All three of the synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—clearly state that Jesus, following his baptism, was moved by the Spirit to go off alone to the desert and that there he was tempted by the devil. “At once, the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained there for 40 days, tempted by Satan,” (Mk 1:12-13). Obviously, for Jesus, this time in the desert was important, as it prepared him for his life of ministry. It became important for the early Church, too, which in its earliest days began observing a 40-day period of fasting and prayer as part of its yearly practice.
But what are other significant aspects of Jesus going out into the desert? Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, amazing things happened when they entered the desert. It was there where they came most directly into contact with God. Moses heard the voice of God from the burning bush in the desert. And it was in the desert that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The most formative desert experience was certainly the years that the Hebrews spent wandering in the desert between the exodus from Egypt and their arrival in the land of Caanan. Obviously, the desert was a significant place for the Jewish people. That Jesus went there at all was an announcement that whatever happened next would be a matter of great significance, something directly influenced by God.
When we hear or read the word “desert,” we may immediately think of sand dunes and camels, of intensely hot days and extremely cold nights. Perhaps the words that come to mind are “barren,” “lifeless,” or perhaps “a struggle to live.” While there is truth in each of these images, none of them provide a full description of a desert, for there are many types of deserts around the world. Some—like the Sahara—have great mounds of sand for hundreds of miles, while others have been turned into productive farmland through the use of irrigation.
No desert on earth is really barren, as some forms of life have adapted so much that they can now thrive only in those hostile conditions. However, all deserts are very dry, conditions are harsh, and life there is always a challenge. Deserts are places of mystery and wonder. They often are vast, open tracts of land filled with the unknown, where the imagination can run wild. They are often difficult to journey through, as they have limited roads. Some people lose their way in them.
Deserts are also places of transformation. Life only survives in the desert by adaptation, by learning to adjust or to discard what is not essential for life. As the early travelers who crossed the American deserts of the west quickly learned, the only way to survive the trip was to discard everything that wasn’t essential. For years after their journey, their path could be traced by the discarded items they left behind.
Going into the desert is always an act of leaving the tame and civilized behind, of letting go, or going where the wild things are, of realizing that we are no longer in control. In the desert, one learns to focus on what is important and to leave behind distractions.
Consider this: While it is only a relatively short distance from Egypt to Galilee, according to the Book of Exodus, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years. What took them so long? Scholars suggest that the time in the desert was for them a period of preparation. They would arrive in the land of Caanan when they were prepared to do so and not before. Their old ways of life had to be left behind before they could become the people of God.
Throughout history, Christians have gone to the desert in order to grow closer to God. That’s what St. Anthony the Great did. He moved to the Egyptian desert, hid away from the world and became a hermit, devoting himself to asceticism and prayer. Christian monasticism developed around desert hermits such as St. Anthony. People were inspired by the lives of fasting and prayer lived by these desert fathers and mothers, and flocked to the desert to learn from them and to imitate their austere way of life in order to grow closer to God.
Today we do not have to physically journey into the wilderness to experience the desert. We can do it from our homes. Sometimes, to have a desert experience we need to simply leave behind our excess baggage, putting down what we carry, taking with us only what is essential. For us, that means turning off the TV and radio, our phones and other digital devices. Tweets and Facebook status updates are not allowed. In the resulting quiet, we must open our ears, eyes and hearts to the message God has prepared for us and be ready to be transformed by it.
Our lives are so filled with noise and images and activity that we periodically need to escape from the usual routine if we hope to hear the voice of God. Going to the desert, whether an actual desert or a place that is free from all our usual distractions, offers us the time and space to listen. We are right now about halfway through Lent. It’s time to evaluate how these first three weeks have gone. Are we still observing the discipline we decided upon at the begging of this season? Are we really making progress in ridding ourselves of the clutter that has filled our hearts? Are we following through on the charitable aspects of our Lenten journey that we chose to do? Let’s take stock now and make the most of the remaining days of this holy season.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Our God is a God of surprises. This is evident in our First Reading, where God directs the anointing of David. Samuel, the prophet, goes to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of his eight sons as king. Although Samuel is impressed by the stature of the eldest son, God rejects him, saying, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.” David, the youngest one, still a shepherd boy, is chosen to be anointed.
Today’s Gospel account of Jesus’ healing a man born blind is one of seven signs in John’s Gospel. This sign signifies that Jesus’ power to heal extends beyond physical blindness to spiritual blindness. The healing initiates a dialogue among the man born blind, Jesus, and the Pharisees. On first encountering the man born blind, Jesus takes the initiative. He rubs clay on the man’s eyes and instructs him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man follows Jesus’ instructions and is healed. The Pharisees refuse to believe. They reject Jesus because he broke their law by healing on the Sabbath. Here is another example of the God of surprises working in ways that human beings refuse to accept.
