By: Fr. James Gross
We’re in the groove of taking surveys these days in our parish. If we were to take a survey of which one of our five senses we would most hate to lose, I’m sure a lot of us would say our sight, because we depend on it so much. But the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus’ time had an additional reason. They placed a high priority on one’s ability to read and study the Scriptures, perfecting their observance of the Law of Moses. At the time, someone who was blind could only snag the Word out of the air, so to speak, and rely on their memory.
To these men, a fate so awful required an explanation which made more sense than a cruel twist of fate: it had to be God’s punishment for sin. That’s why we get this seemingly bizarre question from Jesus’ disciples to begin this gospel. “Master, who is to blame for that man’s blindness—himself or his parents?” Jesus insists that neither one is at fault; his condition is an occasion for God to manifest His glory.
Earlier in St. John’s Gospel, he informs us that Jesus and his followers were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the high holy days of the Jewish calendar. As part of the celebration, the temple was outfitted with a great many torches and lamps to illuminate it in grandeur. By declaring himself to be the light of the world, Jesus makes the argument that his Father has sent him forth to bring the festivals of the Old Covenant to completion.
Typically people with ailments pursue Jesus, or have their family or friends do so. Recall what happened with the blind man Bartimaeus. Hearing a ruckus, he asked what was going on. “Wait, who? Jesus of Nazareth? He’s HERE? Holy cow! Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” And, granting their request, the Lord rewards them for their faith. But here Jesus pursues the blind man in order to heal him. It almost seems odd to us, until we realize that the Lord is continuously pursuing us. He does not intend to violate our freedom, but searches for us precisely to give us what we cannot give to ourselves.
Resembling our Heavenly Father in the creation accounts of the Book of Genesis, Jesus works with clay to apply a paste to the man’s eyelids. The language St. John uses in Greek is exactly that of the Father molding our first parents from the clay of the earth. In fact, some commentators have surmised that the blind man may not have had any eyes at all, and that Jesus in this miracle is giving sight by creating eyes for him to see. I find that idea fascinating.
Also, the way Jesus uses humble material objects in this healing reminds us of the sacraments. Plain water cleanses the body, but the waters of Baptism purify the soul. Bread and wine provide a sparse meal, but Jesus changes those gifts into Himself when the Church celebrates the Eucharist.
The rest of the story is the fallout that ensues when the authorities try to get to the bottom of this miracle. In the first place, they object to Jesus healing the man born blind on the Sabbath. The interrogation becomes tiresome because of the men’s ignorance of God’s power at work in their midst. But St. John goes into detail here as a reflection of what is happening to Christians in his time. Not only did the Romans pressure them to practice the pagan religion of the Empire, but Jews were casting them out for proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus.
As for the healed man, when he declares that Jesus is a prophet, the enraged Pharisees toss him out of the synagogue. St. John the Apostle saw this very scene unfold over and over as one town after another disowned the Christians in their midst and told them, “Either stop saying that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Son of God or beat it.”
For the safety of all those involved, celebrations of the Eucharist and meetings for prayer often took place secretly and in the dark. Jesus is our light, whether we are gathered in a place of shimmering brilliance or the darkest, dingiest cave. Our ancestors in faith could say the same thing. For them, the choice was obvious. They became social outcasts but would not betray the Lord, even at the risk of their lives. The healed man’s parents were not ready to take that step as evidenced by the caginess of their statement that their son was of age and could speak for himself, but we have to be ready to say, “I was blind, but thanks to Christ, now I see.”
Because the Pharisees claimed that they could see, their sin remained. What do we believe about our blindness? Can we see our poverty before God and our own need for healing? St. Paul urges us on today: “Arise, O sleeper, and Christ will give you light.” In today’s first reading, God instructs Samuel that, while human beings see outward appearances, He looks into the heart. Are we able to see ourselves as we truly are? And more importantly, are we able to see ourselves as the Father sees us, with tender compassion and the desire to restore our sight and recognize that we are His beloved children?
About six months after his election, Pope Francis sat down for an interview with an Italian journalist. The very first question was broad and philosophical: “Your Holiness, who is Jorge Bergoglio?” The Pope reflected for a moment and responded, “Jorge Bergoglio is a sinner.” A moment later, wishing to expand on that answer, he said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Many people heard that and said, “Oh come on…he’s the Pope! What has he done?” But this was not false humility. Pope Francis spoke for us all insofar as the light by which we see comes not from ourselves, but from Christ.
