Living in the Gaze of Christ

One of the dangers of familiarity with certain stories is that since they are so familiar, our ears can grow deaf to the small details within the narrative. I think that today’s Gospel is one of those familiar stories. And it is precisely one of the easy-to-miss details from today’s Gospel that gives us key insight into the Season of Lent, the process of conversion, and the Joy which the Church invites us into on this 4th Sunday of Lent. 

Read again the first two sentences of the Gospel:

“As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. 
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

In between those two sentences is something important for us to pray with, especially during this season of penance and conversion.

Jesus is looking so intently at the man that the disciples notice. The gaze that Christ is looking at the man with must be familiar to the disciples, because they can already tell what Jesus is going to do. They ask Jesus about the sin that brought blindness on the man, which indicates that they are expecting Jesus to heal him. Think of the healing of the Paralytic: Jesus forgives his sins and he is healed. 

The way Christ looks at the man is unique and telling. Surely the disciples recognize that same Gaze from the way Christ looked at each and every one of them as He called them to follow him.

I think that if St. Mark were recounting this story, he might have included the same description of Jesus’s gaze that he did when Jesus encountered the rich young man. St. Mark told us that Jesus “looked at him with Love.”

Jesus looks at this blind man before the blind man even knows he’s there. Jesus looks at him with love and the intention to heal him before the blind man even knows that healing, that sight, is possible.

The beginning of this man’s movement from blindness to sight has its beginning – not in the man crying out, not in the disciples bringing the man to Jesus or someone asking Jesus to prove Himself – no – the blind man’s movement from darkness to light begins with the tender gaze of Love which only the incarnate God can give. 

Our joy as Christians comes from living in that Gaze – from being looked at by the God who cries out to each and every one of us: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead…”

Every movement toward the Light starts with God – God loved us first! Do we remember that Gaze? Do we spend time trying to just be there, in the tender gaze of Love that God looks at us with? Or do we run from that Gaze? Do we hide out of feelings of unworthiness or guilt?

The story of the blind man is somewhat easy to relate to, because it is the story of each one of us. The Church reminds us what that Gaze was like and calls us back to it, here in the middle of Lent and in this strange time of COVID-19.

The basic movements of the story are: the blind man encounters Jesus, Jesus acts decisively to begin his healing and sends him to Siloam, the man is healed and begins to testify, to witness to the people around him about his healing and the one who brought that healing about.

Each and every Christian has had some sort of encounter with Jesus. In even small and subtle ways each of us has felt his tender loving gaze break into our darkness, our sin, and give us a hope we did not have before. It’s possible that we don’t remember what is was like, maybe we haven’t felt that gaze in years, or maybe we think that the Lord has never looked at us like that. This time of silence and isolation is a perfect time to return to the Lord, spending time with Him to remember and feel that tender gaze of Love again, perhaps for the first time in an intentional way.

After that initial encounter, Jesus worked to remove our blindness – our self-absorption, our isolation, the loneness of our sin. And He called us to wash in a pool – a pool named “sent.” This pool that Jesus sends the blind man to has often been interpreted in the Tradition of the Church as a foreshadowing of Baptism. Jesus is the one who is sent from the Father – the man washes in the pool of the “Sent One,” we have washed in the waters of Baptism. Our eyes were opened, we were given the light which is Life in Christ. 

After this encounter and healing, we went out to proclaim and witness to what Jesus did in our lives to a world which does not always accept and does not want to believe in Jesus.

And we are blessed even more to spiritually accompany the Catechumens of the Church on this very same journey during this time of Lent: they have encountered Christ, have felt his loving Gaze and have been sent by Him to the waters of Baptism – and even now, but more fully later – they give witness to what Jesus has done in their lives – and we thank God for that.

All of that being said, we all know too well how easy it can be to go back into the darkness – to become blinded again. And this is what we are invited to reflect on during Lent. Because in our lives we can often be the blind man again – and so Jesus continues to invite us back – to send us again to Baptismal purity through the Sacrament of Penance. And we begin again to proclaim Him. 

This is certainly a source of great joy! That God’s mercy is not just extended once, but extended to us every time we are willing to allow Jesus to work in our lives – over and over until we no longer want to return to the darkness and blindness of our sin, but simply desire to sit and live in that tender and loving Gaze with which He looks at each one of us (this is truly the joy of Heaven).

So today, we are invited to return to that first and crucial moment in our lives of faith. The tender gaze of Christ is the foundation of our entire lives as Christians. And it must be this gaze, the love of God, that motivates and purifies every aspect of our lives! All of our penance, all of our good works and prayer find their true source in that experience of Love, which enlightens and heals us, which brings us into Light.