Later, Jesus meets the man he had healed. When Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, the man immediately responds, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worships him. This man has moved from the gift of physical sight to the deeper gift of “spiritual sight.” This miracle reflects our relationship with Jesus. Before Baptism, we were spiritually blind. After being washed in the waters of Baptism, we entered a deeper personal relationship with Jesus.
After the man born blind washed himself in the Pool of Siloam, he was able to profess, “I do believe, Lord.” Not only was he now able to see with his eyes, but he had been enlightened. When a person is baptized and incorporated into the Body of Christ, he or she views the world from another perspective. Christ now sheds his light on them to see as he sees. In his teaching on Baptism, quoting St. Justin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “This bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive this instruction are enlightened in their understanding” (#1216).
In the Gospel, we hear that Jesus noticed the man blind from birth, smeared clay on his eyes, directed him to wash, and went looking for him after hearing that the Pharisees had rejected the man. Finding the man, Jesus conversed with him, guiding him to faith. The Preface on this Sunday emphasizes that Christ leads humankind into the light of faith. “By the mystery of the Incarnation, Christ has led the human race that walked in darkness into the radiance of the faith.”
Just as Jesus smeared clay on the eyes of the man born blind, through Baptism Christians have been given a way of seeing through faith. In a quote from St. Augustine in the Liturgy of the Hours, what occurs at Baptism is likened to the clay on the man’s eyes. “‘I am the light of the world.’ That light shines on us now, for we have had our eyes anointed with the eye-salve of faith.”
On the fourth Sunday of Lent, in the second scrutiny, the priest prays that the elect will rejoice in the light Christ gives. He begins by praying, “Lord Jesus, you are the true light that enlightens the world.”
For Your Reflection: When have you struggled to see a person as God sees and not as you see? How does our assembly help the community see that God is at work in the world? In what conflict or issue in your life do you need to ask for sight?
SOLEMNITY OF THE ANNUNCIATION
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year. It celebrates the announcement given by the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God. We read in the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38):
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called
Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and
the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The
Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what
sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and
bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son
of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the
power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be
called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived
a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for
nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according
to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
The feast is observed on March 25, which is nine months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The correlation between the conception of Christ and his death falling on the same day follows a doctrinal belief of the early Church, which proposed that many of the major events in the Bible coincided with the Spring Equinox. Events such as the creation of the Earth, the creation of Adam, and the crossing of the Red Sea were purported to have occurred on this date.
The origin of this feast can be traced back to the early fifth century. It began in the Eastern Church during the time of the Council of Ephesus, in 431 A.D., and became an observance in the Western Church around 496 A.D. From its inception, there were major differences in the central theme of the feast. The Eastern Church centered the feast on the conception of Christ and His incarnation as the Son of God. The focus of the celebration was God’s power as manifested through the Holy Spirit to birth the humanity of the Christ, a being free from the taint of sin. Christ, in turn, would begin a new generation of the children of God, born of the Spirit through the redemption of His sacrifice.
For the Western Church, the Annunciation is a feast honoring the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. The emphasis of the celebration is placed on her acceptance of this honor as the fulfillment of the prophecy written in Isaiah 7:14. It is from this feast that the “Hail Mary,” the recitation of the rosary, and the Magnificat of Vespers have become a steadfast part of Catholic tradition. For Christians everywhere, the Annunciation can be a reminder of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers as we are transformed into a people filled and guided by spirit.
In Eastern Christianity, Mary is referred to as Theotokos (God-bearer). Consequently, a beautiful hymn attributed to St. Athanasius of Alexandria sums up the theology of the feast:
Today is the beginning of our salvation
and the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him, let us cry to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”
Here at St. Peter’s we will celebrate this great feast with a Solemn Mass at 11:40. There will be no 12:15 Mass this day due to the length of the Feast day Mass. We hope you will be able to join us for this joyful Marian celebration on Wednesday.
A CHUCKLE FOR LENT
Over breakfast one morning, a woman said to her husband, “I bet you don’t know what day this is.” “Of course, I do,” he indignantly answered, going out the door on his way to the office..
At 10:00 A.M. the doorbell rang, and when the woman opened the door, she was handed a box containing a dozen long-stemmed roses. At 1:00 P.M. a foil-wrapped, two pound box of her favorite chocolates arrived. Later, a boutique delivered a designer dress.
The woman couldn’t wait for her husband to come home. “First, the flowers, then the candy, and then the dress!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never spent a more wonderful Groundhog Day in my whole life!”