The Gospel for Mass this past Saturday contains one line that deserves some attention from us, especially in a time like this. On one level it seems like a mere scene-ender, a line that ends the section and has the dramatis personae (cast of characters) walk off the stage. But as most who are familiar with Scripture know, there is rarely a wasted syllable, particularly in John’s Gospel. There is not one word or syllable that should be dismissed as “filler” when the Holy Spirit is at work inspiring the sacred authors.
The line in question appears in the 7th Chapter of John’s Gospel, at the end of a debate among the temple leaders as to the identity of Jesus. They wrestle with the question of who Jesus is: is the coming Messiah, and whether He or not He is the eternal Son of the Father as He claims.
The majority of the interlocutors reject Jesus out of hand because He comes from Galilee and “no Prophet has ever come from Galilee!” One of their number, Nicodemus, encourages them to be more open to the possibilities and to have greater command of the facts before rendering judgment. The pericope (passage) ends in this way:
Then each went to his own house(John 7:53).
This sentence ought not to be overlooked because it invites great significance. We can distinguish three rather separate understandings of the line: an inward meaning, and outward meaning, and an eternal meaning.
1. Inward – Each one returning to his own house can be understood as describing how we must ultimately enter into the “house” of our soul. We must all go into the inner room of our heart and mind; that place where we are alone with God; where we ponder, reflect, deliberate, and discern. Many of us have more time to do this just now and it is surely more important than ever to do so.
It is in this place that we must answer for ourselves the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Who is God? What is the meaning of my life? What am I doing and why? Who is the man/woman God made me to be? Yes, this is the inner sanctum, the holy place where we are alone with God.
When we are with others we tend to posture. We seek to conform in response to peer pressure or other social influences. There is often undue influence from persuasion, excessive human respect, group pressure, and group dynamics.
But there comes a moment when we are summoned by the Lord to separate from others, to go into our own house, to enter into that quiet place inside us and listen carefully to voice of God that echoes in our heart (cf Catechism # 1776).
At the point in the Gospel cited above, the temple leaders have had their debate. They have sought to influence one another. Some have experienced pressure and persuasive argumentation. Many of them probably exhibited the human tendency we all have: to try to ingratiate ourselves to others by speaking so that others will think highly of us.
Now that all the posturing is over, it is time for each man to go to his own house and there privately ponder and decide what he really thinks. Yes, it is decision time. The Lord is asking a question: Who do you say that I am? It is time for each man to go to his own house and be face-to-face with God.
Sadly, many today reject this requirement to go to our own “house” and reflect deeply. Most take little time to enter the room of their own soul. In our modern world, with its myriad distractions, most prefer to just flip on the television instead.
Ultimately we cannot evade this call from God to decide, in that inner room of our own “house,” who God is and how we will respond to Him. And for those who go on for too long refusing to go to their own house, God has ways of forcing the issue. Maybe it’s one of those sleepless at 3:00 AM. Maybe it’s a time of crisis that provokes soul-searching. But ultimately, at some point, each of us must go to his own house and reflect quietly with God, away from social pressures, away from posturing. There, alone with God, each must face the deepest questions.
2. Outward – There is a different perspective from which one can read this text, and it provides an insight that is almost exactly opposite. For while it is of critical importance to go to that secret place, that house of our own soul and there reflect with God, it is also of vital to stay connected to the reality that is outside our house. Thus, this passage may also be viewed as a commentary on the human tendency to retreat into our own little world, to shrink from any evidence we don’t like, to avoid anything that challenges our worldview.
Jesus had earlier confronted these temple leaders with evidence of His divinity and His identity as Messiah and Lord. He spoke to them of His miracles, of His fulfillment of prophecy, of the testimony of John the Baptist, and of the Father’s voice echoing in their hearts (cf John 5:31-47).
But we all share the human tendency to retreat into our own world, our own house, despite the evidence. In effect, we retreat from reality into our own made-up little world.
There is an old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” We tend to believe that something is so just because we think it.
There is another saying, “Who is an adviser to himself has a fool for a counselor.” Yet too easily we take only our own counsel. Or, we surround ourselves only with teachers who “tickle our ears.”
