Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Eyes of our Heart

The Eyes of our Heart
Homily for March 26, 2017    4th Sunday Lent - A
by Dcn. Bob Bonomi   

Today’s Gospel, the 2nd Scrutiny for catechumens seeking entry into the Church through Baptism at Easter, is the familiar story of Jesus healing the man born blind.  Physically, we are all born blind, at least in the legal sense.  It takes time for our vision to develop.  At first, everything is blurry, like a camera that’s out of focus.  It takes about a week before a baby begins to learn how to see, and then it’s only objects within a foot or so of its face – which just so happens to be about the distance between a mother and her nursing child.  And while the infant’s visual abilities continue to improve, it takes about 4 months for the child to start developing hand-eye coordination and to understand depth perception.  After about 6 months a child should see with 20/20 vision. 

Understanding what they see, however, takes a lifetime.  It is said that we are born with only two innate fears – the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises.  The rest are learned responses.  Various tests like those using the “Visual Cliff” experiment with infants have shown that a child who instinctively hesitates to cross a solid glass floor when it looks like there’s a drop under it, will look to a trusted adult for reassurance in attempting something new and will act somewhat fearlessly “going over the cliff” if given positive encouragement by them. 

(By the way, it’s not until they’re about 2 years old before they begin to do dangerous things without encouragement, especially when they’re told not to.)

Now, a person who becomes blind at some point in their life can remember what it was like to see, and so they can create images in their mind from their memories of what they can no longer witness.  But what about a person who was born blind? 

While they can use their other senses – touch, sound, smell, taste – to build an “image” of the world around them, they have no way to recognize something that’s “beyond their senses” without the help of someone who can help them understand what they cannot see.  How do you describe “blue” to someone who has never seen color?  Or “clouds” to someone who cannot see the shadows cast by a blocked sun? 

And so, I wonder what the man born blind thought when his eyes were opened by Jesus for the first time? 

For Jews, blindness was more than just a physical ailment – it was a sign that God was displeased with you.  They believed that physical infirmities were linked to sin and if you suffered from some sort of illness or calamity it must be because you or your parents had sinned. This comes from the 10 Commandments:

…For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation.  (Exodus 20:4)

So it would seem obvious that the man’s parents must have done something particularly wicked for him to have been born blind, since it would be pretty difficult for him to have done something BEFORE he was born.  And I wonder, did he accuse his parents of doing something evil that caused him to be born blind? Or was it his grandparents?  Or did he think there was something “wrong” with him spiritually, since he must have been rejected by God because he was born blind? 

Just as we are born physically blind, we are also born spiritually blind.  While we “see” physically through the eyes in our head; we “see” spiritually through the eyes of our heart. 
And just as we are born with an innate sense of fear for falling and loud noises, we are born with an innate spiritual longing for God.  But just like learning to see with our eyes, it takes time for us to open the eyes of our hearts to God. 

We begin like infants, by listening from those we trust most – our parents and godparents.  The Second Vatican Council’s document, “Lumen Gentium”, states that “In what might be regarded as the domestic Church, the parents, by word and example are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children.”  It is this initial exposure to faith by our parents that helps us to understand what it is that we “see” – and to help us avoid spiritual dangers through experience and teachings.

But often our blindness remains – and not just because our parents were evil or we are evil.  God doesn’t work that way.  He wants us to see, to be able to draw close to Him.  And so in today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us to see spiritually with our hearts through the healing of a man born blind. 

He begins simple enough – he points out to his disciples that the evils that we experience in life are not because we are evil, but often it is in how we deal with the evils we encounter that we can make the works of God visible to others.  Physical blindness is temporary and limited to the short time we are on Earth; but we must overcome our spiritual blindness if we are to be able to “see” the Glory of God.  In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul is commissioned by Jesus to remove the spiritual blindness of others when Jesus tells him:

I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me.’  (Acts 26:17)

So Jesus begins with “healing” the physical blindness of the man born blind.  Note that the man doesn’t ask to be healed.  Why? Maybe it was because he didn’t think he was worthy to be healed; after all, he was born blind and like most Jews he probably believed that he didn’t deserve to be healed. 

But he must have had some hope – some spiritual desire – in his heart since he followed Jesus’ directions and allowed mud made from spit to be put upon his eyes, and then allowed himself to be led – remember, as yet he still couldn’t see – to the Pool of Siloam to wash.  He had some faith, without even fully understanding what he believed.  He washes at the Pool of Siloam, and the Church sees that washing as a symbol of the waters of Baptism and the beginning of his faith journey, just as our baptism is a beginning step in ours.  And he experiences God’s mercy through both a physical and a spiritual healing.

Now, he probably didn’t know who Jesus was at first.  Oh, he may have known his name, hearing it from those around him, but he didn’t know who Jesus WAS. He testifies before the Pharisees and then questions them about how this man Jesus could do what he did for him, but the Pharisees cannot answer him.  They reject his testimony and throw him out.  But the eyes of his heart have been opened and so, when Jesus seeks him out, he is ready to see Jesus for who he is, the Son of God.

