Fourth Sunday of Lent: 3-26-17
Peace be with You,
We have come to Laetare Sunday, the name traditionally given to the fourth Sunday of the Lenten Season. “Laetare” is the singular imperative form of the Latin word “laetare,” meaning “to rejoice.” And, if you take a moment to notice, the vestments worn by the priest this day may be pink, or more properly, rose as opposed to the traditional purple worn during the season of Lent. So why the change? Well, we have now passed the halfway point of the season of Lent, a period meant to be occupied with self-denial, often practiced in the form of fasting or “giving-up” something for the duration of the season. The reason for this is twofold; first, we are imitating Christ, who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself…being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8); second, it is the hope that this imitation will lead to increased conformity with the life of Christ and unity with him in order that we who had fallen through our first parents, may in Christ be made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and so be exalted (Philippians 2:9). It is this beautiful message of hope that the Church reminds us of this weekend, and thus calls us to rejoice even amidst this difficult growing season of Lent.
When you look into the mirror what do you see? Do you see someone who is too short? overweight? too skinny? hips too big? slightly oversized nose? Or maybe you see someone who is unsuccessful, a flunky gofer of the fast-paced world around you? Maybe you see someone who has money, a fine house, a great job and a nice family but who still has no real sense of satisfaction. These are feelings we all have from time to time, very few are there among us who have the sense of self-security we long for, and a great majority of those enjoy the self-security of ignorance, having never taken the time to figure out who they really are. Now, I do not write these things in order to be a linguistic depressant, nor to rain on what should be a day of celebration, instead, I say this for two different reasons. First, it is to simply state the fact that self-identity is something most of us struggle with and this is a good thing, for as humans we have an inherent mysteriousness about us, and the journey to discovering who we are takes a lifetime; if you thought you had yourself and life figured out, that means you have probably quit living in any real way that matters. Second, it is to get you to wonder who or what it is that you listen to that gives you some direction as to how you can make progress in answering this question which all of us ask, whether consciously or not.
The voice we listen to will be the voice that guides us on this journey of self-discovery we call life. If, for example, we listen to the talking heads on the internet, we are likely to hear that we are whoever we would like to be and that we have the right to define and create ourselves as we would like. If we listen to the commercials on television and the radio or follow our favorite celebrity on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook we are likely to hear that our life can just be so much different if we just buy this new phone or start wearing this cologne or that pair of shoes. In short, if I check my Twitter feed or Facebook page and turn on the television I am likely to hear millions of voices, all calling me in a different direction and I am left with a decision, who should I listen to and in what order? And, we ought to be careful in our choices because the voice(s) that we listen to will shape the way we see ourselves, our lives, and this outlook will determine the course of action we take. Therefore, we ought to be extremely picky about who we listen to for it will impact not only ourselves, but all those around us as well.
Our first reading today introduces us to a great listener, the prophet Samuel. Recall, it is Samuel who stars in the famous story of the one hearing God call to him in the middle of the night. Being a young child, Samuel is first confused about the voice he hears, and goes to his teacher, the priest Eli. At the time this story takes place we are told Eli’s sight “had begun to grow dim so that he could not see,” (1 Samuel 3:2), yet this did not prevent Eli from seeing what was happening to Samuel when the confused boy came to him in the middle of the night, thinking it was he who was calling the young boy. Why? Because Eli had spent a lifetime listening to the Lord, as evidenced in his consolation to Hannah (1 Sam 1:17) and his admonition of his sons (1 Sam 2:22-25), although as we are told even Eli was distracted by the voices around him which ultimately cost him and his family, see 1 Sam 3:13. Nevertheless, he was able to give sound advice to Samuel when he came to him (1 Sam 3:8-9). And Samuel, being the good listener that he had come to be listened first to Eli and in turn to the voice of God calling to him saying “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10).