This strange time that we live in is also a blessed opportunity to spend time praying with God about the way he looks at you. Pray about that moment you first felt His tender gaze calling you to Himself, and the ways in which you experience that gaze here and now. Rooted in that tender, powerful gaze, we will be able to see clearly what God asks of us, what in our lives gets in the way or tries to darken our vision of Him and we will learn the Joy which is properly Christian, the Joy of knowing and experiencing a God who loves us more than we could possibly know. 

The Harrowing of Holy Week

I know this is a little late, but we’re still in the Easter season, so (at least for me) I think that it’s important to reflect on the most sacred time in our Catholic Faith.

This was my first Holy Week as a priest, which was exciting and terrifying all at the same time. Holy Week, from as early as I can remember, is one of my favorite times of the year (I guess if we are excluding Christmas)!  As a seminarian it is an especially joyful and exciting time; being able to follow the bishop around and help serve at the different masses and liturgical services is really beautiful.

I had a tough Lent this year. Long hours sitting in the confessional, turmoil with some of my relationships and my ever-continuing battle with sin made for a desert journey of sorts through Lent. So I was looking forward to Holy Week to bring that crazy Lent to a close and rejoice with the Resurrection and the beautiful liturgies of Holy Week.

The day of the Easter Vigil, Holy Saturday, I spent the day with some good friends of mine before the Mass that would begin around 9pm. For some reason there was something that was just irking me all day long; something that made me feel anxious and unsettled. While I was with my friends I was irritated and anxious in a place which usually gives me peace and relaxation. As I was leaving my friends’ house, I recognized that it was simply the devil attempting to steal my peace and joy (which he was partially successful in doing). First I acknowledged that, then I tried to gear myself up to celebrate the Easter Vigil liturgy.

This lack of peace and anxiety continued well into the liturgy until I came to the point where I was to sing the Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet). The Exsultet is a long chanted song that beautifully recounts the great deeds of the Lord during the events of the His passion and Resurrection. As I was singing this ancient hymn, there was a beautiful, almost cathartic, movement within myself as I proclaimed the power of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, the King of Kings, and the conqueror of Death! My singing of that hymn was me telling the world, “I choose you Jesus Christ and I reject the lies and temptations of the evil One!” And I began to sing this song as a prayer:

“Let all corners of the earth be glad knowing an end to gloom and darkness (I can rejoice because Jesus has brought light and life to me)!”

“Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father and pouring out his own dear blood wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness (Jesus wiped out the sin that would bring me to hell, and gave me a chance to choose him).”

“This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld!”

Christ has already conquered the evil one, there is no battle left to fight but my choice to live and follow Him. Jesus conquered sin, broke its power over humanity and has given us an opportunity to live in His love. My singing the Exsultet was as if Jesus ripped the Devil’s dirty fingers off of my restless heart and pounded him with a sledge hammer straight back to Hell! I know that my Redeemer lives and that he has saved me from a miserable life as a slave to sin.

That is what this Easter Season is about. “Let the trumpet of Salvation sound aloud our Mighty King’s Triumph!”resurrection2007

The Inoculation of Sin

I’m a very sick man. In fact, I knock daily on death’s door. You see, I inherited it from my parents, and it has been in the family tree ever since. My parents were told they would receive greater knowledge of good and evil and be like God if they ate fruit from a certain tree. But in fact, they only became self-absorbed and shameful human beings. And so it is for me. I am nothing else than a sick and sinful man – and it’s killing me.

But I also have a great Doctor – the best in fact. He chose his own Tree in his own garden and was able to graft its fruit onto that tree which infected my parents. As a result, that once fatal decision of my parents in the garden has actually lost its sting, and my Doctor has even ensured a surplus of his medicine to keep me from my final death.

Not only this, but my Doctor even used this sickness of sin to inoculate me from myself. Because all of us have been infected by this original sin, all of us are in the same condition – filled with sin and deserving of death.  And it is precisely this realization that is the first step to growing in holiness.

I once was at a retreat led by an old Benedictine monk, and he made the following quip: “The first step to holiness is recognizing the following: ‘I’m an ass. And you’re an ass. In that order’.” 

In other words, once we recognize our own sinfulness and selfishness, it doesn’t take too long to see the same in one another. But this is precisely the point in which the beauty of the Gospel and the tenderness of Christ breaks into the scene. None of us, so entrenched in sin, are entitled to anything except eternal death. Yet, in spite of all of this, Jesus Christ enters directly into our own misery in order not only to redeem it, but to actually make it a point of communion. 