One final thought.  In both this Gospel and last Sunday’s about the woman at the well, after Jesus reveals his divinity through word and action the eyes of their hearts are opened and the people come to believe in him.  The Pharisees however, whose physical eyes are open, refuse to allow the eyes of their hearts to see the wonders of God at work around them.  And so we must ask ourselves – do we close our eyes to God at work in our lives?  Are we blind to God and the wonders of His mercy?

And so we pray:  Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord – we want to see you.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Witness of the Transfiguration

Witness of the Transfiguration
Homily for March 12, 2017    2nd Sunday Lent - A
by Dcn. Bob Bonomi   

Today’s Gospel is about the Transfiguration of Jesus, and it is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – that’s Matthew, Mark and Luke.  (John’s Gospel doesn’t include it.)  St. Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration seems to me to be rather anti-climactic:

•    Jesus takes three of His disciples up a high mountain.
•    His appearance “changes” and begins to glow before them.
•    Two other people appear and talk with Him.
•    Peter wants to set up three booths.
•    Something scary happens – God the Father speaks.
•    Then it is all over.  Jesus returns to normal and down the mountain they go, with orders not to tell anyone about what happened.

All three Gospels contain the above brief series of events.  It’s only in St. Luke’s version that we get a few more details, such as:

•    Jesus went up the mountain to pray.
•    Peter, James and John fell asleep.  (Ever notice how these same three guys, the leadership of the 12, usually seem to fall asleep just before something significant happens?), and
•    How the discussion between Jesus, Moses and Elijah was about what would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.

Since, the overall story of the Transfiguration is pretty brief compared to the significance of the event, so let’s look at it a little more closely.

First, what do we mean by “transfiguration”?  A dictionary definition would say that to transfigure something is to “give it a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance”, or to “transform something outwardly and usually for the better”. 

St. Luke doesn’t even use the word “transfigure”.  Instead he only describes what happens to Jesus - His face changes and His clothes glow white. 

But in both  Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels the Greek word that they use is “metamorphoo”, which is where we get the word “metamorphosis”. 

It means a more fundamental change, as in what happens when a caterpillar changes into a beautiful butterfly. It’s still the same creature – but the transformation is more – structural? – as the caterpillar reaches its intended, ultimate destiny – a butterfly.  And although Jesus’ Transfiguration is a temporary change here, it is a prelude to the change He will go through at the Resurrection – and the ultimate destiny we will one day experience. I'll come back to that in a minute.

As Jesus’ appearance changes, two additional people, identified as Moses and Elijah, appear.  How did Peter, James and John know for certain that it was those two?  As one person said to me last week, “It wasn’t as if they could look up their pictures in a high school annual or a picture directory.”  I’d say that Jesus told them.

But, in Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah we see a second “transfiguration” – the metamorphosis of the Old Covenant – the Law, represented by Moses, and Prophetic visions represented by Elijah – into the New Covenant of Grace, Love and Mercy represented by Jesus.  Jesus came to fulfill the law, not eliminate it; it is transfigured from the old into the new through Jesus.

So, if the Transfiguration event here reflected a temporary change in the appearance of Jesus in front of His disciples and the future change in God’s covenant with His people - both historical events from our perspective - why do we reflect on the Transfiguration today?

Because it is through that momentary glimpse of Jesus’ future glory that we see the promise of our own future.  We see this in the letters of the New Testament:

•    In the first letter of St. John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2)
•    St. Paul to the Philippians: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” (Phil 3:21),
•    And to the Corinthians: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.” (1 Cor 15:44) and “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)

We are destined for our own ultimate Transfiguration, the metamorphosis of our earthly bodies into something exalted; something better than we are now – heavenly beings with spiritual bodies.  Oh yes, we are corporal beings and so we will have bodies – just ones that have been through a metamorphosis.

One last thought.  Most of the time, whenever we read about the Transfiguration, we reflect on how we need to change our lives or be transfigured today, especially during this time of Lent.  But do we pay any attention to the transfiguration events of those who are around us?  We witness them through those people who live holy and exemplary lives; we see them in the “aha!” moments of those who experience a sudden encounter with the Risen Christ at a retreat or in the sacraments; and we witness them in the many miracles of life that we encounter daily.  Like Peter, James and John, God allows us to witness these moments of His Glory to prepare ourselves and to help sustain us as we continue on our own road to Jerusalem, for we too have our crosses to bear.  And like the disciples in the Gospel, we should be aware of how quickly the “flash bulb” effect of such an event can wear off, returning us to our daily routine.

The Transfiguration and the other signs Jesus did were meant to help prepare His disciples for the uncertainty they would face during Jesus’ passion and death, and to give them the hope needed to carry them through to His Resurrection, His Ascension, and beyond.  Let Jesus' transfiguration and the transfigurations that we witness in our own lives strengthen us for our own trials, knowing that despite whatever flaws or ills we suffer now, we too will one day, like the caterpillar and the butterfly, experience an ultimate metamorphosis of our own – a Transfiguration to become something spiritually exalted.

That is our hope. That is our faith.  That is God's promise.