Our parish Penance Service is on Tuesday evening of Holy Week, April 11th. There are many other times set aside for confession besides, such as before every weekday Mass. Would the man born blind want you to cling to your sins and remain in darkness, or would he rather invite you to see anew by the light of the Trinity? Come to the Divine Physician and be healed.
By: Fr. James Gross
Bread and water are the staples of sustaining physical life. All by themselves, they don’t make for an appetizing diet, but see what happens when you try to do without them. Moses felt the wrath of his kinsmen’s anger when the food ran out. Yes, the Egyptians were far in the rear view mirror, washed into the sea, but Moses complained to God that the people would run out of patience. The answer to their prayers comes in the form of two miracles: a mysterious food they called “manna” (which literally means “what is this?”) which they collected every morning, and water flowing from a huge rock which Moses struck with his staff. God provided for this large nation on the move in a way they themselves could not have imagined.
Move forward now to what we see of Jesus’ compassion. “Sir, give me this water so that I may not be thirsty,” the Samaritan woman asks him. She knew that she had both a natural thirst and a spiritual, supernatural thirst. From her conversation with Jesus, she came to believe that both of these thirsts would be satisfied. Without harshness or contempt, Jesus awakened in her both a spiritual thirst and the courage to satisfy that thirst through faith in him.
The Gospel readings for the next three weeks have a couple of special characteristics. First, each one is a little longer than we’re accustomed to. In addition to the Samaritan woman, we will hear about Jesus’ healing of a man born blind and his raising Lazarus from the dead. Secondly, St. John’s style is not to take a snapshot of the scene and run along—that is, giving a bare-bones account of who was there and what happened. No, he kicks off his sandals, flops on the couch, and stays a while. This is an important gift to us because St. John has a way of probing deep into the mystery of Christ. Sometimes it feels like Our Lord is barnstorming into a new town every day; but here he is in no hurry, entering into the kind of dialogue that feels extraordinary and lavish.
That is just how Jesus wishes to interact with us. He has all kinds of time for us; do we really not have time for him? Or could it be that we are so distracted by everything else going on in our lives that we restrict him—we’re giving God an hour here today and that’s good, but when else?
Let’s carefully examine the case of this Samaritan woman. She has an impressive knowledge of her religious background, and an impressive courage in staying there with the Lord and not allowing shame to send her running away. But there are things in her personal life that are morally inauthentic—that is, they cannot abide with a godly life.
Why do you suppose we were told that she came to the well around noon? Numerous scholars argue that the prime time for gathering water was early in the morning, so that you could have it to conduct your household duties all day. This woman could have come earlier, too, but maybe the brood gathered there would revile her and give her a hard time, because they “knew what kind of woman she was.” Maybe she concluded it wasn’t worth the static, and would arrive later when she knew they’d be gone. So, in her encounter with Jesus, the woman faced a two-fold problem: she, a Samaritan, expected Jews who met her to treat her like a second-class citizen, and on top of that, she was the village outcast.
But to her undying credit, this woman was brave and vulnerable before Christ. She resolved that for too long she’d been in the bondage of the evil one. Here was her chance to break those bonds, so that she could begin to live a noble, holy life as a true daughter of Israel. Her neighbors might have been skeptical at first, but she never doubted Jesus’ claim that he was the long-awaited Anointed One. She permitted him to show her a new path for her life.
Notice how soon her fortunes change: mere moments after being the penitent in need of mercy and healing, this woman is now the evangelist, telling her neighbors, “Come see this man for yourselves!” Overjoyed at the gift of Christ’s purifying love, she saw this gift as being too good to remain a secret. Could anyone else have proclaimed the Good News more faithfully than she did that day? This woman was a walking Gospel lesson, and an illustration of how the Lord always comes in search of those who are lost. Everyone, regardless of the mountains from their past that stand in the way, can find Jesus, who gives us faith to move mountains.
Think about the person in your lives who is the woman at the well at this moment. Whom do we know that consider themselves on the margins or even outside of the family of God? Have our actions repelled them, or have we tried to invite them back? And if we haven’t, what’s stopping us? Have we possibly set up expectations that they’re not interested in new life in Christ, and if so, why? We need to show them that there is nowhere else we can go to satisfy the hunger and thirst in our souls. Christ alone is our living water and daily bread. This Lent, and for the rest of our lives, let us unceasingly ask the Lord for these gifts.
