Today is Laetare Sunday, which gets its name from the opening words of today’s Introit, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” In most years, we mark this mid-lent moment with bright rose vestments, flowers on the altar, and the playing of the organ – external signs that our Lenten pilgrimage is half-over and that we are already half-way to Easter.
But this has been a Lent unlike any that any of us have ever experienced. All public Masses have been cancelled in much of the world - radical but necessary precautions as the world responds to the global threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. This is a sacrifice which we are being called upon to make to reduce the spread of infection, because that is what it means to be a society and to care about the common good. In time, we will have a better sense of what can prudently be done, but for now I encourage everyone to pay attention to and follow faithfully the current public health guidelines and minimize being in public places and in groups of any significant size. This is especially important for those of us who are older or who may have an already existing medical condition.
With that in mind, I welcome all who are joining one another in spirit for Mass this Sunday. We may be separated by circumstances, but we are not divided.
The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel [John 9:1-41] is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. And, just as the blind man receives physical sight, he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” He receives his physical sight through a series of steps in which Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see. Meanwhile, he gains increasing insight into who Jesus is - a growth in faith which exactly parallels the unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see but are spiritually blind - obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world, challenging us to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.
Meanwhile, easily overlooked in this wonderful story is a sidebar at the beginning when the disciples speculated about the cause of the man’s blindness. In that pre-scientific age, the disciples wondered whether someone’s sin was to blame – an opinion Jesus explicitly rejected.
We, of course, with the insights of modern science, know the natural causes of disease; but, as our present predicament demonstrates, we may feel just as confused and helpless as our ancestors as we are confronted by a new and dangerous disease. Indeed, because we have expectations that they did not have about our ability to control the natural world and to organize our lives as we wish, we may be even more unsettled than they were, when sickness strikes so unexpectedly as this pandemic has done, suddenly forcing us to stop whatever else we thought we would be doing.
Questions like “why?” are important, of course; but much more important are questions like “what do we do now?” Just as the no-longer-blind man asked Jesus for direction, we too need to ask what we can do in response to this unexpected challenge. Now obviously doctors and healthcare workers and policymakers have particular responsibilities and things they need to do. But, for all of us, there are two things, I think, that we are especially challenged to do.
The first, of course, is to pray. Because we are in danger does not mean God has completely abandoned us, and because we cannot at Mass does not mean we should abandon the new life God has called us to. I don’t know if you saw the pictures of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage last Sunday through the empty streets of Rome, visiting shrines connected with experiences of God’s presence and healing action in past plagues. I found those photos profoundly moving.
The second thing that we are all being challenged to do flows from the first. Just as God does not abandon us, and we must not abandon our relationship with God, so too we must not abandon our relationships with one another. The more we are required to distance ourselves physically from one another, the more we must NOT distance ourselves spiritually. If ever there was a time to reach out to one another by telephone or Facebook or whatever, it is now – especially when so many of our brothers and sisters are alone and may need our help to meet ordinary needs and to allay extraordinary fears. So that even in this terribly frightening time, the works of God may continue to be made visible in our world.
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020.
Photo: Saint Michael's Chapel, Paulist Fathers' Residence, Knoxville TN.