Now, blindness of the eyes can sneak up on a person during life. The thickness of my own personal spectacles demonstrates how blindness has snuck up on me somewhat over the years.
But the Lord cured a man who had been born blind. The man had not grown blind by squinting at ancient Torah scrolls in dimly lit synagogues. He had not suffered an injury to his eyes in a battle or a fight or an accident. This man had been born blind.
St. Augustine interprets this in a mystical way: “The blind man here is the human race. Blindness came upon the first man by reason of sin, and from him all derive it.”
Whom can we not see? The most important Being of them all, our origin and the goal of all our striving. Can’t see Him. Can’t see the One upon Whom all the angels gaze, and it is all the food they need. We are blind from birth.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” –the Shema.
We might generally associate the word ‘reliability’ with a well-built car or washing machine. But the Holy Father, Pope Francis, uses the word ‘reliability’ repeatedly in the decisive passages of his encyclical on Christian faith. The ‘reliability’ of God’s love emerges as the theme of paragraphs 15-17.
Having summarized the history of Israel, the Pope writes:
The history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability…God can give us no greater guarantee of His love…In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny rest…
The clearest proof of the reliability of Christ’s love is to be found in his dying for our sake…In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin sees a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Christ dead in the tomb and says: “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.” …Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light…
Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection. As the risen one, Christ is the trustworthy witness, deserving of faith, and a solid support for our faith…Had the Father’s love not caused Jesus to rise from the dead, had it not been able to restore his body to life, then it would not be a completely reliable love, capable of illuminating also the gloom of death…Precisely because Jesus is the Son, because he is absolutely grounded in the Father, he was able to conquer death and make the fullness of life shine forth.
Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true…It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not.
Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
Put the snow on the ground and today’s gospel reading together, and we realize: the Winter of the Sermon on the Mount has not yet ended.
The Law. The Lord proposed a set of laws to a people–to our people, the People of God. The law binds, and its precepts oblige us to sometimes-difficult acts of self-denial. Because the precepts of the moral law all rest on one fundamental concept: loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We Catholics do not always have the same take on civil law that some of our countrymen have. We hold what a lot of people regard as “quirky” positions.
We would say that our positions are not quirky, but rather proceed logically from our fundamental presumption that laws concern, above all, the common good. A law is: “An ordinance of reason directed to the common good.” St. Thomas Aquinas. All cases do not fit one mold, of course, and individual liberty must be preserved–but always as measured with respect to the common good.
Someone might then ask us, “Well, do you insist on a common sexual morality for the sake of the common good? Or do you insist on government action to address economic injustice for the common good? Is your issue the sanctity of marriage and family, or is it poverty, “income inequality?”
To which question, we blithely answer, Yes. Greta van Susteren could ask us, or Rachel Maddow–and the answer would be the same. “Are you Catholics more hung up on sexual morality and unborn babies, or on championing the cause of the immigrant and the poor?” Yes.
A lot of people think we hold our quirky positions because we have a quirky religion. The irony is that we hold our positions precisely because we don’t have a quirky religion.
We don’t hold the false religion that ridiculously maintains that an individual’s unchaste acts don’t have any consequences for other people. We are totally secular when it comes to that religion, so we can see with our own eyes that it isn’t true. One person acts unchastely, another person suffers for it.
Nor do we hold the false religion that ridiculously maintains that an invisible force called “the market” will automatically keep poor people from suffering inhuman burdens. We are totally secular when it comes to that religion, too, and we see with our own eyes that it isn’t true. We see the obvious fact that some people enjoy the blessed privilege of using capital creatively, and they should be rewarded for it. But not everyone does–most people don’t, in fact. The wealth of our nation belongs to everyone, and everyone must have a decent share in it.
Also, we hold the outlandish position–held also by quirky people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.–that prayer and religion hold the key to a nation having just laws. We believe the first duty we have as a nation is to God, Who knows better than we do how to govern, and that we will thrive precisely to the extent that we submit to His gracious will. May He gives us the wisdom to continue to live together in this country in a just and loving manner.
Redskins picked up defensive end Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys. Doc Walker, the St. Thomas Aquinas of NFC-East theology, determined that this required a baptism.
