Sunday, March 26, 2023

Alive in the Spirit: Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2023

The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh,1890.

My dear brothers and sisters,

As I have most Sundays of Lent thus far, I turn to the reading from the Old Testament, the promise of God to the prophet Ezekiel. Once again, as I have been doing the past few weeks, the idea is to get a sense of how to read scripture, so that it reveals itself to us in all its depth – a depth of which, I must confess, I am plumbing only the surface.

Let us listen to it once again in its entirety, and then break it down, line for line.

Thus says the Lord GOD: 
O my people, I will open your graves 
and have you rise from them, 
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, 
when I open your graves and have you rise from them, 
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, 
and I will settle you upon your land; 
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

Right at the very outset we know, from the closing words of this reading: “I have promised, and I will do it,” that this is a prophesy, a promise that something will happen in the future. Our gospel reading for the day helpfully points us to the fulfillment of the prophesy: the raising of Lazarus from the tomb.

As the gospel tells us:

So Jesus… came to the tomb.
It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

And then later in the gospel:

He cried out in a loud voice, 
“Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out

As prophesied in Ezekiel, Jesus opened the grave and had Lazarus rise from the grave.

Now, as in the Gospel reading from last Sunday, all of this is a sign, to show quite clearly, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the promised of ages, and more that He is God Himself, for as the prophesy says: “Then, you shall know that I am the Lord”.

For those who were viewing the raising of Lazarus, and we must remember that these were people steeped in the knowledge of the scriptures, the sign should have been clear, Jesus, the man who raised Lazarus, is not simply man, he is The Lord.

But this is not the only time that Jesus, raises people from their tombs. Think now to the gospel according to Mathew (27:52) which tells us that at the moment that Jesus breathed His Last, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”

I will open your graves 
and have you rise from them, 
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD

But these lines do not operate only at a literal level, there is also an allegorical reading which is possible. To understand the allegorical reading, we need to return to the verse from Mathew which I just read, “bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”

This is not the first time that the physically dead are referred to as asleep. In today’s gospel Jesus suggests “Our friend Lazarus is asleep”, he does this earlier in the episode when he heals the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5: 39; Lk 8: 52). There also, he suggests to the mirth of those present: ‘“Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”’

Jesus suggests that they are sleeping because for the Christian, physical death is merely sleep, the sleep of the body which awaits resurrection of the body. However, there is another kind of person who sleeps, and is therefore spiritually dead, the kind of death we must fear. This sleeper is the one who rejects the light of the Son of Man. Thus, reject Christ, and you are asleep, and therefore dead. Those who accept Christ, even though they may be physically asleep, that is, dead in the eyes of the world, are in fact alive the Spirit and patiently await their resurrection in the flesh on the day of the Final Coming of Our Lord. These latter people may either be working off their sins in Purgatory, or already united in Heaven with our Lord, contemplating Him in the heavenly court.

It is this life in the spirit, a life in the presence of God which is the land of Israel referred to in the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel. This land of Israel is the garden of Eden that we are to return to – think back to the first Sunday of Lent; the land promised to the Israelites.

Let us return to today’s reading from Ezekiel:

I will put my spirit in you that you may live, 
and I will settle you upon your land; 

This another promise made to the people of Israel, and this too has been fulfilled. With the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and subsequently through the sacraments of the Church, but especially through baptism, confirmation, confession, the Eucharist, the Spirit lives within each one of us, so that we may live.

Thus, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans that we heard today:

if Christ is in you, 
although the body is dead because of sin, 
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, 
the one who raised Christ from the dead 
will give life to your mortal bodies also, 
through his Spirit dwelling in you.

With this Spirit within us, we are in fact right now already in the Kingdom of God, the promised land. We are alive, and must now work, with the strength of the spirit within us, to remain alive.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ raised not just Lazarus from the dead, through his death on the cross and his triumph over death, which is sin, he has given life to all of us, calling us all from the cave of sin, the cave of spiritual darkness. He has bestowed on our mortal bodies, which are so prone to sin, the power to challenge the flesh and live in the spirit.

