Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seeing Jesus

In the early 1990s, I served as deacon at a famous New York Church known as “the Actors’ Chapel,” so-called because of its ministry to the theater-district. I remember how, after Saturday afternoon matinee, a crowd would gather outside the theater across the street to get a glimpse of some actor or actress in the cast. That’s more or less how I imagine the scene in today’s Gospel [John 12:20-33], when some Greeks came to Philip and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” They approached Philip, because being from Bethsaida in Galilee, he presumably could converse comfortably with them in Greek. Mindful of his place in the hierarchy, however, Philip went and told Andrew, Peter’s brother. Then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Now, you might think after all this, that we might hear more about those Greeks and their meeting with Jesus. John never mentions them again, however. We never hear whether or not they actually got to meet Jesus. We may presume that, along with Andrew and Philip and probably the rest of the crowd, they at least got to hear him – hear him speak about how the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and hear him pray “Father, glorify your name,” the prayer of a faithful Son, full of confidence in his Father’s response. In fact, assuming they hung around long enough, they would also have heard the Father’s answer.

Of course, the crowd there disagreed – as people still do (and do a lot) - about Jesus. Some said “An Angel has spoken to him,” but others just thought it was thunder. Who and what Jesus is – the living Son of God, or a long-dead historical curiosity, a passing fad that came and went with all the permanence of the last thunderstorm – is also at the heart of who and what we are.

Conditioned as we all are by photo and film records of recent historical figures and events, we too perhaps would like to have seen Jesus. Obviously, such access to the past is not possible. The only Jesus we have actual access to in the present is the Risen Christ, the living Son of God. Like the Greeks, who, for access to Jesus, went to Philip and Andrew (in other words, those appointed as Apostles), our access to Jesus, our encounter with Christ, is through the Church, which continues his his life and mission in the world.

We, who are here today, we encounter Christ through our experience of being his Church – not just what happens here on Sunday, but in a very special way what happens here on Sunday, which forms us as Church for the rest of the week and the rest of life. The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus once remarked how consistently touched he was by the phrase before the Sign of Peace, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” The Church is that whole host of the faithful both living and dead who sustain us in faith, in hope, and in love, a Communion of Saints that unites us here and now with the faithful all over the world and back through time with those who have shown Christ to the world in the past.

These past few weeks of Lent in Rome, I have been doing the daily Lenten station churches. There is something special about going to these venerable Roman churches in the pre-dawn darkness, walking literally in the steps of centuries of Christians who have visited those same churches on those same days, celebrating Mass surrounded by the relics and memories of martyrs, then emerging in the early morning light to continue one’s daily work. It is a true experience of the communion of saints! As the Italian Humanist Petrarch (1304-1374) once wrote, describing his experience as a pilgrim in Rome in the Holy Year 1350: “How inspiring for a Christian to journey to that city which is like a heaven on earth, sanctified by the remains of martyrs beyond number, drenched in the precious blood of those early witnesses to the Truth.”

What this also means is that (again like the Greeks in the Gospel) the rest of the world also encounters Christ through its experience of his Church, which is to say, of us. Indeed, as has so often been said, the Church is essentially the only experience of Christ most people will ever have in life – the face of Christ they see, the word of God they hear. So, if in any way, our behavior conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent - precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed - and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ sacrificed himself in order to save.

We hear many stories about sons in the Bible – from Cain and Abel on. In Jesus, we see the ultimate Son, God’s Son, whose perfect obedience is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

In that he is everything there is to be, while revealed in and through his church, he is everything anyone ever needs to see.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 25, 2012.

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