Thus, though these temple leaders have been confronted with many facts pointing to the veracity of Jesus’ identity as Lord and Messiah, they choose instead to brush off the evidence and retreat into their own houses, their own little worlds.
Further, they err with the facts: they argue that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem whereas Jesus came from Galilee. But of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
But never mind all that; each just goes off to his own house, to his own little world. And too often many do exactly this.
The challenge for us all to live in reality, not merely in the confines of our own house, our own little world, our own (sometimes flawed or incomplete) thoughts.
3. Eternal– The third interpretation of the “house” referred to in this line is our ultimate home, the destination to which we all journey. Thus, when the text says they all went each to his own house, it may also refer to that place where they will dwell for all eternity. Where that house is, in Heaven or Hell, depends on each man’s stance regarding Jesus.
Having scoffed at Jesus, each of the temple leaders now heads off to his own home. But no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, and thus their home is somewhere other than the heart of the Father.
There is an old saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” You and I must choose where to make our home. Where that home is will depend upon our acceptance or rejection of Jesus.
There will come a day when each of us will have said of us, Then [he] went to his own house. Where will your house be?
In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The story marks a significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus: it is because of this incident that the Temple leadership in Jerusalem resolves to have Jesus killed; a supreme irony to be sure.
As is proper with all the Gospel accounts, we must not see this as merely an historical happening of some two thousand years ago. Rather, we must recall that we are Lazarus; we are Martha and Mary. This is also the story of how Jesus is acting in our life.
Let’s look at this Gospel in six stages and learn how the Lord acts to save us and raise us to new life.
I. HE PERMITS. Sometimes there are trials in our life, by God’s mysterious design, to bring us to greater things. The Lord permits these trials and difficulties for various reasons. But, if we are faithful, every trial is ultimately for our glory and the glory of God.
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary, and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Notice that Jesus does not rush to prevent the illness of Lazarus. Rather, He permits it temporarily in order that something greater, God’s Glory in Jesus, be made manifest. In addition, it is for Lazarus’ own good and his share in God’s glory.
It is this way with us as well. We do not always understand what God is up to in our life. His ways are often mysterious, even troubling to us. But our faith teaches us that His mysterious permission of our difficulties is ultimately for our good and for our glory.
Rejoice in this. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this so that your faith, more precious than any fire-tried gold, may lead to praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ appears (1 Peter 1: 10).
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
An old gospel hymn says, “Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand, all the way that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But He guides us with his eye and we follow till we die, and we’ll understand it better, by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.”
For now, it is enough for us to know that God permits our struggles for a season and for a reason.
II. HE PAUSES. Here, too, we confront a mystery. Sometimes God says, “Wait.” Again, this is to prepare us for greater things than those for which we ask.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Note that the text says that Jesus waits because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This of course is paradoxical, because we expect love to make one rush to the aid of the afflicted.
Yet Scripture often counsels us to wait.
Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD (Ps 27:14).
For thus says the Lord God, the holy one of Israel, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet an in trust, your strength lies” (Isaiah 30:15).
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance … God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Pet 3:9).
Somehow our waiting is tied to strengthening us and preparing us for something greater. Ultimately, we need God’s patience in order for us to come to full repentance; so it may not be wise to ask God to rush things. Yet still his delay often mystifies us, especially when the need seems urgent.
Note, too, how Jesus’ delay enables something even greater to take place. It is one thing to heal an ailing man; it is quite another to raise a man who has been dead four days. To use an analogy, Jesus is preparing a meal. Do you want a microwave dinner or a great feast? Great feasts take longer to prepare. Jesus delays, but he’s preparing something great.
For ourselves we can only ask for the grace to hold out. An old gospel song says, “Lord help me to hold out, until my change comes.” Another song says, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”
III. HE PAYS. Despite the design of God and His apparent delay, He is determined to bless us and save us. Jesus is determined to go and help Lazarus even though He puts himself in great danger in doing so. Notice in the following text how the apostles are anxious about going to Judea; some there are plotting to kill Jesus. In order to help Lazarus, Jesus must put himself at great risk.
Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”
We must never forget the price that Jesus has paid for our healing and salvation. Scripture says, You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet 1:18).
Indeed, the Apostles’ concerns are borne out: because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Temple leaders plot to kill him (cf John 11:53). It is of course quite ironic that they should plot to kill Jesus for raising a man from the dead. We can only thank the Lord who, for our sake, endured even death on a cross to purchase our salvation by His own blood.
IV. HE PRESCRIBES. The Lord will die to save us. But there is only one way that saving love can reach us: through our faith. Faith opens the door to God’s blessings, but it is a door we must open, by God’s grace. Thus Jesus inquires into the faith of Martha and later that of Mary.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Jesus prescribes faith because there is no other way. Our faith and our soul are more important to God than our bodies and creature comforts. For what good is it to gain the whole world and lose our soul? We tend to focus on physical things like our bodies, our health, and our possessions; but God focuses on the spiritual things. And so before raising Lazarus and dispelling grief, Jesus checks the condition of Martha’s faith and elicits an act of faith: “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe.”
Scripture connects faith to seeing and experiencing great things:
All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you (Mt 17:20).
And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).
When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Mat 9:28).
So Jesus has just asked you and me a question: “Do you believe this?” How will you answer? I know how we should answer. But how do we really and truthfully answer?
V. HE IS PASSIONATE. Coming upon the scene Jesus is described as deeply moved, as perturbed, as weeping.
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”
In his human heart, Jesus experiences the full force of the loss and the blow that death delivers. That He weeps is something of mystery because He will raise Lazarus in moments. But for this moment, Jesus enters and experiences grief and loss with us. Its full force comes over Him and He weeps—so much so that the bystanders say, “See how much He loved him.”
But there is more going on here. The English text also describes Jesus as being perturbed. The Greek word used is ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai), which means to snort with anger, to express great indignation. It is a very strong word and includes the notion of being moved to admonish sternly. What is this anger of Jesus and at whom is it directed? It is hard to know exactly, but the best answer would seem to be that he is angry at death and at what sin has done. For it was by sin that suffering and death entered the world. It is almost as though Jesus is on the front lines of the battle and has a focused anger against Satan and what he has done. Scripture says, by the envy of the devil death entered the world. (Wisdom 2:23). And God has said, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
At the death of some of my own loved ones, I remember experiencing not only sorrow, but also anger. Death should not be. But there it is; it glares back at us, taunts us, and pursues us.
Yes, Jesus experiences the full range of emotions that we do. Out of His sorrow and anger, He is moved to act on our behalf. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And Jesus is about to act.
VI. HE PREVAILS. In the end, Jesus always wins. You can skip right to the end of the Bible and see that Jesus wins there, too. You might just as well get on the winning team. He will not be overcome by Satan, even when all seems lost. God is a good God; He is a great God; He can do anything but fail. Jesus can make a way out of no way.
He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
I have it on the best of authority that as Lazarus came out of the tomb he was singing this gospel song: “Faithful is our God! I’m reaping the harvest God promised me, take back what devil stole from me, and I rejoice today, for I shall recover it al1!”
VII. HE PARTNERS.
So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go free.”
Notice something important here: Although Jesus raises Lazarus, and gives him new life, Jesus also commands the bystanders to untie Lazarus and let him go free. Christ raises us, but He has work for the Church to do: untie those He has raised in baptism and let them go free.
To have a personal relationship with Jesus is crucial, but it is also essential to have a relationship to the Church. For after raising Lazarus, Jesus entrusts him to the care of others. Jesus speaks to the Church—parents, priests, catechists, all members of the Church—and gives this standing order regarding the souls He has raised to new life: “Untie them and let them go free.”
We are Lazarus and we were dead in our sin, but we have been raised to new life. Yet we can still be bound by the effects of sin. This is why we need the sacraments, Scripture, prayer, and other ministries of the Church through catechesis, preaching, and teaching. Lazarus’ healing wasn’t a “one and you’re done” scenario and neither is ours.
We are also the bystanders. Just as we are in need of being untied and set free, so do we have this obligation to others. By God’s grace, parents must untie their children and let them go free; pastors must do the same with their flocks. As a priest, I realize how often my people have helped to untie me and let me go free, strengthened my faith, encouraged me, admonished me, and restored me.