Oscar Wilde got a lot of comic mileage out of re-christenings in The Importance of Being Earnest. I don’t think Doc intends anything sacrilegious. Football may not involve divine grace, but it does require commitment.
“I am convinced,” the Pope writes, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. Only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return become fully convincing.” (para. 43)
Not everybody believes in Christ. And not everybody who believes in Christ believes in Him enough. But everybody knows that life isn’t fair. Life as we know it, under the blue sky: Ain’t fair.
Cheaters prosper. Lying rogues get elected. Shallow nitwits become famous. Good people get sick. Young ladies with beautiful souls try and try to lose weight, and meanwhile all the boys talk to the cheerleaders in short skirts. People marry their love, and then, a few years later, they discover that they are actually married to their spouse’s mother or father. Promotions go to experts in face-time, while the real hard workers can’t catch a break. Meanwhile, opportunistic talking heads on television fill the airwaves with a steady stream of biased disinformation masquerading as “the news.”
Not fair. We all know this. Hopelessness can, and will, set in, unless we constantly focus our interior eyes of faith on the triumph of Jesus Christ. Again, to quote Pope Benedict:
“This innocent sufferer [Jesus Christ] has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an ‘undoing’ of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright.”
In my book, the Church expresses Her faith most eloquently at a funeral Mass. We sing at the end of a funeral:
May choirs of angels welcome you, and lead you to the bosom of Abraham, and where Lazarus is poor no longer, may you find eternal rest.
We believe: There is place where Lazarus is poor no longer. There is a place where justice is fully, completely, totally, thoroughly, honestly, and truthfully restored.
Sometimes that place seems a million miles away from earth. And sometimes, when a holy soul does good, the Kingdom seems very close.
The Kingdom will come. That’s what father Abraham is saying to poor Dives in the gospel passage. The Kingdom will come, and anyone with any sense knows that it will. The deep longings our hearts have for justice: Christ’s triumph over death confirms them all. By the divine light of truth, cynicism, worldliness, and atheism make no sense. The Kingdom will come.
Now, how do we hasten the coming of the Kingdom of justice? We can hasten it, after all. And it’s not complicated: Pray. Give. Do good. Avoid evil.
He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed. (Romans 4:17)
In my book, it is wonderful to contemplate the deep brotherhood shared by Abraham and St. Joseph, the two ends of the long chain of lineage that gave the world the Christ.
The brotherhood they share: Both Abraham and Joseph sought the Lord–with upright, religious hearts. Both longed, above all, to do God’s will.
Both received visits from angels. And in both cases, the angel demanded faith in a highly improbable promise, a promise that most of us certainly would have doubted.
To Abraham: “Yes, you are old. And you’re wife is barren. But you will have offspring more numerous than the sands of the seashore and the stars of the sky, and all the nations will be blessed in your progeny. And even if I ask you to sacrifice your only son, don’t doubt Me then, either. Lead him to top of the mountain, teaching him that God provides the lamb.”
To Joseph: “Yes, the love of your life appears to have gotten pregnant by another man. But do not despair of her single-hearted love for you. Her child comes from the Holy Spirit. Marry her as you planned, and raise the eternally-begotten Savior into manhood as any human father would raise a son.”
If you and I didn’t doubt the first promise, then we most certainly would have doubted the second. At least we would have doubted our own ability to carry it out.
But Abraham did not doubt, and neither did Joseph. They believed what they could not themselves envision; they trusted the heavenly Father they could not see. They stepped forward, abandoning all self-interest, and gave their lives over completely to the God of outlandish promises.
So: Who is our “father in faith,” our patriarch, the father of the faith of the Catholic Church? That’s what we call Abraham, and it is also what we call Joseph.
No contradiction in it, really—calling both Abraham and St. Joseph our patriarch, father. There would be competition between them for exclusive claim to that title, if the two men were anything less than incandescently selfless. But as they are both consummate vessels of the one divine will—since they both offered their lives as obedient sons of the heavenly Father–then we rightly identify both ends of the genealogical line—Abraham and Joseph—as the “father” of the Body of Christ, our father.