At this point I would like to introduce to you the concept of sufficient grace. We MUST believe that we have been given enough to contest sin. Indeed, even when we sin, and fall, the recognition that we have sinned, is a part of the sufficient grace that has been given to us. It allows us to recognise that we need to return to God and His life.

As we slowly come to the end of the Lenten season let us resolve to take recourse to this spirit to reject every sin that keeps us from appreciating that we are already in our promised homeland, the Kingdom of God. When we sin, let us rejoice that we have the sacrament of confession to return into the grace that we have rejected.

And so I leave you with the echo of the challenge that St. Paul issued to us lasat Sunday:

Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona on 26 March 2023.)

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Seeing Through the Heart of Jesus: Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2023

Cross Tipped Churches: Sacred Heart of Jesus (Stained Glass)

The readings this Sunday are clearly about blindness and sight, darkness and light. These two themes run like a thread through the entire lectionary for the day. However, the image which stayed with me, and which I would like to reflect on is that of Jesus spitting on the ground and applying the resulting paste to the eyes of the man born blind.

Let us listen to the words of the Gospel again:

he spat on the ground
and made clay with the saliva,
and smeared the clay on his eyes,

Through all of the Sundays of Lent thus far I have tried to point to the foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament, the first Sunday I highlighted the presence of the Son of God in the garden of Eden, the second Sunday the Son’s response to God’s invitation to leave his father’s house, last Sunday the Rock of Horeb from which Moses drew water was a foreshadowing of the heart of Christ which when pierced with a spear issued out streams of living water.

There are two reasons I have been drawing your attention to this foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament. The first is to demonstrate how Jesus has always been with us. And with this knowledge, we can be sure that he will continue to always be with us.

The other reason is because it has been my attempt to demonstrate how to read the Old Testament. It is to be read not only literally, but also allegorically, by understanding the symbols that are present both in the Old as well as the New Testament. The Testaments are like a love letter, the language of which is known only to the lovers who exchange these letters. Know the code and you know the story of their love. So it is with the Testaments, understand their symbols and you are drawn into the love of the Father and the Son.

I would like to briefly quote the late Pope Benedict XVI here, who correctly pointed out that being a Christian is not about an idea, or ideology, or in our local context, about which family we are born into. Rather, it is about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, whose heart burns with love for each and every one of us. We pour over magazines to know about our favourite, and at times not so favourite, public personalities; we should similarly pour over the scripture to know Jesus, but how can we read effectively scripture if we don’t know how to read the love letter he has written us?

The link between the Old and the New Testament this Sunday is somewhat reversed. Jesus does something which links back to the Old Testament, in fact to His work in the book of Genesis.

Very often we operate on the understanding that it was only God the Father who created the world, and that the Son of God comes into the picture only at the time of the Incarnation. Now this is the idea that I have systematically been trying to change through this Lenten period. God the Son was present from the beginning, and it was He who, along with the Father, was responsible for creation. As the Nicene creed says: “through him all things were made.” All things were made through God the Son.

Let us listen to the creation of Adam from the book of Genesis:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,  when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground;  but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—  then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Gen 2:4-7)

Man, we are told, was made from the dust of the ground. But we should not assume that man was formed only with dry dust, rather there is another element in this narrative, the water from the stream that “would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground”. I like to think that this stream was one more sign of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who since the beginning to time has been expressing water from his heart to give life to the world. It was with this water, and subsequently the Spirit, the breath of life that Genesis refers to, that Adam was formed from the dust of the group. Recollect the words of Christ from the gospel according to John:

no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (Jn: 3:5)

So, my dear brothers and sisters, when in the Gospel of John Christ is shown as using saliva and clay what we are being told is that Jesus is God, the creator. It is a moment of revelation for us, the readers, and for those who were witness to this action. Just as God the Son gave life to Adam, Jesus, the Son made Flesh, gives sight, or light, to the man born blind.