So – when I look at the rest of my fellow sinners – from the worst terrorists to that annoying guy sitting next to me in class, I realize they are infected with the same disease that affects me – sin. While the effects of sin present in others often make me want to run the other way – Christ actually does just the opposite – he uses it as an entry point to bind up our broken humanity.

In this way, instead of sin being the poison of the great Divider (Satan) who seeks to isolate and shame, the healing remedy of Christ can transform it into a place of encounter both with him and with one another. 

In fact, isn’t this the mystery which we celebrate at every Mass. The result of our sin – the crucifixion of the Son of God – is re-presented to all of us. And in so doing, Christ enters directly into the abyss of our sinfulness, not only to redeem it, but also to bring us into communion with Himself and one another. 

It’s no wonder St. Ignatius of Antioch calls the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality.”

I happen to call it the inoculation of sin.

Can I eat Sushi during Lent?

During Fridays in Lent, the Church asks us to abstain from eating meat as a sacrifice. But why? First of all, why Fridays; that’s usually the day when we want to indulge a little and relax from the busy work week. No, the Church didn’t choose Fridays because it wants to invade on our relaxation time.  She chooses Friday as a day we remember the great sacrifice that Christ offered on the Cross on Good Friday. So every Friday (in or out of Lent) should be a day that we offer up some small inconveniences as a sacrifice, to unite our sufferings with Christ and to remind ourselves of His great sacrifice.

So we should make Friday a day of sacrifice. Well, what if we want to go get a giant tuna steak or a lobster feast or some delicious sushi for Friday dinner? Technically I am meeting the Church’s request to not eat meat, but is it really a sacrifice? Are we really joining with Christ’s great sacrifice on the cross by indulging in something that we only get on special occasions? Perhaps not. But on the other hand, we don’t need to be eating cold dead fish heads to be intentionally miserable.

So following the LETTER of the law, which means what the Church literally says, eating sushi is permitted because it is not meat. But following the SPIRIT of the law, which is the idea/concept/reason behind the letter, maybe eating a giant sushi platter or an entire shark for dinner on Friday isn’t the best choice.

The Friday meat fast is a way that we, in some small way, can accept an inconvenience that reminds us that the Lord sacrificed his entire life for us.  The entire season of Lent should be a time when we are saying “NO” to our sinful/selfish desires and saying “YES” to the Lord. As St. John the Baptist proclaimed, “HE must increase, I must decrease.”

During these Fridays in Lent, let us see abstaining from meat as a small reminder that as Christ gave His all for us, I can give up this small thing for Him.

Are You Ready to Change?

“Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”

Eph. 4:22-24

These words from the letter to the Ephesians are what Dietrich von Hildebrand describes as “inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God.” Further, he says,

“All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a new man in Christ, and an inner readiness to “put off the old man” — a readiness to become something fundamentally different.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand
Transformation in Christ

What does it mean for the Christian to become fundamentally different? It is a call to be something wholly other. To throw off the old man, who is a slave to our narrow world view, our prejudices, our vices, to sin itself and the will of the Evil one. It is a change in us that draws us back from bondage to sin into the glory of the Lord who has created us in love.

What allows this difference to happen? This is key because often we want to change ourselves. Recently I was listening to a podcast about forming new habits and one of the points that the speaker made was that when we go about forming new habits it’s important that we start to think in a new mindset. So rather than thinking, “I don’t do that anymore” when it comes to, say, watching 6 hours of Netflix, it is more effective to say, “the type of person I want to be does not watch 6 hours of Netflix on a Tuesday night.”

I think this points to a reality that is deeper than wanting to change bad habits. The change that Jesus Christ effected in the world by His Passion was clear, effective, and permanent. The world can never be the same. God has suffered, died, and rose from the dead. Sin has lost, the battle won.

We are called to life in Christ, to an encounter with a living God who desires to draw us ever closer to Himself. Because of the victory won for us, we cannot just simply say things like “I don’t do that sin anymore” or even, “the saint I want to be wouldn’t do that sin.” The change that God wants to effect in us is deeper and more powerful than any habit change.

We are adopted sons and daughters of God. We no longer live for ourselves, but rather Christ lives in us. Our “readiness to change” really rests primarily in our “readiness to die to self” so that Christ might live in us.

We know when this doesn’t happen in ourselves, and we certainly know when it isn’t happening in others. But we are presented with a great opportunity in the season of Lent to really foster this readiness to change. Because that is the beauty, God does the changing, we just have to be ready.