By: Fr. James Gross
After spending last Sunday with Jesus as he withstands temptation in the wilderness, today we journey with him to the mountaintop. We get an inside look at what the Apostles Peter, James, and John were privileged to see. We’ll examine the theological meaning behind this scene, as well as the strength it provides us here and now. But first, let’s step back for a moment to appreciate just how stunning this event would have been.
People who lived 2,000 years ago were just like you and me, but consider how primitive the times were. No one could travel by land faster than a horse could take them. No one could traverse the sea faster than they could sail or row. Maybe most striking of all is the difference in technology in our time. None of the disciples had heard amplified music in stereo or seen either still photographs or moving pictures of any kind. There were no televisions, computer monitors, or movie theaters. The greatest visual wonders of their lives were the products of nature, such as a landscape or a thunderstorm.
Now imagine that we took such a person, with no modern multimedia experiences whatsoever, and brought him to a 3-D Star Wars movie. Talk about sensory overload, right? Now we start to get an idea of how awe-inspiring the Transfiguration of Jesus must have been. Peter, James, and John could never “un-see” or forget such a thing.
In his ministry, Jesus insisted on an absolute standard of humility. When he attended fancy banquets or social functions, they were not of his arranging. Jesus accepted whatever hospitality his hosts might offer (eating what was given to him, sleeping wherever shelter was available, etc.), and insisted that those who accompanied him did the same. To the naked eye Jesus displayed a dignity in how he carried himself, but no trappings of regality or finery.
Hold on to that picture of humility for a moment. Now picture him entering a town in which people have heard about his healing abilities and gathered their infirm family members and friends. One after another, they came away unbound by their former conditions: the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the paralyzed can walk, and so on. And he operated in a seemingly effortless manner. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? A man who embodied deep humility is the same one working such wonders that no one had ever witnessed before.
In this perspective, the Transfiguration of Christ is a gift whereby we can see by means of our human senses the true grandeur of the Son of God. Adding to the sensory overload of his dazzling white garments and the piercing light emanating from him is the vision of two giants of salvation history—Moses and Elijah.
We understand well enough that Moses, through whom God handed down the Ten Commandments and many other precepts besides, represents the Law which gave the nation of Israel its distinct identity. However, Elijah may not seem to us an archetypal prophet. His story is not contained in a book of the Old Testament named for him, but in the Books of Kings. For Jews of Jesus’ time, though, Elijah’s legacy loomed large. He faced down enormous opposition, from kings and peers alike, in his fidelity to God.
What did it mean to behold the transfigured Jesus standing as equals alongside these singular heroes? An ecstatic Peter can hardly put it into words. In fact, his first inclination is to perpetuate the scene. “Let’s build a little village on this spot and dwell together like this forever!” We are sympathetic to his reaction, but as the Father declares that the world must listen to His Son and the vision dissipates, the three Apostles realize that they cannot stay on the mountaintop. Their brothers and sisters in the valley below need to hear their teachings and encounter the grace of God for themselves. Only in heaven will Peter’s request eventually be fulfilled.
Lastly, the Transfiguration uniquely prepared these men for the passion Our Lord would have to undergo. Before much longer, Jesus would be arrested, condemned in a sham trial, scourged, and crucified. John fled, but amazingly returned to the cross of Christ. At least Peter came back to the high priest’s courtyard, even though in fear he denied even knowing the Lord. As for my namesake, James, once he headed for the hills that Thursday night, heaven knows where he was.
But here’s the key: in the face of the disastrous events, in spite of their fleeing Jerusalem, they came back together by Easter Sunday. Yes, they locked the door and suspected that the authorities might hunt them down next, but they were with each other. We can be certain that the vision of Christ’s glory was seared into the consciousness of Peter, James, and John, and from this vision they clung to the hope that the Son of Man could indeed rise from the dead, as He Himself had foretold.
Bringing all this into the present day, what does the Transfiguration of Jesus mean for us? Our Savior is a savior because he suffered for us. In worldly terms, to triumph means that we come through unscathed: we bypass any obstacles that would touch us. The path the Father chose for Jesus is a scandal that contradicts worldly logic, but it gives us a tremendous example. We can unite our hardships, heartaches, and disappointments, meaningless though they may seem, with the sufferings of Christ. And by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we know that those obstacles will pass away.
