March 26, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Last week I was driving past the house of a man in the parish whose wife just died of ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s a very hard way to die. In the end you can’t move. You can’t breathe. The last time I gave her the Body of Christ her gnarled hand was bent almost perpendicular to her wrist.
But in the house next door the daffodils were blooming, brilliant yellow, a whole row of them, right on the edge of the parishioner’s yard, and seeing them gave me a little feeling of lift, of joy, of light as I drove away.
Seeing them, I felt the presence of God.
And this was the most important thing that happened to me that day, that one brief moment, even though I feel a little silly talking about it. Daffodils? Along a yard? But yes, not the meetings and the classes and all the kinds of things we usually talk about, but this, this deeper story. “Because,” as the first book of Samuel tells us, “man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart,” and at the heart of those bright yellow flowers was spring, was hope, was the Lord himself.
You might say, wait a minute. Aren’t you being a little soft? Isn’t this just a subjective thing? Yes. It is. I don’t know what it means for sure.
“All I know is that once I was blind and now I see,” at least for a moment.
This is the idea of the examen of conscience, the prayer technique of St. Ignatius Loyola, that Jesus is the “light of the world” and that this light is always shining in our lives, though it’s often blocked or we don’t see it, so the way to pray is to pray our lives, to think back on the moments of light and to give thanks, and to think back on the moments of darkness and to face them, and then to give it all to God, surrender it all to Him to make sense of and hold together.
Most of us don’t see Jesus directly. An angel doesn’t land on our doorstep, complete with wings. But that’s OK. We can detect the presence of the Lord in other ways, in everything that happens, because the “light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth,” as Paul says, everything that is good in our lives comes from him, and so we just reason backwards. Whenever we feel goodness, whenever our hearts lift up, we think: God is behind that.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man,” Jesus asks the man he healed, and the man says, “Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?” All the blind man knows is what has happened to him, all he knows are the daffodils, and it’s only now, after the fact, that Jesus tells him how to interpret this. The daffodils: that’s me.
And of course this interpretation, this faith, will be resisted. All of the Pharisees outside us and inside us will come crowding in, ready to challenge the moments and demean the moments and finally throw them out. We want permanent, but the moments are fleeting; we want what we can measure, but the moments can’t be measured; we want obvious, but the moments are subtle, and easy to miss, and easy to talk ourselves out of. We do it every day.
We think it’s God who doesn’t exist but really it’s we who don’t.
In a way the very fact that we can’t prove the meaning of the moments is a proof. If we could manufacture grace we’d be doing it all the time.
But God is always a “surprise,” as Pope Francis puts it. “We don’t set the time and place of the encounter.”
And later Pope Francis says this. It’s a really striking passage:
In this quest to find God in all things, there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by some margin of uncertainty—that is proof that God is not with him. You must leave room for the Lord, not for certainties. Uncertainty is in every true discernment.
Darkness exists. It’s all around us. There’s not just the brightness of the daffodils but the grief of the man next door.
1000 children in the world died of malaria yesterday. 149 people died of starvation in South Sudan. Yesterday. And in a very important way that’s our fault, that’s the result of our own sinful selfishness and inaction, but in another way it’s part of the suffering of the world and the suffering that will always be there, and it leads to the biggest question of all: if there is a God, how can He let this happen?
Doesn’t the death of the woman cancel out the beauty of the flowers?
And there’s our own darkness, too, within, our own desolation often in prayer, the dryness day after day when nothing seems to be happening anymore, after all those days, maybe, of sweetness and conviction. Maybe we were deceived before, when we felt the first rush of joy.
That’s how the world sees it: that joy is naïve, faith always a delusion.
But here’s what I think Pope Francis is saying and what the readings are saying today, that we have to face the darkness and acknowledge it, we have to “expose” it, as Paul says, not pretend it isn’t there–we have to accept it, accept it all, honestly, with humility—but without rejecting the joy, too, without throwing out the hope, because hope, too, is real, it’s all real, and our call is to live with the contradictions, not to try to reconcile them, not to try to make sense of them. That’s beyond us. It’s arrogant, finally, to think that God has to obey our own rules for coherence. Our call is to do what Our Lady does in the stories in the first part of Luke and “hold these things in our hearts,” “treasure these things,” and as Luke says, “all these things.” Accept them. Take them in.
And trust in God.
And then a great freedom comes. The moments happen. The daffodils rise up, and they are beautiful and they are true, and spring is coming, too. Spring is here. There is crucifixion and there is resurrection, never one without the other, and in some paradoxical way we can never understand and don’t have to, the one who is God and man, both, not one or the other, the one who reconciles all things in himself, is reconciling all of us, too, all of the things in our lives, the children who die and the woman who dies and all of us who live, in every moment.
Every given, sacred moment.