As we gather together on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, cooped up in this little friary, we celebrate this Holy Mass with the knowledge that more people within and without these walls are perhaps more anxious and worried than they have been in several years' time. Friends of mine back home who don’t often overreact to world events are now anxious about the future. Folks are worried they won’t have enough food for essential supplies. They are wondering when they will be able to go back to work or back to their offices. Panic has caused normally level headed folks to hoard goods that they don’t need while others are left to fend for themselves. Many don’t trust the government or our nation’s leaders to find solutions to these economic, biological, and political realities caused by the spread of this virus. People cannot even find respite in houses of worship at this time as they too are closed or severely restricted to the public. It seems like for many, life has come to a complete and utter halt.
But yet, during these moments of trial and tribulation, during these moments of international hardship, our true nature becomes increasingly clear. As a people, our ideas about ourselves come to fruition under these sorts of pressure. It is like a piece of coal which says of itself, “My true potential is that of a diamond”. Yet without pressure, it can never be that which it says it is. Likewise, our nations also cannot be great unless they are first tried. And this, I believe, is one of those times.
These are the times that show ourselves who we really are. No, this is not the same kind of trial experienced by Americans and Britons during the two World Wars, or during the Cold War, the Troubles, or on the terrorist attacks on September 11th or the 7th of July.
But thousands of people are no longer around today because of this virus. Survivors and the general public are scared. People will lose their jobs. People who have saved for decades will lose their retirements (hopefully just in the short term). Our own Franciscan society will lose money in its investments (just like many Americans) which will restrict what activities and opportunities we are able to pursue. We will, like all those impacted due to this virus, be forced to make difficult and perhaps painful decisions. Our future, like that of others, is up in the air. No one knows what will happen tomorrow or when exactly normalcy will return.
Gathered together for this celebration of the Mass--an opportunity not available to many Christians right now--we hear the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9).
“The fruit of the light.”
That phrase causes us to reflect on our present situation. What meaning is there for us contained in these words? Doesn’t it seem ironic that at the same time our government and health officials are encouraging us to stay indoors, St. Paul is exhorting us with the words: "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead” (Ephesians 5:14). Even in the midst of our imposed isolation from the world today, the Apostle encourages us in pursuing the fruits of the light, inviting us to, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:10-11).
And what are the works of darkness? In the beginning of the 5th chapter of Ephesians, immediately before where our epistle excerpt began, Paul mentions several of these works of darkness. He says,
“[F]ornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you...Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:3-5,7-8).
As much as I may be a fan of sometimes obscene and silly talk, what is Paul trying to say to us? As brothers who live a rather unusual and countercultural lifestyle, how can our perspective on the present-day state of the world work to expose the works of darkness when the world appears increasingly dark?
Our Baptism and Confirmation marked and sealed our relationship as members of God’s beloved family. Our joy, especially as Franciscans, is to welcome others into that same relationship with God and with each other. Like Francis, we are heralds of the great King. No longer do our own personal desires, our own personal myths, our own personal fears and anxieties dominate our lives. Instead we live only for Jesus Christ. And when we live only for him, we make alive him who said “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
In our Gospel today, Christ tells his disciples, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). As long as we, members of God’s family--who are baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit--are in the world, Christ is the light of the world.
As Franciscans, our witness to this universal Christian message is simple. We must decrease while Jesus and his message must increase. There is no greater message for our troubled time than the life and message of Jesus Christ.
The saints, particularly the better example of a modern saint like Mother Teresa, show us what life can be like when the primacy of Christ reigns through our lives.
Long before she died, Mother Teresa destroyed much of her notes and diaries and had instructed that, after she died, all her writings be destroyed and that others would destroy any letter received from her. This walking saint whose writings would (and have) no doubt provided many scholars and followers and critics with countless material to read and digest, wanted no trace of her words to outlive her. She said of her decision, “I want the work to remain only [Jesus’.] When the beginning will be known, people will think more of me, less of Jesus.”
During this trying time, our lives too must remain focused on Jesus, bringing more of the power of Jesus in our world and his power to heal and to bring healing and light to a future that, for us, is shrouded in darkness. We cannot and ought not be overcome with fear as if we knew not this saving power of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we know that, in him, our fears are relieved. “Be not afraid” Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples.
I’ve recently come across a quote from a 20th century theologian who wrote:
"He who is anxious and knows Christ may be assured that he is not alone in his anxiety, but that Christ, too, has gone through it. And this means a completely new attitude toward the future; no longer is the future a befogged landscape into which I peer anxiously because all kinds of obscure perils are brewing there for me. No, everything is changed: we do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming. And he who possesses the last hour no longer needs to fear the next minute." (Helmut Thielicke)
Today, the world seems clouded in darkness. The words of Weird Al Yankovic’s song, “Everything You Know is Wrong” seems incredibly fitting for our times right now. “Black is white, up is down and short is long/ And everything you thought was just so important doesn't matter anyway.”
These are the times that reveal to us what is truly important. Inside our little friary, we have the blessed opportunity away from the hustle and bustle of the world to spend many, many moments in reflection and quiet and contemplation. That is a luxury which many others do not have at this time but one that we ought not to waste.
We do not know what will be coming these next few weeks. But this is nothing new for the Christian who knows to trust the loving Providence of God. That itself is the peace that passes all understanding. The peace that keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us hold to that assurance as much as we can right now. Amen.
Fourth Sunday in Lent | Year A
March 22, 2020
First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Epistle: Ephesians 5:8-14
Gospel: John 9:1-41
Brother James Nathaniel, SSF can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org