Through self-denial, exercises of temperance, and even noticeable changes in our daily routine we are not trying to earn holiness or even do penance in the strictest sense (yes, they are penitential practices). Rather, I think it is more helpful to see all of the things we do for Lent as ways that stretch us to be ready (like the wise virgins) for the coming of the Lord into our life. Once we are ready to change, to die to self, then He can come in freedom and accomplish His good work in us.

“The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God; it forms the core of our response to the merciful love of God which bends down upon us: ‘With eternal charity hath God loved us; so He hath drawn us, lifted from the earth, to His merciful heart (Antiphon of Praise, Feast of the Sacred Heart).’ To us all has the inexorable yet beatifying call of Christ been addressed: Sequere me (“Follow Me”). Nor do we follow it unless, relinquishing everything, we say with St. Paul: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? (Acts 9:6)”

Dietrich von Hildebrand
Transformation in Christ

A Short Cut to Heaven

As we prepare ourselves for yet another Lent, I have been finding myself looking at cupcakes and ice cream as if it will be the last time we will meet in a while. I’m not sure about you, but Lent is not the time of the year I look forward to the most. In fact, it puts me in a somber and downcast mood. But maybe this year can be different.

Instead of seeing Lent merely as a necessary suffering before the joy of Easter, why not see it as a short cut to heaven. 

Here’s what I mean. What are the three pillars of Lent? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three are not some arbitrary rules the Church put in place. They are really an invitation to reroute our entire lives toward heaven. And in fact, these three practices, rooted in the evangelical counsels, can actually help us to live the reality of heaven now. To start, let’s take a look at the story of the Rich Young Man in the Gospel of Matthew:

16 Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” 17 He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 iHe asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; 19 honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”20 The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”[1]

In this passage, our Lord makes it clear – we must keep the commandments to gain eternal life. Clear enough. That’s the bear minimum and a non-negotiable. But then He encourages us to go a bit further: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Contained in this single verse, our Lord shows us that the quickest way to experience the reality of heaven now is through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which all of us are called to live, most especially during Lent through the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. 

“Go sell what you have and give to the poor” – A Call to Poverty through Almsgiving

Now I’m certainly not negating the importance of having material possessions. We need certain things for survival. For instance, if you are the parent of a baby, I highly recommend hanging on to those diapers. However, the Lord is asking us to become detached from worldly things so that we can be freed of the obstacles which keep us from focusing our minds and hearts on the things of heaven. Going hand in hand with this detachment must be the very act of almsgiving, or charity. In emptying ourselves of the worldly clutter, we quickly recognize that we are mere custodians of the Lord’s possessions. Necessarily, we should use those possessions like the Lord does – for the love of one another. 

Perhaps this Lent, take some time to purge yourself of those things which others could use more than you.  

“…and you will have treasure in heaven.” – A Call to Chastity through Fasting

Elsewhere in the Gospel (Lk 12:33), Jesus is straight and to the point when He says heavenly treasure does not pass away. And through the counsel of chastity and the practice of fasting, we can begin to live with the wealth of that treasure now. By disciplining our bodies and their unruly desires for pleasure through fasting, we grow in our capacity to love in an ordered way with our bodies. Accordingly, our bodies can become the living temples of heaven which God desires them to be. 

So, here’s my suggestion for fasting during Lent – the Heroic Minute. Proposed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the heroic minute is the discipline of getting completely out of bed within the first minute of the alarm going off. It starts the day on a winning note over the flesh, and can definitely keep that momentum going for the rest of the day. 

“Then come, Follow Me” – A Call to Obedience through Prayer 

This is the most important point. Poverty and chastity (corresponding to almsgiving and fasting) are ultimately aimed at one thing – communion with God and conformity to His will. When we empty ourselves out, love our neighbor, and focus our bodily desires toward heaven, we remove the obstacles to the communion to which Jesus invites us – as well as the Rich Young Man. As a result, our desire for God will increase as our pride and self-centeredness decreases. Naturally, this finds its greatest manifestation in increased prayer. 

So, this Lent why not make communion with Jesus the central focus? Try to go to a daily Mass or spend an hour a week in Eucharistic adoration. 

When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions”[2]

Like I said at the beginning, I usually approach Lent with a melancholic outlook – much like the Rich Young Man – because I am too wrapped up in cupcakes, ice-cream, and ultimately my own will. But the Lord does not desire us to be melancholic – he desires our happiness, literally to an infinite degree. He offered the Rich Young Man a short cut – which was rejected, leaving the man sad. 

He offers us the same short cut to heavenly happiness.

This Lent, let’s take it. 

[1]New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 19:16–21.

Ibid., Mt 19:22.