This is the Lord’s mandate to the Church regarding every soul He has raised: “Untie him and let him go free.” This is the Lord’s work, but just as Jesus involved the bystanders then, He still involves the Church (which includes us) now.
The first reading from Thursday’s Mass (of the 4thWeek of Lent) features the golden calf incident. God, likely trying to draw mercy from Moses, threatens to destroy the people for their infidelity. But as the text says,
But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? …Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky… (EX 32:7-14)
The Responsorial Psalm (106) for Thursday summarizes things well.
Our fathers made a calf in Horeb and adored a molten image; They exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bullock.
They forgot the God who had saved them, who had done great deeds in Egypt, Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham, terrible things at the Red Sea.
Then he spoke of exterminating them, but Moses, his chosen one, Withstood him in the breach to turn back his destructive wrath.
And all this, in our current crisis inspires also a model for prayer. I want to be clear that I am not concluding that God is directly punishing us, but he has permitted this. And, as we know, the people of Bible used times like these to repent and call on God. As I prayed these readings today at a private Mass the following prayerful thoughts came to mind:
Lord God we are in a great crisis, a worldwide crisis. I am going to guess we probably had this coming. For, we have collectively forgotten you, we have been ungrateful and done every sort of wicked deed. We have been greedy, wasteful, worldly, unchaste, unfaithful to marriage and family life, and have aborted our own children by the tens of millions. Yes Lord we have sinned and been stubbornly unrepentant. But Lord, I am, like Moses, asking your mercy. Even though we may not deserve it, I ask it anyway. Please Lord spare us from this disease and the economic collapse that will cause additional lives and harm. A miracle Lord, yes, we need a miracle. Please Lord, as you once did for King David and stopped the pestilence of that day at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, please do this now for us. Save us also from our excessive fears which have so seized many of us. For the sake of Christ’s sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world; Have mercy.
In the young adult Bible study at my parish (conducted on Zoom during the current crisis) we have been reading through the Book of Genesis. Most recently, we’ve been studying the story of Joseph the Patriarch. Genesis 41 features the memorable story of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows and the seven sheaves of grain. God’s word always seems to be right on time: this story gave us an opportunity to discuss the anxiety brought about by the pandemic, with a particular focus on the fact that most of us were caught unprepared.
Let’s ponder a very simple yet often-forgotten principle taught in Chapter 41 of Genesis.
The basic story is that Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that his advisors cannot explain. In the dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cows near the banks of the Nile. These cows are devoured by seven skinny cows, who nonetheless remain skinny. He also sees seven sheaves of plump, ripe wheat devoured by seven withered sheaves (cf Gen 41:17-24). Pharaoh is told that a gifted man named Joseph, currently in jail, is able to interpret dreams.
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as follows (as poetically rendered in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat):
Seven years of bumper crops are on their way Years of plenty, endless wheat and tons of hay Your farms will boom, there won’t be room To store the surplus food you grow
After that, the future doesn’t look so bright Egypt’s luck will change completely overnight And famine’s hand will stalk the land With food an all-time low
Noble king, there is no doubt What your dreams are all about All these things you saw in your pajamas Are a long-range forecast for your farmers
And I’m sure it’s crossed your mind What it is you have to find Find a man to lead you through the famine With a flair for economic planning
But who this man could be I just don’t know Who this man could be I just don’t know Who this man could be I just don’t know!
Joseph advises Pharaoh to decree that one-fifth of the harvest be set aside during the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine. All other excess should also be stored rather than squandered. In this, then, are some lessons for us:
First, famines, economic crises, and other disasters will inevitably come for us who live in this Paradise Lost. It is important to expect them and to plan for them. It’s been quite some time since something this serious has befallen us in the United States. Even September 11, 2001, a tragedy to be sure, didn’t keep us down for long; we recovered rather quickly. In retrospect, this quiet period made us a bit complacent; we stopped storing provisions “for a rainy day.”