Samuel would spend a lifetime leading the people of Israel after this boyhood encounter with God, guiding the people in accordance with the Word of the Lord. And thus, when called to anoint a new king for Israel, as we hear in our story today, although he was at first hesitant because of what the reaction of Saul (Israel’s current king might be 1 Sam 16:2), so strong was his trust in and obedience to this voice, that he went anyhow. Coming upon the sons of Jesse, Samuel sees Eliab who was apparently quite a sight but God tells Samuel the famous words “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). What does this mean that the Lord looks on the heart?
In beginning to answer this question let us turn to the gospel. The scene begins by telling us that as Jesus passed by, “he saw a man blind from his birth” (John 9:1). The reaction of the disciples shocks and disturbs us, we hear the question they ask and think, “wow are these guys out of touch!” For in seeing him they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Now I know to our modern “sensibilities” this question seems prejudiced and moronic. And yet the question expresses a deep truth we ought not to dismiss out of hand. For in biblical times, a physical defect was thought to be the result of sin, why? Because one had offended God and thus a penalty was incurred. Now, perhaps the theology here is incomplete, however it is putting the tip of its finger on a profound truth, i.e. that we can only be whole in unity with God and thus sin, as separating us from God necessarily makes us deficient in some way. Thus Jesus does not say, “wow you guys really don’t get it,” but answers “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3).
In Book 4 of his famous work Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes that “the glory of God is a living man” (Bk. 4.20.7), meaning that the life of the human person is meant to give glory to the God who created him or her with every breath and every step it undertakes of its own volition. However, the second portion of this line written by St. Irenaeus is often forgotten, which is a shame because there is no way to make sense of the first oft-quoted portion without it. For immediately following it he writes “and the life of man consists in beholding God” (ibid.). We see the truth of Irenaeus’ famous quote brought to life in what Jesus does next. In the same work, Irenaeus speaks of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit functioning as the “hands of God” which formed humanity out of the “dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7; cf. Against Heresies Bk. 4. Preface, p. 4); thus, here we see the very same hand reach down into the dust, and with his spittle make clay, and place it on the eyes of the blind man (John 9:6). What more is the Word by whom creation was called forth doing than fashioning this man’s eyes anew? And what more could the Light of the world intend than to bring this man fully alive by enabling him to behold him as Irenaeus tells us? For notice, up until this point the man has not uttered a word, we are not even told that he moved until commanded by the same Word of God who called the human family into existence when the Father uttered “let us make man” (Gen. 1:26), yet now when commanded by this very same Word he becomes animated and follows the command exactly as instructed, and having passed through the waters of the pool, he is made whole, the Light having illuminated him (John 9:8). We experience this very same thing in the waters of baptism, which the great Orthodox Saint Nicholas Cabasilas calls illumination “since it confers true being it makes men known to God because it leads to that light it removes from darkness and wickedness,” and “a second creations which is far better than the first” since it delineates the image in which we were created more accurately than before, infusing us with Life and Light itself (Life in Christ, Bk 2.2 & 4).
So, my friends, what does it mean to say that God does not see as we see, but instead God looks on the heart? In ancient times the heart was code for the center of a person, what makes them who they are. This is precisely what God sees when he looks at us, who we are at our very core, i.e. who we have been made to be. For this reason only God knew that David’s it was David’s purpose to reign over Israel, and likewise only he knows your purpose, a purpose that will enable you to live life to the full. Through the saving waters of baptism we take our first step towards becoming who we have been created to be precisely by being joined to Christ. However, a lifetime filled with difficulties and noisy talking heads distracts us from the path that deepens this unity, and this is precisely what the Season of Lent is meant to correct. It is meant to give us increased opportunity to listen to the Word of God through increased time spent in prayer so that hearing we might follow Christ and in following our eyes may see things as they have been created to be. And by listening intently the message we hear will make us realize that the life of God pulsates within us and will burst forth in our becoming who we have been created to be. In this is God glorified, our living the fullness of life, yet this fullness is only found one place, in gazing upon the Light of Life, Jesus Christ. For in heeding his call to follow we allow the Light of his Life not only to saturate and animate us, but to burst through us and fall on all we meet.
Your Servant in Christ,