Surprises should make people happy, right? Some surprises, arriving out of the blue, are reason enough to celebrate wholeheartedly: an unforeseen job offer promising a better future for a family, or purchasing a ticket to a raffle and then hearing that you had won the grand prize, or wanting to take a vacation but, having not enough money, you find that a stock has gone wild and you can cash in it for sufficient funds, or a child’s stellar, third-quarter school report card, following dismal grades nine weeks earlier.
But surprises are not all of a kind. Some surprises short-circuit current goals of ours, making them appear unattainable. I think, for example, of the larger home a growing family wanted and that was almost within reach, but that now, due to unexpected financial hardships, seems out of the question. It is a surprise, too, and not a happy one, to learn with little warning that profound illness threatens the well-being or even the life of someone we love.
A fair number of life’s surprises leave people feeling disappointed, devastated or just plain angry. Some people want to scream, “This isn’t what I wanted!” After an unwelcome surprise, they wonder if their hopes are dashed. But are their hopes dashed? Or are they, perhaps, on track toward transformation? Is this part of a journey? It is at least worth considering the possibility that an apparently unwelcome surprise will serve as a signal that one’s life journey is about to reach a new point of beginning.
Any true surprise falls into the category of “the unexpected.” It possesses a capacity to startle us into wakefulness, either delightfully so or in ways that give rise to fear, anguish or confusion. It is often said that the unexpected is such a routine part of human life that it really ought to be labeled “the expected.” Nonetheless, unexpected developments may prompt great worry. Many surely wonder if God is absent when they occur.
Yet, many testify that in handling unexpected developments they grew as human beings and people of faith. It wasn’t easy, but a hidden resilience emerged and they found, surprisingly, that in handling the unexpected, they matured. Rather than believing God was absent, they began to converse with God in this all-too-real, daily life context. Courage displaced fear for them. Rather than collapsing, their life’s journey advanced.
For someone like Pope Francis, this probably does not sound strange. We cannot expect life always to go according to plan. Not too long ago he said, “Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down, but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing.” He continued, “God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter.”
We all, I suspect are far more experienced and adept than we imagine at handling life’s unexpected developments. Sometimes we create great expectations when we are going to visit a famous city for the first time. As the trip nears, the expectations increase. Yet I know by now that once I arrive at my destination, the reality may not totally match my expectations. It will differ from them in positive and negative ways.
What then? What should we do if, somewhat unexpectedly, we discover that the beautiful and exciting place, the journey we planned, is not what we expected? We could resign ourselves to disappointment. Or we could begin to explore this new place or circumstance by opening our eyes to its virtues and allowing our vision of the world to expand in wonderful unanticipated ways. It is always possible that this kind of trip will be remembered later as one of our best journeys ever. Something that initially feels like a bit of a letdown may well prove to be a rich source of gifts and blessings.
Marriage is one such journey. Lasting marriages might be few and far between if couples could not manage to survive and thrive when unexpected developments make themselves known. Pope Francis talked about this shortly after he was elected as Pope. “At the moment of their wedding, a couple does not know what will happen or what joys and pains await them.” He went on to explain, “Couples set out like Abraham on a journey together. And that is what marriage is! Setting out and walking together, hand in hand, putting themselves in the Lord’s powerful hands.”
In fact, this becomes “a long journey,” the pope added. Marriage is a journey “not for a brief spell but for an entire life! As their journey unfolds, they will need Jesus’ help in order to walk together in trust, to accept one another each day and daily to forgive one another.”
If marriage is a long journey, it is a journey of growth, too, according to many long-married couples. They only learned over time what love really means, they report. They learned this, not incidentally, amid many unforeseen and even unwelcome developments that demanded much of them, complex situations in which they perhaps came to realize that God wanted to address them.
Journeys are life-giving, saving us from some calamity that might have happened had we stayed on our current course. As we continue our Lenten journey, consider where you are being called to travel. What lies ahead for you if you stay on your current path? How might your life be changed by taking a different path? What are you willing to leave behind as you begin your trip? What does God have in mind for you?
The proverb, “The longest journey begins with a single step,” applies as much to religious journeys as any other. As Pope St. John Paul II challenged us, “Be not afraid to take that step and begin your journey of faith.”
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
All of today’s readings focus on the centrality of the Resurrection. The prophet Ezekiel looks forward to a future when God will send his spirit upon those who have died and open their graves and have them rise.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul teaches that the present life of Christians is led through the indwelling of “the Spirit of God.” This same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise their mortal bodies to life in the resurrection of the dead.
