Saturday, March 29, 2014

Living in the Light

You were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
—Ephesians 5:8-10

When I was actively involved in parish faith formation, the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent were, in many ways, among the most important celebrations of the entire year. These are the Sundays of the Scrutinies. The Scrutinies are those ancient and meaningful rituals that are an essential part of the RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). As the Elect look forward to being received into the Church at the Easter Vigil, these Sundays provide the rest of us with a perspective on what the Season of Lent is really all about: preparing to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. Unfortunately, many of us have not been appropriately formed to see preparation for baptism and the renewal of our baptismal commitments as being the ultimate goal of our Lenten penance and good works.

The liturgies for these Sundays are all oriented to this end. The prayers, the readings at Mass (especially the Gospels), and the rites of the Scrutinites all teach (or at least remind us) that conversion is an ongoing process. These days aren't only about the Elect and the Candidates for Full Communion, these are the celebrations of the entire Church.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, or Laetare Sunday, with its rose-colored vestments and joyful tones, we hear the story of the “man born blind” from the Gospel of John (9:1-41). This story is about being enlightened. Jesus gives the gift of sight to a man who was blind from birth, empowering and enabling him to see, for the first time, his parents, the people of his community, the wonders of creation, and, most especially, the face of the Savior he was standing right before him.

John sets up an interesting parallel in this story. On the one hand, we have the blind man who, without any action on his part, is healed by Jesus. On the other, we have the crowd, including the righteous, believing observers who, it turns out, can’t see the wonder and the truth of the One who stands before them. The physical blindness of the man born blind is not the real disability in this story. Instead, it is the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual blindness of those who condemn Jesus and refuse to open their minds and hearts to the truth of his message.

As I reflected on this story, I was struck by Jesus’ words at the end of the passage. Responding to the Pharisees who ask, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”
 
Jesus Healing the Blind Man by El Greco
When we believe we have all the answers or know all that we need to know, we can, like the Pharisees, lose the ability to see how God is at work in our lives and in the world around us. The blind man, however, didn’t have these pretensions—he was open to what Jesus was asking of him. After reading that he allowed Jesus to put mud on his eyes and washed in the pool of Siloam (a reference to baptism), we realize that it wasn't just his eyes that have been opened, his heart has been opened as well. This is why he is able to declare, “I do believe, Lord.”

The rose colors of this Sunday remind us that we are now more than halfway through the Season of Lent. We might ask ourselves how our Lenten penances and good works are helping us have a right perspective and to prepare to renew our baptismal promises at Easter? Are we allowing God’s grace to be at work in us to open our minds and hearts? Or, are we choosing blindness by continuing to trust in our own resources and knowledge?  
 
A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Lent +
O God, who enlighten everyone who comes into this world,
illuminate our hearts, we pray,
with the splendor of your grace,
that we may always ponder
what is worthy and pleasing to your majesty
and love you in all sincerity.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Prayer after Communion for the Fourth Sunday of Lent from The Roman Missal)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday Eve

As many of you know, the Saints of Christian history are a great source of inspiration to me. Among those who have a special place in my heart is Saint Casimir, whose memory is celebrated today.
 
Saint Casimir was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1458. The third of the thirteen children of Casimir IV, King of Poland and Lithuania, he was educated at court but secretly fostered habits of penance and prayer. Prince Casimir was especially devoted to the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose honor he is said to have composed the hymn Omne die dic Mariae (“Daily, daily sing to Mary”).

 

Casimir is especially remembered for his purity and single-minded devotion to the poor of his kingdom. This model Christian ruler died of tuberculosis at Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1484, at the age of twenty-five. Saint Casimir was canonized in 1602 and his feast was extended to the Universal Church in 1621.
 
Today, Saint Casimir is honored as the patron saint of Lithuania and I had the privilege of spending a summer teaching English to elementary school age children in 1997. Today, I'm mindful of the many graces and blessings I've received in my life and, on this Ash Wednesday-eve, I'm especially grateful for all those women and men of faith who continue to support and inspire me by their prayers and example.

(A word about the pic: the statue of the "Weeping Christ" was something I brought back from Lithuania, the statue of Saint Casimir was given to me by the Sisters of St. Casimir when I made my first vows as a Benedictine in 2004, and the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help belonged to my Grandma and Grandpa Henderson who received it as a wedding gift from my great-uncle, Fr. Paul Tong, C.Ss.R., in 1946.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saint Josephine Bakhita: Freedom and Hope

Born to the Daju people in Western Sudan around the year 1869, Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped and sold into slavery when she was between the ages of seven and nine. Eventually purchased by an Italian consul, she was taken to Italy where she was converted to Catholicism through her contact with the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Venice. She rarely spoke of her years of enslavement, but her sufferings were so extreme that she was plagued by horrific nightmares for the rest of her life and the trauma caused her to forget the name she had received from her parents. (Her adopted name, Bakhita, means “Lucky.”) In 1893, having been baptized Giuseppina, she entered Cannosian Sisters, winning the esteem of many by her piety and charity.  She spent the remaining 54 years of her life serving the community and its students in a number of assignments, including cook, sacristan, and housekeeper. Known for her gentleness, especially her smile, she was commonly referred to as the “Little Brown Sister” or “Black Mother” by people in the local community.

A photograph of St. Josephine Bakhita
taken near the end of her life.


Josephine Bakhita died after an extended illness on February 8, 1947. Canonized in 2000, she is honored as the patron of Sudan and of enslaved peoples, as well as the victims and survivors of human traffickking. At her beatification in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1993, Blessed John Paul II proclaimed: “Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan, sold into slavery as a living piece of property, is free, free with the freedom of the saints.”

Despite her extreme suffeirngs, Josephine Bakhita expressed gratitude for her experiences, because it was through them that she ultimately encountered Christ and began to have hope. This was not an enslaved person’s hope of having a kind master, but, what Pope Benedict XVI has called, the “great hope” (see Spe Salvi, 3-4) She was able to declare, “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” The hope that was born in her redeemed her and gave her the discovery the true freedom that comes from Christ: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 12:28).

A Prayer in Honor of Saint Josephine Bakhita +
O God, who led Saint Josephine Bakhita from abject slavery
to the dignity of being your daughter and a bride of Christ,
grant, we pray, that by her example
we may show constant love for the Lord Jesus crucified,
remaining steadfast in charity
and prompt to show compassion.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from the Roman Missal)