There’s hardly a better way to describe this mystery than what St. Augustine once said: We gave the Son of God, in our fallen human nature, the ability to die. He gave us, in His divinity, the ability to live with the Trinity forever.
By: Fr. James Gross
The Church has chosen these readings for every congregation to reflect on today. And, of course, we will do that too. But I need to make a little disclaimer. I would really, REALLY rather not say much of anything about the devil. Now there’s a depressing subject! It’s like going to see someone’s newly renovated house and spending the whole time staring at a stain on the carpet where the dog did his business. Because of how he factors into these scripture readings, we cannot ignore the devil. So we will foil him by exposing and confounding his wicked plans.
The Greek word St. Matthew uses for the devil, diabolos, literally means “slanderer.” The Aramaic word Satan is slightly different, meaning an opponent or enemy. But something about “slanderer” adds a new layer of meaning. One who slanders cannot make or build anything; he can only distort. A slanderer takes something good and warps it, ruins it. Remember the ancient story handed down to us about Lucifer, “the light bearer,” a gleaming, brilliant angel in God’s firmament. Out of envy over God’s creative faculties, he rebelled, and forever resents being a mere creature. To this day, Satan creates nothing, but only manages to twist and pervert the wonders of creation.
Can we not see this trait in his very first words in the Bible? The serpent asks Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Subtle, yes, but here all we have is a lie built on paranoia. “Maybe God’s not on my side after all. Maybe I’ll just need to do my own thing to survive.” Eve’s problem was her entering into the conversation in the first place. A fitting reply would have been, “No, we may eat of the fruit of every tree except one. Now get out of here, you slithering liar, and don’t come back.” Instead, sadly, Eve left the door open for the serpent to pile on more doubt, and for temptation to bear down on her. We shouldn’t forget about one other very important person. Where, pray tell, was Adam? He’s missing in action, or if not absent, definitely silent. Instead of protecting his beloved, Adam leaves her to flail and languish in battle. Why do no words of confrontation come from him to the serpent? Could Adam not have said, “Wait a minute: why are you questioning what is unquestionable? Where is there any defect in God? Does anyone outdo Him in goodness?” This answer would spring, not out of blind faith, but from direct personal experience of the Divine.
By his Paschal Mystery (that is, his dying and rising), Jesus would ultimately undo the curse and utterly defeat Satan. But much earlier, at the onset of his public ministry, he took some time for preparation. In the intensity of his prayer Jesus forgot about food, and just as the Lord was about to exit the wilderness, the devil made his move. Jesus does what Adam and Eve were unable to do; he rebukes Satan, but does so concisely, without an extended dialogue. And even when the devil becomes arrogant and starts quoting the Word of God, Jesus finds a “trump card” quote to lay on the table.
Each of Our Lord’s three responses comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, which some scholars take as a reference to his formation of the “New Israel.” Deuteronomy records Moses’ final words to his Hebrew brethren before they enter the Promised Land. Christ is to lead his Church as an entirely new kingdom, with new goals and new rewards.
Let’s briefly inspect each of the devil’s temptations to see what’s really behind them. The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. It seems harmless and innocent enough, and assuaging one’s hunger is not in itself immoral—especially after such a prolonged period of fasting. But the core of this first temptation is that Jesus would use his power for himself. He responds that life is about more than bread, and that he would break his fast in a humbler way.
The second temptation is to leap from a dizzying height. “You are God’s Son, aren’t you,” the devil taunts him. “He won’t let anything happen to you!” At the core of this second temptation are two things: a spectacular sign to compel belief, and the avoidance of the cross. The devil tempts Jesus to dazzle the masses as he would have it—not by healing or rescuing anyone else, but by doing something stupid (like jumping from the parapet of the Temple) and defying the consequences. Moreover, it implies that any suffering on the Lord’s part is unnecessary. Why not bypass the passion and cross, if one has that kind of power? But Our Lord proved his supreme obedience to His Father’s will in the garden of Gethsemane when he embraced our suffering in a spirit of fraternal allegiance, so as to go through it and come out victorious from the grave.
The third temptation is to receive dominion over all the world’s kingdoms in exchange for worshiping Satan. In the first place, it’s an empty promise. How could the devil really have something like that to give? Secondly, it was meant to play upon the national hardships of Israel. Palestine was a small strip of land that had become a buffer state, often trampled and made subject to the rule of this empire or that. How many of Jesus’ peers would have seen political autonomy as a tantalizing prospect? But at the core of this third temptation is compromise. Absurdly, the devil tells the King of Kings, “Go along with me and you’ll have everything.” But the only one worth serving is the Father, because to serve Him is to reign.