And it is not by chance that Jesus provides sight, or light to the eyes, to the blind man, because in the bible, the symbols of light and life refer to each other.

Take, for example, the closing of our reading from St. Paul today:

Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.

Christ will give light to the dead is as good as saying that Christ will give life to the dead. To St. Paul, to be in darkness is to be dead, thus, for those who live in darkness – and I am making a reference to that famous prophecy from Isaiah 9:2 of the birth of Jesus here (The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) – it is as good as being dead, because they do not live in the light, which is life. To live in light is to have life, and have life eternal.

And this is why in our second reading today St. Paul urges us to live as children of the light, to understand what is pleasing to the Lord, because to live otherwise is to be dead even though we still have breath in our bodies.

How do we understand what is pleasing to the Lord? We do so by adopting the eyes of God. As the reading from the first book of Samuel tells us “Do not judge from … appearance or from …lofty stature, because ….Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

Now this is not easy, to see as God sees, but we have been given a lens that can help us see like God sees, and this lens is the sacred heart of Jesus. Let us use the heart of Jesus to see the world, and we will not fail.

At the end of the day, this ability to see as God does, or to use the heart of Jesus, is not an intellectual technique, but an affective one. We need to be affectively closer to the heart of Jesus, which is why I would recommend that we repeat, as often as we can, when we are driving, walking, working, whenever we have a moment of silence:

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine.

(A version of this homily was preached first in Concanim on 18 March 2023, and then subsequently in English on 19 March 2023, both times at the church of St. Thomas Apostle, the parish of  Aldona)

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Water from our stony hearts: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent 2023

My dear brothers and sisters, in the homilies I have preached through the Sundays of Lent thus far I have attempted to show how Our Lord Jesus Christ was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. These pre-histories allow us to gain a deeper appreciation of who Jesus is and what He did, and does, for us. These pre-histories of Christ, give us more context, they offer greater detail, they help us get to know Him better, which is why it is so important to be able to co-relate events in the Gospel with the larger scriptural tradition we have received.

On the first Sunday of Lent I demonstrated how the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was the Cross of Christ, and its fruit was His Body. On the second Sunday of Lent I pointed out how God’s call for Abraham to leave his father’s house was the same call that was given to God the Son.

This Sunday, I was arrested at the very first line of the first reading:

              In those days, in their thirst for water

From the very start of salvation history, we see that God is concerned with our thirst. What is thirst; a deep, primal need, the failure to satisfy which drives us insane; think of the classical and biblical image of the deer that runs this way and that looking for water. A failure to satisfy thirst eventually kills us. From the first reading today, we know that the thirst of the people of Israel was satiated. They were satiated through water that was drawn from a rock. A rock, that was struck by a stick.

If this image sounds familiar to you it is because this rock in the desert that satiates the thirst of the people is God the Son, who in his incarnation as our Lord Jesus Christ, was struck in his side by a lance, and from this wound expressed, and continues to express, the life-giving water about which he spoke to the Samaritan woman.

But this episode from Exodus is only about a foreshadowing of Christ, not Christ himself. All things, as we know, are fulfilled only in Christ, and so, while the Israelites merely had their bodily thirst sated from the rock, it was only through the life-giving water that flowed, and flows, through the side of Christ that our spiritual thirst is satiated perpetually.

How does Christ meet this spiritual thirst? He does this in the words of St. Paul to the Romans that we just heard:

the love of God has been poured out into our hearts 

through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Once again, we have this aquatic metaphor, the love of God, His love for us, His love, or caritas, has been poured into our hearts, through the medium of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Indeed, St. Paul speaks of a triple grace that is provided to us, faith, hope, and charity. I will return to these graces later, but right now I would like to dwell on the theme of thirst and water.

The source of this Love is the water that flows from His side, and this mystical, spiritual water comes to us in various ways, first of all through the water of baptism when – in the face of all the powers of darkness – we are claimed for Christ, through the person of the minister of baptism Jesus says: “This person is mine.”