The reading from the Gospel of John tells the account of the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. This event signifies Jesus’ power over death and foreshadows his Resurrection. Martha’s dialogue with Jesus is remarkable. She greets Jesus’ arrival with frustration, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus tells her that her brother will rise, Martha shows her knowledge that the dead will rise on the last day. Jesus deepens Martha’s faith by declaring, “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.”
When Jesus asks Martha if she believes this, she responds, not with a statement of fact, but with the insight of faith. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” No other person in the entire Gospels has made such a deep confession of true faith in the person of Jesus. Martha exemplifies what Jesus wants from each of us: a confession that moves beyond intellectual knowledge to a personal commitment to and relationship with him.
Martha first states that she knows that Lazarus will rise at the resurrection of the dead and then professes her faith when she says, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” In the Creed each Sunday, we profess our belief in the resurrection of the dead and in the eternal life that God offers us. The Catechism states, “The Christian Creed culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting” (#988).
“I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated” (From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday).
The Preface for the Fifth Sunday of Lent connects the life that Jesus gave Lazarus with the life given to us in Jesus’ dying and rising. With the priest, we pray in the Preface: “For as true man he wept for Lazarus his friend and as eternal God, raised him from the tomb.”
During the third scrutiny, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the community prays that the elect may live with Christ in the glory of the resurrection. With hands outstretched over the elect, the priest prays, “Lord Jesus, by raising Lazarus from the dead, you showed that you came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.”
For Your Reflection: As Easter nears, do you need to offer forgiveness to someone? How have you allowed our belief in eternal life to comfort you when a loved one has died? From what sin or fault would you like Christ to release you?
HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED
My leading article in this bulletin was written several weeks ago before all the regulations concerning the Coronavirus had been put into place. Had I known then what I know now, I would have included my and our surprise at what we are experiencing at the present moment. Who would have thought that the virus would be spreading across our land at such a fast pace? Who could have imagined that there would be no public Masses in any of the churches of the Archdiocese (and in many of the other dioceses throughout the United States) for the foreseeable future? For the many people who come to St. Peter’s for the Sacrament of Reconciliation knowing that one or more confessors would be available throughout the entire day, could they have conceived of the fact that the doors would be locked, no programs or gatherings would be taking place, the Gift Shop closed, the social worker would not being available to assist those who were needy and in need of advice?
Believe me: the friars are just as amazed at it all as you are. We are having to get used to making all kinds of new arrangements in both our ministerial and fraternal life. With you we are wondering how long all of this will last and therefore having to live with the uncertainty of the present and the future moments of our existence. We are learning to find out what “social distancing” is and how to live it on a daily basis. We, like you, are wondering whether we have any of the identified symptoms of a person having the virus, e.g., taking our temperature, sneezing and coughing. It’s a whole new world.
We are disappointed that we don’t see many of our lay staff on a regular basis, but we are hopeful that they are getting some needed rest by staying at home with their families. To tell you the truth, I miss hearing the organ every day during the midday. I miss not having the Blessed Sacrament exposed every afternoon Monday-Friday, and I miss seeing all of you—our congregation—and celebrating Eucharist with you daily.
But, despite all of this and much more, we all are people of faith. We may not understand why all of this has come about, but we know that God has not abandoned us, and we know that we still are called to be people of prayer even in these circumstances. We don’t know when it will all end and how everything will be in the midst of all the implications of the virus, but we do realize that each and every day we are meant to give praise and thanks to our God, to ask forgiveness for our transgressions, to be there for others, and to support one and all through this most difficult time.
Know that we are praying for and with you; please do the same for us. Ask for wisdom for all those in authority and for those with professional backgrounds who advise them. Let us seek patience and understanding each and every day, and may we learn more about God, our families and co-workers, and ourselves through this process.
May the Lord give you peace!
A WORD TO THE WISE
A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.
The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back to you in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
A CHUCKLE FOR THESE DIFFICULT TIMES
A man walks into a bar and sees two pieces of meat hanging from the ceiling. Confused, he asks the bartender, “Why do you have meat hanging from your ceiling?”
The bartender replies, “I’m glad you asked that question. Currently we have a challenge going on where, if you can jump up and slap both pieces of meat with your hands, I’ll cover your tab for the whole rest of the night. However, if you attempt to slap the meat and miss, you have to pay for everyone else’s drinks in the bar until we close.” The bartender looks back at the customer and asks, “So, what do you say? Would you like to give the challenge a shot?”
The customer quickly responds with a “No.” “Why not?” the bartender asks. The customer replies, “The stakes are too high.”