We may wish that temptations would remain far from us, that we would be immune to them as if they were a disease for which we have taken the vaccine. But the untested piece of steel is not necessarily stronger. When Christ is alive and active in our hearts, the moment of temptation is a chance to rise up as much as a chance to fall.
So how do we make this happen? If the devil chooses to work on us in a personal way, turn him aside with a personal rebuke. Tell him, “I am not your plaything; I am a child of God. You are a loser, because Christ has defeated you. By the Holy Spirit I bind you and cast you aside. I will play no part in your sick and pathetic plan. There is a greater destiny in store for me.”
By: Fr. James Gross
“Return to me with your whole heart, says the Lord.” The prophet Joel doesn’t dare say, “Return to us, O God,” as though God had left us behind. We are the ones who become unreliable and forgetful of God, and not the other way around. Indeed, the season of Lent is about returning to God, and in so doing we rediscover what kinds of people we are meant to become.
Each year we choose to observe a 40-day season of heightened acts of penance and prayer. Why do we do this? It would certainly be easier to stick with our routines and to do what’s familiar, wouldn’t it? But the thing about routines is that they often turn into ruts. Being stuck in a rut denies the effect divine grace should have in our lives. Every year, without fail, once Ash Wednesday comes along, I identify routines—let’s call them what they are, ruts—in my own life that I’m not proud of, things that weigh me down. And every year this celebration has new meaning for me, and gives me a needed push to do something positive.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not reducing the observance of Lent to some self-improvement program. The benefits of a “good Lent” run far deeper than that, including one’s sense of purpose and spirituality. Pointing out specific things I’m doing or not doing is only part of the puzzle. Those things may not be blatantly sinful, but the question is: do they result in my becoming more negligent of God, or less able to love Him and my neighbor fully? When I consider the sacrifices I make during Lent, I ask myself: is this something vain, or will it actually help me focus on my faith and practice it better? God has already turned toward me and has never turned away. How will I return to Him?
Historically, Lent came about in large part because of the many converts who joined the church every year. The custom, as it is now, was for them to enter into a more intense period of preparation before being received into full communion at Easter, and to publicly appeal for the support of their brothers and sisters already in the fold. Rather than to stand by passively, the faithful eventually took upon themselves similar acts of penance, uniting themselves actively to the parish’s catechumens. One of the main reasons for a 40-day long season of Lent was to imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in prayer in the desert to prepare for his ministry, which we’ll hear about this weekend, or also the 40-day retreat Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai as God revealed to him the instructions of His law for Israel. The Church has seen the wisdom of annually calling upon God’s mercy and for renewal in the Holy Spirit.
On Ash Wednesday we hear this Gospel reading about the merits of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Three times Jesus says that “our Father who sees what is secret” will repay us. At first glance his words contradict the practice of putting ashes on our foreheads. In fact, years ago I met a young woman who bragged about the large cross-shaped smear on her head and exuberantly said, “I got GOOD ashes this year!”
I’m only being mildly critical of her comment. Obviously no one in the seminary told us that the application of ashes has to measure so long by so wide in order to count. What we’re doing today has a two-fold significance. The words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” call to mind our own mortality. This awareness of death shows us what in our lives we need to hold on to and what we need to let go of. Secondly, the ashes are an exterior sign of the desire of our hearts. The smoldering remains of palm branches do not magically make us more pious and charitable. The cross applied to our foreheads commits us to stir that charity into flame and not bury it. The sign of ashes is a challenge to make every part of our lives a fitting image of the life of Christ—both what we think and what we do.
Lastly, all the language of today’s readings ties us to the present moment. I’d contend that the most important word in this Gospel is when. “When you give alms, when you fast,” etc. is far different than saying “if.” When I started Theology, the graduate school version of seminary, I was struck by how often people were saying “When you become a priest.” The “if” was slipping away; a transition had taken place.
How do we respond to the present moment and live in the spirit of “when?” Don’t wish to return to God someday: do it today! Don’t wait around for the right time: now is the acceptable time! Delaying the action may sound rational but is really harmful. Excuses are our enemies. The sooner we get serious about working with God’s grace, the easier it will be to make sacrifices and stick with them. May our prayer today propel us forward, so that God will dispose us to give Him greater glory.