After all, the most important lesson a father can teach is the one they both taught the Christ, and us: How to live as children of God.
Growing up, falling in love with New York City, and falling in love with life—all of these fit together in my memory, like the stones of the great vaulted archways of St. John the Divine.
When, long ago, I haunted the places we visited this past weekend on our parish-cluster youth pilgrimage, I learned: Loving the city and loving life means loving the Lord, means receiving His love as the gift of every shaft of light, touching every brazen human artifact, that surrounds you at this moment. For instance, a Cuban sandwich, and big cup of coffee with milk, on a cold afternoon on Broadway in West Harlem.
(Been twenty years since I ate that sandwich and drank that coffee, and still it reminds me how much God loves me.)
To share some of this enchantment with our young people, in the sunshine on the steps of Mother Cabrini Shrine, or under the Times-Square lights on a Saturday night, or confessing our sins to a kindly Franciscan in a comfortingly dark wooden confessional in a church full of candles on 37th Street, or watching the sun set behind Lady Liberty from New York Harbor—this is the privilege of my now fatherly age and the blessed sacred duty the Lord has had the kindness to give me. Not to mention the unstinting generosity of the co-workers I have.
May the graces flow on!
We prayed. We saw the grandeur. The Lord holds the future. Love for the city and life will flower in the hearts of those who are young now, as He alone wills. It takes a whole lifetime, after all, to fall in love with life completely.
…If I might, a couple comments regarding new things for me in this visit to New York–perhaps something like my one-hundred twelfth, but my first in some years…
1. I found it crushingly painful to see the skyline of lower Manhattan with the new tower. Not that the building doesn’t have anything to offer as something architecturally interesting; it actually kinda does. And not that the memory of the human toll of 9/11 still oppresses me. To the contrary, as hopefully you know, I have found consolation in praying for the poor souls who perished ever since 9:59 am that morning.
No, the painful thing doesn’t have to do with 9/11. It has to do with the fact that the Age of the Twin Towers, as part of what New York looks like—that Age has now definitively ended. Soon, it will be altogether forgotten—except by old people like me.
Yet that Age, that picture of Manhattan towering over the world, my memories of seeing the towers with my mom and dad and brother, or seeing them from Washington Square with college chums, or from Brooklyn Promenade, or Tompkins Square Park after eating some dim sum, or the Jersey Turnpike—all those memories, so vivid in my mind, so bound-up with youth and romance and seeking adulthood—they all belong to someone whose youth is over now, and forgotten. Sad. But I’ll live.
2. The Lord always gives little bonuses to people who wake up early, no matter what. Yesterday morning I had the forty minutes of sunrise to myself, for a run, with our (blessedly inexpensive) LaGuardia hotel as a starting point.
Flying blind, so to speak, I found the meandering park that hugs Flushing Bay. I saw the Whitestone Bridge shining to the northeast, like the towers of Minas Tirith. And Citi Field waking up in the very spot where Tom Buchanan winked at Myrtle Wilson.
We, too, after breakfast in the lobby, made our way towards our East-River crossing, barreling, like Nick Carraway, towards…
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.
“I am the Lord, your God.” That sentence is enough, really, to indicate to us the demands of Christian morality. The Sermon on the Mount just spells things out in detail to make it easier for us.
Do not murder, do not despise, do not yell at people, do not so much as nurse the smallest grudge. Why? Because God above will judge justly. We do not know how to do that. Judging people is above our pay-grade. We are much better-suited to kneeling down and begging God for mercy.
Also, the Lord, our God, will provide. Sin duda. So we need not fight among ourselves. We need not contend for what we think we ought to have, to get it out of the hands of someone else. God will give us all what we need. Our job is to be friends, as best we can. So we can praise the heavenly Father together in peace.
Then we get to go to heaven. The scribes and the Pharisees fought with each other about how to be righteous, and they never conceived of the heaven that God has prepared for those who love Him.
But Lord Jesus makes promises of an altogether higher order: I am the Lord your God Who gives heaven. Stop fighting. Make a humble peace. Why fight over the petty things of this pilgrim life when you could be walking towards heaven together?