My grandparents’ generation (“The Greatest Generation”) endured numerous hardships and disasters: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu epidemic, which alone killed 675,000 Americans. They were more accustomed to the vicissitudes of life than we seem to be, and it affected them in many ways. One thing that I especially recall of that generation was that most of them were frugal; they were relentless savers. Even when I was very young, my grandparents made sure I had a savings account. My maternal grandmother opened an account on my behalf and seeded it with a modest sum. My siblings and I were encouraged to learn the discipline of saving money for the future.
And all of this is well rooted in the biblical teaching of Joseph, who admonished Egypt to save in plentiful times because difficult days were inevitable.
More recent generations, including mine, have fallen short in this. We tend to spend whatever we have, and the only saving we do is for retirement. But unexpected events often come before retirement. Many of us spend more than we earn and use credit foolishly. In doing this, we fail to respect the biblical wisdom taught by Joseph.
With the heavy restrictions imposed (rightly or wrongly, properly or excessively) by civil authorities, too many people have found that they have little to nothing set aside to get them through business declines or temporary unemployment. Government payments/loans may be justly offered because the economic downturn was driven by an external event. But the current situation still illustrates a problem: most of us are unprepared for even a few months of reduced or no income.
Perhaps we can learn the lesson our ancestors lived: we must save for the proverbial rainy day. With Joseph the patriarch to encourage us, we need to rediscover the merits of saving. This is perhaps a small and obvious lesson, but apparently it hasn’t been obvious enough.
In preparation for the Feast of the Annunciation I picked up Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 3 (The Infancy Narratives), by Pope Emeritus Benedict. I was very moved by a brief reflection that he made on Mary as the Angel Gabriel left her. His remarks consider her faith in a very touching manner.
I must say that I have always been moved—and intrigued—by the faith of the Blessed Mother. She is mulier fortis (a strong woman) and “a woman wrapped in silence,” a phrase that forms the title of an excellent book by Fr. John Lynch. The pope’s words capture both her faith and her mystery:
I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s Annunciation narrative: “And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with a task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing around her. She must continue along the path that leads to many dark moments–from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy, to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mark 3:21; John 10:20) right up to the night of the cross.
How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” And the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch (Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives, Kindle edition (loc 488-501)).
I am moved by this image of Mary, there all alone, perhaps wondering how it would all unfold and whether what she just experienced had really happened. The angel departs and she is alone (and yet never alone).
As background, I would like to say that I have read some accounts of Mary’s life that placed her in such rarefied air that I could no longer relate to her. I vaguely remember reading some accounts of visionaries saying that Mary did not even have to do housework because the angels swept the house, did the dishes, and so forth. Some other accounts spoke of how she had detailed foreknowledge of everything that would take place in her life as well as in Jesus’ life. I even recall one purported visionary who wrote that Mary had extensive theological discussions with Jesus even while He was still an infant. I do not remember who these alleged visionaries were or if any of them were even approved visionaries. Yet in the early 1980s a large number of books were published containing the observations of various “visionaries.”
Such accounts often left me cold and made me feel distant from our Blessed Mother. They also did not seem to comport with the Scriptures, which present Mother Mary as a woman of great faith, but one who has to walk by faith and not by perfect sight, just as all of us do. She wonders at Gabriel’s greeting, is troubled, and does not understand how it will all work out (cf Luke 1:29).
Yet she presses on and we next see her having made haste to the hill country, rejoicing in ecstatic praise with her cousin: My spirit rejoices in God my savior! She still does not know how it will all work out, but in spite of that she is content to know the One who holds the future; it is enough for now.
Years later, when she finds Jesus teaching in the Temple after days of agonized searching for the “missing” boy, she does not fully understand His explanation (Luke 2:48-50), but ponders these things within her heart (Luke 2:51).
At the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus seems almost to rebuke His mother. Although the text omits many of the details, there must have been something in her look, something of the look that only a mother can give to a son. By now, Mary’s understanding of her son has surely deepened; she has known Him and pondered and reflected in her heart over Him for more than thirty years. She simply looks at Him, and He at her—a look that only the two would have known. Something passed between them, a look of understanding. Whatever it was remains wrapped in silence; it’s none of our business, something that only she and her Son could know. Whatever it was, it prompts her to turn and with confidence, knowing the situation will be well-handled, says to the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Of the three years to follow we know very little. We know that she is not far away. We see her in Mark 3:31 as she asks after Jesus, seemingly concerned that others are saying “He is beside himself!”
