several months I’ve been feeling tired and dull and sad, and I’ve been praying for a little more joy, a little more energy at least, and what’s helpful for me in times like this is to switch from thinking like that to thinking of the wave, of the river, the long haul. In my journal I’ve simply been keeping track of my blessings, all the things that might not seem important and would otherwise slip by, and now and then I read back over the journal and realize how those little things add up, like pennies in a jar, and that the empty times are part of a larger pattern that tends always towards joy.
It’s been helpful for me, too, to focus more in prayer on the resurrected Christ than on the historical Jesus. It’s wonderful if we can imagine him in the flesh, if we can see his face or hear his voice. I’m just not very good at that. For me it works better to think of the Jesus who rose and sent the Spirit, of the Logos of the prologue, continually creative, and maybe that could help you, too, when you’re trying to pray. As Thomas Merton says,
When God’s love begins to burn within us, there is no strict necessity for using our imaginations any more. Some may like to, some may not. Use whatever helps you, and avoid what gets in your way.
He also says,
Every moment and event of our lives plants a seed in our souls.
Mary Oliver puts it this way in a beautiful little poem called “Praying”:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, a silence in which
another voice may speak.
And isn’t this what Jesus called us to? Isn’t this how he taught us to pray? Simply and directly and about our own lives?
Our Father, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven . . . Our Father, give us this day . . .
A few weeks ago I did my first emergency baptism. The parents had been told that their baby had severe problems and wouldn’t live long after it was born. So they called the parish, and I was the one who was available and could be on call. And when I did get the call, and hurried over to the hospital, and walked into that room, everything happened so fast I couldn’t take it in: the mother weeping in her hospital bed, and the father standing beside her, and the nurse in her scrubs, weeping, too, the baby in a bassinet among the monitors and tubes, wrapped so tightly you could only see her tiny face.
It wasn’t until later that I remembered the most important thing that happened in that moment. I had a squeeze-bottle of Holy Water, and when I tried to squirt a little of it into my hand, I squirted too much, and when I poured it on the baby’s head, it spilled onto her face and down her cheeks. And the nurse came, and knelt, and folding a paper towel, gently wiped the water away.
She came, and knelt. She folded paper towel.
“I have been with you so long, and you still don’t know me?”