It comes through the sacramental of Holy water with which we bless ourselves with.

And most importantly, and hopefully most regularly, it comes through our consumption of Our Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

Having said this, I want to shift register for a while. Seeing the issuing of water from the Rock at Horeb as a pre-figuring of the water of life pouring out of the side of Christ at His crucifixion is one way to read today’s first reading. There is, another way.

This other reading allows us to see the rock at Horeb as our own stony hearts, God stands at this Rock, allows for it to be struck so that it may then issue forth streams of living water. With what does he strike our hearts? He strikes our hearts with the law and the prophets, the example of his life, the teaching of the apostles, and the teaching of Holy Mother Church. Indeed, God is striking our own hearts today in the course of this eucharistic liturgy. This is why the response to the psalm today is particularly important: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."

This caution, that we not harden our hearts, is actually critical to our spiritual lives because it is another reminder that God is not all-powerful when it comes to us. He has given us the gift of free will and allows us, his creatures, a freedom that he has allowed to no one else. He allows us to choose, a choice that our first parents Adam and Eve exercised badly, but one that Abram exercised well – you will realise here that I am making reference to the readings from the previous Sundays of Lent. Even in today’s gospel, he allows the Samaritan women to exercise her will. Jesus Christ, Son of God, asks for help from the Samaritan woman. “Give me a drink.” He says to her. As St. Augustine touchingly points out, “his real thirst was for this woman’s faith”. In other words, He was asking her for her heart.

Our Lord is similarly asking us to aid him in providing the living water that he has offered to us. He will draw water from our stony hearts, but we need to not harden them in the first place.

It is in this context that I would like to change register again, but by referring once again to the words from the first reading with which I initiated the homily today:

In those days, in their thirst for water

In those days, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses. So loud and persistent was their grumbling that Moses himself was terrified,

So Moses cried out to the LORD, 

“What shall I do with this people?
a little more and they will stone me!”

There is a similar situation in contemporary Goa and India. There is a general unrest in our souls which manifests itself in various ways; like the Samaritan woman who was searching for life-giving water, but found herself five husbands instead – a reference to sexual consumption – we live frenetically moving from the consumption of one object or another. Nothing is enough. Think again of the deer that runs this way and that.

The other way we seek to quell the unrest in our hearts is by asserting ourselves violently. One does not need to turn to the violence against religious or social groups in this country, look at the violent ways in which we drive. This violent asserting of ourselves, however, merely drives us deeper into the desert – where we are pushed further and further from living water.

It has been my belief for a while that this unrest is merely a manifestation of the Indian peoples’ deep need, and desire, indeed, theirthirst, for Christ – the only person who is capable of satisfying their thirst. Christ needs His prophets and saints, however, and that task falls to us. It is our job to go out and announce the gospel. It is our actions – our genuine Christian lives – that must soften the hearts of those around us. In ways as simple as the way in which we drive, the way we talk while making purchases, we are called to be the Moses to these people who are lost in the desert of materialism, of mindless consumption, and the worship of power. The way we live our lives will be the staff that will strike at their stony hearts and bring forth the water of life.

The question is, however, are our own hearts stony? If so, how will we be able to aid in the drawing of water from these hearts?

And so, my dear brothers and sisters, if we are to be the prophets and saints of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to the beleaguered people of this country, we need to pray and renew our relationship with Him, so that the water that flows from our stony heart, my bring life into the desert that surrounds us. Every single action of ours must sing His name. And, for the cynics among us, who believe that so few of us cannot change the mess around us, I refer you back to the three graces out which St Paul speaks to us today: faith, hope, and charity. All these have been provided to us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it is enough.

A life of frequent Mass going, of regular confession, of living in a genuine Christian community educates us so deeply that very often we know what is the right thing to do, our conscience reminds us what we need to do. This is the voice of God, and Christ His Son, speaking to us. So,

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

(A version of this homily was first preached at the church of N.Sra. do Rosário, Parish of Caranzalem, on 12 March 2023)