Now we find her gently and supportively present at the foot of the Cross. The sword that Simeon had prophesied (Lk 2:35) is thrust through her heart. More than thirty years earlier she could only wonder what Simeon meant when he said that her child was destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel and that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2:33). In the intervening years her faith had surely deepened; now, here she is at the foot of the Cross. It is her darkest hour, but surely all those years of pondering and reflecting on these things in her heart helps to sustain her.
Yes, Mother Mary is a woman wrapped in silence. We know so little, for she is reflective and quiet. She says little, silently standing by, silently supportive of Jesus in His public ministry. Now, again silently, she is at the foot of the Cross.
Yes, this is the Mary, this is the Mother that I know: a woman of faith but also a human being like you and me. As the Pope Benedict suggested, she is a woman who had to make a journey of faith without knowing how everything would work out, without the omniscience that some visionaries ascribe to her. She knew what the angel had said, but it seems clear that she did not know how it would all come to pass. She, like us, walked by faith and not by earthly sight.
Mary is the perfect disciple, the woman of faith, the one who presses on, not knowing all, but pondering and reflecting everything in her heart.
Jesus said something in yesterday’s Gospel (4thSunday in Lent) that I think we can apply to our current troubles:
While it is daytime, we must do the works of Him who sent Me. Night is coming, when no one can work (John 9:4).
A purely natural understanding would be that the passage is merely noting that worked stopped at sundown by necessity in those times, but of course the text is far deeper. Let’s ponder two related spiritual meanings and apply them to this time of crisis.
First, as St. Ambrose observes of this text, “Daytime is this present life; night is death and the time that follows death” [*]. He then warns us have a sober fear of death and to realize that now is the time to accept what God is offering because tomorrow is not promised.
In the midst of this pandemic, we are enduring something of a foretaste of “death.” For most of us the crisis will not result in our physical death, but many things we freely did just a couple of weeks ago are for the time being dead to us. We cannot do much of the work we normally do; we cannot follow through on most of the plans we made. A “night” of sorts has come upon us. However, many things arestill available to us, things we may have previously neglected: prayer, reading of Scripture, repenting of our sins, spending time with family, calling old friends. How will we use this time?
Second, this passage resonates with the great battle between light and darkness, the predominant theme of John’s Gospel.The battle cry is announced in the Prologue:
In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it(John 1:4-5).
In John chapter 3, Jesus sets forth the drama of the battle for each individual:
And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God(John 3:19-21).
In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals the man born blind and brings him into the Kingdom of Light. This Gospel also demonstrates the spiritual darkness of those who stubbornly resist Jesus, the Light of the World. From Jesus comes this warning and judgment:
For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind(John 6:39).
And then Jesus’ “hour” came: the hour to confront the kingdom of darkness through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Judas goes out to betray Jesus, and of this event John simple writes,
And it was night (John 13:30b).
Jesus’ words in Sunday’s Gospel remind us of the great battle that is all around us. It is a battle for souls, beginning with our own, but extending to family and friends. In our complacency, we often forget this great and dramatic battle. Many of our diversions and preoccupations are not available to us in this crisis; we are heading into a kind of spiritual desert. We have to take the time to ask ourselves important questions: Where am I going with my life? Do I know the Lord? Are my priorities pleasing to Him? Am I fulfilling my responsibility to teach the faith to my family and to announce the kingdom to others? For what sins do I need to repent? For what should I be grateful? When “normal life” resumes, what will I have learned? Will I apply it?
Yes, in a time like this we can see more clearly the dramatic battle that each of us is caught up in. Take some time to better engage the battle, for yourself and for others. If you find a good fight, get in it. The fight for souls is a good one! Pray, fast, talk, and witness. Seek the light of the many online offerings from the Church and from fellow believers that have proliferated in recent weeks.
Use this time wisely. The virus may go away, but the battle will continue until your final breath.